WHRD and Social Media: A Complex Relationship

Exploring the Complex Relationship Between Women Human Rights Defenders and Social Media

A guest post by Ashvini Rae

When I started thinking about possible dissertation topics, I knew that I wanted to do research on women’s rights in India. I thought this was a great topic but, as my supervisor correctly pointed out, it’s a huge one. There are, after all, so many different aspects to the topic of “women’s rights in India”. When I started doing preliminary reading, I found that the 2012 Delhi protests were a common theme and that there are plenty of brilliant papers on them and particularly on their unique use of social media (e.g. Ahmed and Jaidka, 2013 and Poell and Rajagopalan, 2015). However, I found that there is almost no research on the wider effects of social media on women’s rights activism in post-2012 India or its effects on Women Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) more generally. In fact, there is almost no literature on WHRDs and social media anywhere in the world.

From there I decided to read up on WHRDs, particularly the risks they face, and also on social media activism and I thought about how I could pull these two themes together and also somehow also bring in the lived experiences of WHRDs in India into this. (And how to do all of this in 10,000 words!) I had to think very carefully about how I could take theoretical arguments about WHRDs generally and social media and apply them to India specifically. For instance, the literature says that the experiences of WHRDs should be considered in a gender-sensitive and intersectional way because different WHRDs experience things like risk differently. AWID (2013), for instance, argues that “beyond gender, other factors, such as class, religion, age, language, gender identity and sexual orientation, location of residence, race and ethnicity, affect how WHRDs experience a violation”. 

But what does this mean for WHRDs in India? As my research shows, there are several factors that can affect how a WHRD faces risk online. Some of these are more universal – such as age and sexual orientation. Some of these are more specific to India. For instance, WHRDs in India might be vulnerable to discrimination online due to their caste, which might not be a factor affecting WHRDs in other countries. For instance, Kiruba Munusamy, a Supreme Court lawyer and anti-caste activist, described this saying, “when you are a Dalit, a woman and dark in colour, many do not even come forward to raise their voices for you like they would have if you didn’t belong to a marginalised community” (Salim, 2018). Another important factor affecting WHRDs in India is religion. As the trolling of Rana Ayyub shows, non-Hindu WHRDs are susceptible to trolling not only because of their gender but also their religion.

In order to properly answer the question – “what does this mean for WHRDs in India?” – I decided to try and speak to some. I was very keen to understand and hopefully amplify the lived experiences of WHRDs in India. I was lucky enough to interview some absolutely incredible women who have dedicated themselves to defending human rights and women’s rights to understand their experiences of using social media. The main finding of these interviews is that social media has brought WHRDs in India new opportunities and benefits but also a great amount of risk.

In terms of the benefits of social media, one thing that many of my interviewees mentioned is that they’ve been able to use social media to recruit and mobilise potential activists and to gain support for their organisations. One interviewee told me that social media has also helped her to connect with other WHRDs across India. By connecting WHRDs, social media enables and encourages working collaboratively as well as the sharing of resources and support. One key benefit of this is that WHRDs can experience solidarity online and can use social media to create their own support systems, which can play an important role in their self-care. The WHRDs I interviewed mentioned the need for self-care as well as the importance of the solidarity that they have been able to experience via social media.

Another key theme from my interviews is that social media can help WHRDs to access the media and other key stakeholders in society, as well as the wider public. One interviewee, for instance, said that she uses Facebook as a platform mainly because it helps her to have her voice heard and to connect with the media. Being able to amplify their voices helps WHRDs not only to publicise their work but also to help foster more conversations on issues of women’s rights in wider society. The use of social media in the aftermath of the 2012 Delhi rape case, for example, shows how social media can lead to greater discourse around the topic of Violence of Women and Girls as it helped to put women’s rights issues back on the political agenda. This has been reinforced by the recent impact of the #MeToo movement on Indian society.

Social media can be a really powerful tool for WHRDs in India. But it can also be an incredibly dangerous one. While the increased visibility that social media brings WHRDs can help them, it can also open them up to threats and risks, such as trolling. I asked my interviewees about their experiences of trolling and found their answers illuminating but also very distressing. One interviewee told me that social media makes trolling women worryingly easy, while another told me that its anonymous nature enables an outpouring of misogynistic hate for these WHRDs which we might not see otherwise. This was reflected by the experiences of my interviewees, which I found particularly shocking. One interviewee told me that she’d faced death threats and has seen female friends and colleagues being bullied off social media, while another told me that she’d faced rape threats online. It is also important to consider how easily these online threats can translate into offline risks. The murder of Gauri Lankesh in 2017, for instance, is a pertinent reminder that WHRDs are vulnerable to violence not only online but also offline.

Similarly, an interviewee told me that she believes her online presence has made her more vulnerable to violence in the real world and has opened her up to more abuse. The threats that WHRDs face online and the risks that they might face offline are gender-specific and motivated predominantly by misogyny. One thing that most of my interviewees picked up on is that trolling is fuelled by a desire to silence women and to prevent them from speaking up though, as previously mentioned, other forms of discrimination (e.g. caste-based) might also play into this.

Social media, as I found, is a double-edged sword for WHRDs in India. It can help them to garner support and experience solidarity but it can also lead to them attracting misogynistic and vitriolic trolling. We must ensure that we amplify the voices of WHRDs, rather than silence them. We must also make sure we do our part to address trolling. In short, we must do better.


Ahmed, S. and Jaidka, K. (2013). Protests against #delhigangrape on Twitter: Analyzing India’s Arab Spring. JeDEM – eJournal of eDemocracy and Open Government, 5(1), pp.28-58.

AWID. (2013). Recommendations to Enhance the Protection and Security of Women Human Rights Defenders. [Online] Available at: https://www.awid.org/sites/default/files/atoms/files/Recommendations%20To%20Enhance%20The%20Protection%20And%20Security%20Of%20WHRDs.pdf.

Salim, M. (2018). Online Trolling of Indian Women Is Only an Extension of the Everyday Harassment They Face. [Online] The Wire. Available at: https://thewire.in/women/online-trolling-of-indian- women-is-only-an-extension-of-the-everyday-harassment-they-face

Poell, T. and Rajagopalan, S. (2015). Connecting Activists and Journalists. Journalism Studies, 16(5), pp.719-733.


#StopVAWIP: Profile of Wajeha Al-Huwaider

by Emma Kingscott

Saudi Arabia; a country known for its extreme wealth, financed by the oil and gas trade, and its extreme conservative Wahhabism ideals on which the state is governed. Yet here the reality for many women is a life of domestic incarceration. This is articulated in Wajeha Al-Huwaider’s description of Saudi Arabia as ‘the world’s largest women’s prison’.

Al-Huwaider is one of the few Saudi women who courageously stand up for the rights of women which are so explicitly denied.  The suppression of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia is well documented, yet the state is still given the freedom to implement laws which prohibit women from going anywhere without the permission of a male guardian, being allowed to drive, given the right to vote or participate in sports. As a journalist and a campaigner, Al-Huwaider makes her voice heard in a state in which the authorities look to silence women. She became an activist and campaigner for women’s rights in order to free women from what she describes as the virtual jail of Saudi Arabia.

Al-Huwaider has set up a number of campaigns to attack the human right violations which women face in the state. After protesting for women’s rights in a peaceful, solo demonstration, she was arrested by the authorities and was banned from writing. She retaliated this disregard for freedom of speech by posting a video of herself driving on YouTube.

The restrictions on women’s speech and human rights in Saudi Arabia are a result of conservative interpretations of religion which promotes a patriarchal system of male guardianship and deliberate infantilization of women. Human rights activists are concerned for the implications this poses for women who are subjected to domestic violence and those who attempt to speak out against violence. Al-Huwaider for that reason founded the ‘Association for the Protection and Defence of Women’s Rights in Saudi Arabia’ which protects women against domestic abuse and provides activism for women’s rights. Protection of women and women’s rights is particularly necessary in Saudi Arabia where rape isn’t criminalised and has previously punished victims for speaking out against their sexual abuse. The Human Rights Watch reported a woman who was sentenced to 6 months in prison and given 200 lashes after taking her rape case to court. She was charged with ‘illegally mingling’ and accused of attempting to aggravate and influence the judiciary.

In 2011, Al-Huwaider was imprisoned for 10 months and banned from travelling outside of Saudi Arabia for trying to save a woman who had contacted her claiming that her abusive husband has locked her and her children in the house without food. Whilst on the way to help the woman escape, she was intercepted by the police and charged for ‘supporting a wife without her husband’s knowledge, thereby undermining the marriage.’ She believes this was a deliberate hoax by the authorities in a further attempt to silence her human rights work. It is apparent the work of Al-Huwaider and other rights activists is more important than ever when it becomes apparent that helping an abused woman in Saudi Arabia is considered a crime.

Furthermore, child marriage is still a wide spread practice in Saudi Arabia and there has been cases of girls as young as 9 being married to 70 year old men. Al-Huwaider has campaigned extensively against child marriages and managed to terminate a marriage between an 8 year old girl to a 50 year old man.  Al-Huwaider has been acknowledged for her advocacy of women’s rights and the Arabian Business Magazine named her one of the most powerful Arab women. Despite facing persecution from the state for her work, Wajeha Al-Huwaider remains a vehement voice for women’s human rights in Saudi Arabia.

Human Rights Watch, 2007 https://www.hrw.org/news/2007/11/15/saudi-arabia-rape-victim-punished-speaking-out
Marler, 2013, http://www.wluml.org/fr/node/8774
Waheja Al-Huwaider, 2009, Washington Post, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/08/14/AR2009081401598.html
Nela Duke, 2015, Wajeha Al- Huwaider: Citizen of the Week, http://ours-mag.com/2015/03/19/wajeha-al-huwaider-citizen-of-the-week/
Gatestone Institute, 2011, https://www.gatestoneinstitute.org/1930/wajeha-al-huwaider-saudi-arabia
Pollitt, 2013, https://www.thenation.com/article/saudi-human-rights-activist-wajeha-al-huwaider-sentenced-prison/

This post was published as part of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign Against Gender Violence’s call for profiles of women human rights defenders.



Households as Workspaces: Towards the Safety of Women Domestic Workers in India

by Mouli Banerjee

On April 28, workplaces around the world commemorated workers who have suffered illness or injury and even death, due to workplace-related hazards and incidents. It is recognized as the “International Day of Mourning” for workers, or what International Labour Organisation has declared the ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’. Yet, on the occasion of days like this, one must keep in mind the workers who do not get sufficiently mourned, whose rights are not safe enough and whose workplaces are barely recognised. The elusive safety and security at purportedly “unconventional” spaces of work, like the household, thus deserve special scrutiny.

Paid domestic work, around the world, is not sufficiently recognised or regulated, consequently exposing such workers to vulnerabilities. These vulnerabilities are rooted in the unequal societal structures. One on hand, there is a sense of servitude attached to domestic work, derived from a historically feudal understanding of power relations.  On the other hand, there is an assumption that domestic work and the domestic space itself are mostly feminine, which results in it not being seen at par with other male-dominated work. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) data suggests that globally, as many as 53 million people are employed as domestic workers [1]. The economic vulnerability of the work opens up all domestic workers to risks of psychological and physical abuse.  Given that about 83% of all domestic workers around the world are women [2], these risks are magnified for them.

This reluctance to acknowledge the household as a workplace is misogynist and dangerous. It exposes women engaged in domestic work to slavery, sexual harassment of various degrees, and other human rights abuses. However, in context of the safety and health in workspaces, it is important to recognize that such women lack safety at work not only because of their gender. The vulnerability of women domestic workers in India, similar to global patterns, not just is rooted in the nature of the work itself but also directly related to the ways in which Indian societies view structures of caste, class and gender.  Women who work in other households, mainly engaged in menial labour, mostly belong to a lower economic group. Class and often caste hierarchies coincide, for women in domestic work, making them the marginalised “Other” women on multiple levels. Thus, they become the less important workers of the economy, and their workplace loses out in priority, to other conventional workspaces, when it comes to protecting the safety and security of workers.

The problem with the way the government has dealt with the rights of domestic workers in India lies precisely in this- that while the laws recognise such women as vulnerable to sexual abuse at their workplaces, it does a poor job of recognising domestic work as work in itself. By failing to recognise the fact that the economic insecurity suffered by such women contributes to the risks to personal security that such work entails, the laws in place in India fail to provide for the safety and health of these women at their workplaces.   

At the very outset, one must note that globally, almost 10.5 million domestic workers are actually children [3]. In India too, children are forced to work as domestic help, and feed into the vicious cycle of physical and sexual abuse. Yet, while such employment of children in India is criminalised, our national labour laws do not recognise adult domestic work at all. Domestic workers are excluded from the Factories Act 1948 (no. 63 of 1948) and the Minimum Wages Act, No. 11 of 1949, for example. It is up to state governments to issue notifications on minimum wages for domestic workers, but only a few states, like Karnataka, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Meghalaya, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan have issued such notifications [4].  Domestic workers, thus, fall within the category of unorganised labour, and this further lack of regulating mechanisms also means added difficulty in collating substantial nation-wide data on women engaged in such work. Locally concentrated studies by several non-governmental organisations suggest problems such as lack of specified work hours, irregular payment or even non-payment of wages, lack of holidays, added with verbal and often physical abuse. This economic insecurity also is a deterrent when it comes to speaking up against instances of physical and sexual abuse, for fear of being unemployed.

The lackadaisical approach of the legislature towards this is further evident in the fact that domestic workers have been included in the Unorganised Workers Social Security Act, 2008 (Act 33 of 2008) only after an intervention by the Supreme Court [5]. Again, their inclusion within the purview of the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, was not without struggle and even within it, loopholes remain.

For the longest time, there were no laws at all to protect women from sexual harassment at workplaces in India. The Supreme Court’s Vishaka Guidelines (Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan, 1997) were the primary framework followed in case of such abuse. And yet, when finally in 2010 the National Commission for Women submitted a draft on Sexual Harassment at Workplace Bill to the Parliament of India, it too did not include domestic workers. The authorities purportedly argued that the lack of witnesses inside a household would make it difficult to prove instances of sexual harassment, and hence households were excluded from the definition of workplaces. It was only after severe criticism and protest from several quarters, that the Act included domestic workers [6].

However, while in case of other workplaces, the Act mandates the creation of an Internal Complaints Committee, which must take immediate action when a complaint of sexual harassment is made by an employee, in case of domestic workers, this is not possible. The law mandates that every district must have in place a Local Complaints Committee instead, which a woman domestic worker may approach, in case of sexual harassment. This makes their inclusion into the law ineffective in practice, because, added to economic vulnerability of their situation, mistrust in government authorities results in domestic workers’ reluctance in approaching such institutions.

One could argue that unionising domestic workers, in order to make them aware of their economic as well as personal rights can go a long way in redressing this.  There are indeed several workers’ unions that have been working towards this, like the National Domestic Workers Movement, for example, which has branches in 23 states across the country [7], a lot still remains to be done. Another regulating mechanism could be placement agencies. Yet, commentators like N. Neetha have shown how such recruitment agencies instead often add to the abuse, by withholding wages and providing inadequate training. They are also often unregistered themselves, and the lack of any concrete state mechanism to regulate and monitor such agencies allows them to evade legal supervision[8].

Thus, when talking of the safety and security of employees at a workplace, in the specific context of women domestic workers in India, one cannot separate the legal reforms required in labour laws and in laws protecting from personal assaults. The government, thus, not only needs to modify labour laws applicable within the country, but recognize its responsibility vis-à-vis international laws as well.

Global data from 2014, by the International Trade Union Confederation, estimates that millions of migrant workers from poor counties including India are employed as domestic workers in the Gulf countries, and of them, about 2.4 million women end up in slavery [9]. Yet, in spite of being a signatory to several international labour conventions, India is not among the mere 22 countries that have ratified the ILO Domestic Workers Convention of 2011 (C189) [10]. The convention recognises that not only are most domestic workers women, but many of them are “migrants or members of disadvantaged communities and who are particularly vulnerable to discrimination”, and puts specific focus on developing countries, where because of “historically scarce opportunities for formal employment, domestic workers constitute a significant proportion of the national workforce and remain among the most marginalized” [11]. In light of this, India’s reluctance to ratify this convention underscores the bias inherent in India’s legal mechanisms.

It is interesting that the International Labour Organisation itself recognises the need for safety in domestic work as a separate rubric, by celebrating International Domestic Workers’ Day on June 16,   to commemorate the adoption of the above mentioned convention [12]. The ILO commemoration in 2016 brings into focus the need for the participation of the employers, or owners of households, in a dialogue on the protection of the rights of domestic workers. This reluctance of the employers to participate towards the cause is evident in India as well, as surveys by NGOs like Jagori attest [13]. The household cannot truly be regulated as a workspace, then, if the employers do not come together and recognise their responsibilities towards their employees.

In conclusion, on the occasion of the ‘World Day for Safety and Health at Work’, in the specific context of women domestic workers in India, one cannot ensure safety or health for the women at risk without first recognising and regulating their workspaces, and this can be achieved only through multiple levels of collaboration between the government, the society and the household itself.


[1] ‘Who are Domestic Workers?’, http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/WCMS_209773/lang–en/index.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] ‘Ending Child Labour in Domestic Work’, ILO 2013, http://www.ilo.org/ipecinfo/product/download.do?type=document&id=21515

[4] Cf. ‘A Report on Domestic Workers: Conditions, Rights and Responsibilities A study of part-time domestic workers in Delhi’, Jagori, http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/Final_DW_English_report_10-8-2011.pdf  , Page 9-10

[5] Ibid.

[6] Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, http://www.iitbbs.ac.in/notice/sexual-harrassment-of-women-act-and-rules-2013.pdf

[7] Cf. ‘A Report on Domestic Workers: Conditions, Rights and Responsibilities A study of part-time domestic workers in Delhi’, Jagori, http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/Final_DW_English_report_10-8-2011.pdf, Pages 8-11.

[8] Neetha, N. 2008.‘Regulating Domestic Work’. Economic and Political Weekly,Vol. 43, No. 37, September 13, 2008

[9] ‘Facilitating Exploitation: A Review of Labour Laws for Migrant Domestic Workers in GCC Countries’, ITUC Legal and Policy Brief, Pages 1, 7. http://www.ituc-csi.org/IMG/pdf/gcc_legal_and_policy_brief_domestic_workers_final_text_clean_282_29.pdf

[10] Ratifications of C189- (Convention Concerning Decent Work For Domestic Workers)  http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=1000:11300:0::NO:11300:P11300_INSTRUMENT_ID:2551460

[11] C189 – Domestic Workers Convention, 2011 (No. 189), http://www.ilo.org/dyn/normlex/en/f?p=NORMLEXPUB:12100:0::NO::P12100_INSTRUMENT_ID:2551460

[12] ‘Decent Work for Domestic Workers begins at home’, http://www.ilo.org/global/topics/domestic-workers/events-and-training/WCMS_371983/lang–en/index.htm

[13] Cf. ‘A Report on Domestic Workers: Conditions, Rights and Responsibilities A study of part-time domestic workers in Delhi’, Jagori, http://www.jagori.org/wp-content/uploads/2006/01/Final_DW_English_report_10-8-2011.pdf, Page 20

Redrawing Resistance: Expressions of young women on sexual harassment in public

by Mangalam Sridhar

A painting, dark and grim on one side, bright and happy on the other. Depicting the ideal picture of happy women on the left, and the everyday reality of women, because of the violence they face, on the right. This was among the 50 works of art on display at the Lalit Kala Akademi between April 15 and 17, 2016. The works were a part of the ‘Redrawing Resistance’ exhibition, which showcased the expressions of young women on sexual harassment in public places. The exhibition was organised by PCVC, in collaboration with the US Consulate and WCC.

The art exhibition, and the events around it, were the result of a workshop on gender sensitization and sexual harassment with students of Women’s Christian College(WCC) conducted by PCVC at WCC. The participants were city students, and survivors of domestic violence associated with PCVC. As an exercise in art therapy, the participants were asked to express street sexual harassment, and the violence that they face as they navigate the world around them. The end products stood testimony to the fact that every woman experiences violence differently, and expresses it in her own way. 

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One of the participants made a pot art which showed the different goals and dreams of a woman and how they are restricted once she is married. One showed how women are judged based on their outfits and another displayed how women show one face to the world and have another face inside them that they are not confident enough to reveal.

What was most striking perhaps was the work of the survivors. They told their stories through art, giving the world a small idea of the struggles they have faced, and continue to face. One of the survivors, had depicted her story in two sections. One section is red and the other is green. Both are covered with flowers and beads, but the red section shows fading flowers and the larger green one is full of color showing hope. This represented her life- the attack, after which she faced a lot of discrimination in the society. The art exhibition gave her the confidence and strength to portray her story and her face to the world with her head held high.

 The focus, through the three days, was on sexual harassment that women face on an everyday basis in public spaces, and the need to bring an end to it. And everything from the decor to the discussion reflected this. Apart from the art-work, the walls of the room were adorned with posters of women with slogans about reclaiming public spaces (#oorusuthify): stop objectifying us, stop treating our bodies as public spaces, and stop dictating to us about what to wear or where to go. 

The exhibition was inaugurated by Ariel Pollock, Public Affairs Officer, US Consulate. According to a study conducted in 2012, 7 out of 10 girls are subjected to harassment, she stressed. She also said that, Sexual Harassment is not just an Indian issue, it’s a global issue. Prasanna Gettu, Founder and CEO of International Foundation for Crime Prevention and Victim Care, said, we all are moving forward to resilient, resourceful, violent-free lives.

The inaugural session was dominated by poetry. Sharada and Michelle wrote the work and it was performed by Sharada, Michelle and Pooja, setting the tone for the weekend. “I am not the light. I am not the darkness. I am not good. I am not evil. I am not a doormat. I am not the temple bell. I am not your mother. I am not your sister. I don’t need to be. I refuse to be in the hierarchy of this patriarchy. I refuse to be held responsible for being who I need to be,” the poets exclaimed. 

On Day 2, Paromita Vohra’s “Unlimited Girls” was screened, followed by a discussion on dealing with sexual harassment. The participants raised concerns about why reacting to sexual harassment is not easy, and discussed ways in which they could act in future, including being legally literate. 

The organisers are planning to take the exhibition to other places in the city, in order to create more awareness about sexual harassment.