The courage deficit: fighting inequalities with activism, technology and policy

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When Trisha Shetty first set up SheSays, it was easier for her to find a review of a restaurant online than to locate help and advice for victims of sexual violence.

The nonprofit stepped into the void.

Since then, SheSays has built out its work, helping create safe spaces for women, conducting sexual violence education and prevention programs in schools and colleges, and enabling victims to get the help they need.

The India-based organization is one part of Shetty’s work as an equality activist, championing women’s rights and campaigning against discriminatory practices and policies.

But it is not just around equality where she is making a change. She is passionate about engaging civil society in policy creation and making the world a better place for everyone. This includes taking an active role in the Paris Peace Forum, as president of its steering committee.

Speaking to Microsoft Vice President for European Government Affairs Casper Klynge for the TechFit4Europe podcast, Shetty discussed the importance of getting the public involved in shaping policies, and how technology is able to help her in her work.

Creating a just, equal, and representative world

Core to Shetty’s work is mobilizing people to make change – holding institutions to account and engaging leaders to create policies that are inclusive and equal, particularly in regard to women’s rights.

“The role of civil society is to hold leadership to account, but how often do you see that?

“I see a deficit of courage. The people actually doing that are the small organizations, led mostly by minorities, who are marginalized, who are alienated, who are not given access to platforms.”

She believes the ability to hold governments and other leaders responsible for their actions is a central tenet of democracy. It is hard to tackle issues like gender equality, without also talking about inequality and its root causes, including policies, no matter how prickly a topic that may be.

The Paris Peace Forum – a driver of change

The Paris Peace Forum, which works as a platform bringing together people to find solutions to global problems, has an evolving list of initiatives.

“I see hope in the Paris Peace Forum in having a sort of transformational effect, not just within the space of international cooperation, but also on [the] ground,” she says.

She credits this, firstly, to the partner organizations – of which Microsoft is one – which have been “the North Star”. This means viewing problems and solutions in a wider context, tackling the areas that matter and getting involved in the politics and policy that shape them.

“We have good-faith actors, who are really trying to address the proposed solutions by addressing problems, which is often what you don’t see, for me as an activist who works on [the] ground,” she explains.

The second strength of the Forum comes from the solutions it finds, Shetty believes. It addresses broad issues including governing AI and ensuring cybersecurity, reforming capitalism, and better governance of global commons such as the oceans and space.

Technology plays a vital role in some of the solutions the Forum has actioned. Examples include a tool that allows users to visualize the impact of new technologies on the lives of women and girls; and another project advancing the uptake of the gender element of the UN Principles on Business and Human Rights in the tech industry.

When you get stakeholders to agree to enforce common principles, Shetty explains, there is hope that real action will follow.

Technology as an enabler of greater equality

Technology is a common thread through much of Shetty’s work. In particular, she recognizes its power to mobilize people and give them a voice.

One example comes from a campaign in India to remove tax from period products. Lack of access to menstrual hygiene products and sanitation is a leading reason for young girls in the country to skip school.

SheSays tried several avenues to tackle the problem, including petitions at school and representations to government. But what really cut through was a social media campaign, which gained 24 million impressions on Twitter in less than 24 hours. It became a mainstream topic of conversation, and the tax was revoked through the force of public opinion.

Another example Shetty cites is the MeToo movement, which “would not have happened without the grace of technology, without women coming together, recognizing that there is incredible solidarity in the unfortunate pain that we have had to deal with over generations and actually saying, ‘you can shut one voice, you can shut two voices, but you cannot shut voices in multitudes’”.

However, for technology to create change, people need to be able to access it. And connectivity, particularly in poor and rural communities, is an ongoing problem. Lack of access to digital technologies exacerbates existing inequalities.

“What is democracy?” she asks. “It’s a right to information. It’s freedom of speech. It’s freedom of expression. It’s also inherently the equal access to everything, equal access to life, liberty, resources, and the Internet.”

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