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Women Activists in India Used Online Petitions to Create Real Social Change

Women in India used Change.org to petition lawmakers in one of the most traditional societies on the planet to improve women’s access to fair maternity leave, to keep them safe from sexual assault on public transit and to close gender gaps.

Joshunda Sanders

Image via Change.org

This is an opinion piece by Joshunda Sanders, Director of Communications of North America at Change.org.

Preethi Herman, petite with a curly thicket of hair cut asymmetrically like a rockstar, stood at the center of a dimly lit circle in Karnataka, India at the Fireflies Intercultural Center ashram surrounded by more than 30 women she had waited more than a decade to to see. It was the beginning of a collective dream she had shared with so many for so long, the start of a journey to give women the resources to build the community they would need to change the world.

The She Creates Change five-day Learning Lab was an inaugural gathering of a pilot program with dozens of passionate Changemakers that will be replicated a few more times in 2018. The hopes is refining the campaign/social change intensive so that it can be scaled to build a modern day Women’s Movement around the world.

For cynics and skeptics, a platform that hosts petitions is one-dimensional and flat. From a distance, it seems like a lazy and too-easy way to make change. But in fact, 73 million people in the world have signed petitions that have gone on to become victories on the Change.org platform. That kind of impact begins with the passion of women like Masooma Ranalvi, a Female Genital Mutilation survivor.

With hot, bright lights adding to the humidity around her, Preethi began to talk about how Masooma spread the word about a practice most people only previously associated with Africa by courageously telling her story. Masooma wrote a blog and survivors read it, then began reaching out. Then, Masooma created Facebook and WhatsApp groups to stay in touch.


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She also started a Change.org petition to urge India to ban the practice throughout the country, which is now being heard at the Supreme Court. She has now represented hundreds of survivors before the United Nations. She is also one of 8 million in India where Preethi estimates there are more than 2,500 petitions started every month.

The context: In India, only 29 percent of internet users are women. As the country and the world around it become increasingly more digital, a culture that already deeply marginalizes women socially and economically threatens to continue to do so even as the world moves toward a more digital future. Still, the women who work to make change throughout the country underscore significant findings from 2017 when researchers from the World Bank, Columbia University and Oxford published a study with Harvard University’s Kennedy School about the power of Change.org for empowering women to engage and mobilize politically.

History has been made by heroic women who used the tools they had available to them to make great sacrifices in order to change the world.

The research studied more than 3.9 million of Change.org’s more than 200 million users in 196 countries; over 55,000 of which are in India. The study found that while women are less likely to run for office -- or participate in what they call “thick” forms of political participation -- they are very successful mobilizing both men and women to sign petitions when they do start them (they start petitions less often than men, but when they do start petitions, they win more often). The report found that even though women create fewer petitions than men on the platform, their campaigns are 1.36 times as likely to win.

The Fireflies Intercultural Center ashram. (Photo via Change.org)

In India, middle class and wealthy women are gaining freedoms, but equality is far off. The Economist reports that only 27 percent of Indian women work, and the representation of women in politics in India lags behind other countries in South Asia and in the world. Still, women Changemakers in India have used the platform to petition lawmakers in one of the most traditional societies on the planet to improve women’s’ access to fair maternity leave, to keep them safe from sexual assault on public transit and to otherwise close gender gaps.

The point, Preethi said, is that “Change.org is a technology platform people can use so that decision-makers hear about your issue. It is not the only tool. But it was one of the tools that Masooma used and a prominent one.”

"We have a unique opportunity to change the way our history is paved. It does not have to be one of sacrifice, but one of power. More than making connections, changing the way our history is written.”

History has been made, she continued, by heroic women who used the tools they had available to them to make great sacrifices in order to change the world. Preethi turned to her presentation, starting to talk about Nangeli, a Cherthala woman, who 200 years ago rebelled against a societal practice of making lower-caste people walk around without covering their upper body by refusing to pay what was known as a “breast tax” when she decided to cover herself. Preethi warned us that the next slide would be graphic.

Then, the power went out.

She paused, and looked at the sound support crew before improvising, quickly, and continuing. When taxpayers came to collect, “she cut her breasts off and bled to death,” Preethi said. “That was her protest.”

In the darkened space, Preethi continued speaking as a few young men worked furiously to connect wires and generator to computer. Preethi moved on to a photograph from the Chipko movement, an environmental movement that began in 1973 in the state of Rajasthan when a Himalayan woman wrapped her arms around a tree in order to save it from being felled by lumberjacks. In the end, 84 villagers followed her lead.

Participants at the She Creates Change five-day Learning Lab. (Photo via Change.org)

“We have a unique opportunity to change the way our history is paved,” she said. “It does not have to be one of sacrifice, but one of power. More than making connections, changing the way our history is written.” She showed us one last slide, a constellation that looked like stars around the world. “You can be one single light, or this one massive thing, across the continent.”

The learning lab was meant to be a space for all the “lights” to come together.

“The community you build helps you. Building a community is the most critical thing. I am standing here only and solely because of the community I have built.”

Day after day, for upwards of twelve hours during the week, the Changemakers had this message reinforced with sessions led by Change.org staff from around the world, but mainly from staff based in India helping to define and set goals for campaigns based on examples of victorious and successful campaigns from the past. Those included Subarna Ghosh’s Safe Birth campaign with more than 300,000 supporters calling on states throughout the country to make it mandatory to report the number of cesarean births performed by hospitals.

Subarna and campaigner Nida Hasan determined that doctors were forcing women to have cesarean surgeries at a higher cost to the women and Insia Dariwala, who has led a campaign to end the sex abuse of male children and their isolation. Activists and artists who work in social impact performed and spoke in depth to the women to encourage them to continue existing campaigns or begin new ones. Workshop sessions delved into strategy, tactics and content that could shape a successful Changemaker’s journey.

A successful Changemaker's journey. (Photo via CHange.org)

“Sometimes we are depressed and pushed back and we don’t know what we’ll do,” Masooma said. “The community you build helps you. Building a community is the most critical thing. I am standing here only and solely because of the community I have built.”

The lights never did stay on that first day. Not the physical ones, anyway. But by the time the Changemaker lights were ready to take flight, they had enough power to blaze their own paths.

Jincy Varghese, who organized a successful effort (while close to giving birth herself) to get the country to extend paid maternity leave for working women in India, said that every single minute of the Learning Lab “helped us delve deeper within, to learn something new, something more about ourselves and those around us which transformed all of us into bold, fascinating fireflies all set to light up the world. Let there be light. And there will be light. We are the light.”