A partnership between the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has set up networks that offer training on issues including personal and digital security, avoiding kidnap, and tactics for dealing with mental trauma.
Operating in Kenya, Mexico and Sri Lanka, the program is a response to the global problem of violence and harassment against women in politics and media.
“Women in politics and women in media do not have enough access to tools on digital safety, on personal security, and it’s almost an afterthought,” said Pari Farmani, senior program officer of gender and democracy at NDI, a U.S.-based non-profit that seeks to strengthen democracies globally.
The rise of the internet has further emboldened harassers, with women who have a large public profile often being singled out for attack.
A UNESCO survey last year of journalists who identify as women found 73% had faced online violence related to their work and 20% reported being attacked offline in connection to online threats or harassment.
Digital safety is, “very much in the forefront of the program,” Farmani of NDI said.
“Sometimes platforms do not have sufficient safety mechanisms. And when they do have sufficient safety tools,” Farmani said, many online users “do not have access to training on those tools, are not even aware that those tools exist.”
For Mercy Adhiambo, a features reporter for the Nairobi daily The Standard, the program offered practical skills and a forum to talk openly about her experiences.
“It validated my feelings. It made me appreciate that it is OK to feel the way I was feeling," Adhiambo said. "I have covered horrible and traumatic events and stories over the years in my career as a journalist. For many years, I wondered if I was being a coward for the anxiety I would feel.”
Talks on dealing with trauma were particularly helpful, she added.
“I listened to other journalists talking about their experience and I appreciated that I am not alone.”
Female journalists in Kenya are more likely to experience online bullying or trolling, said Adhiambo, adding that while working as an investigative journalist she was accused of having sex with a source to get information.
The experience “made me shy away from sharing my journalism work online,” Adhiambo said.
The journalist and other Kenyans who are part of the program say the training and resources help them prepare for the possibility of attacks.
The harassment and violence against individual women is part of a larger phenomenon that weakens democracy as a whole, Farmani of NDI said, “because you are dissuading the political participation of half of your population.”
Central to IWMF and NDI’s goal of combating gender violence in politics and media is a strong network of women who can support and learn from one another.
“One of the main things that we wanted to achieve was for women in both sectors to develop an understanding of each other's experiences in each country,” Farmani said.
“Whether you are a political activist, a political leader, or a woman journalist who frequently covers politics, you feel isolated and very siloed, and you think that the things that you are experiencing are just happening to you,” Farmani said.
Kenyan journalist Adhiambo said the program has helped connect her with a community who can share similar experiences.
For Farmani, this sense of community is crucial to the program’s success.
“There aren’t enough professional networks that are designed for women,” Farmani said. When women are able to connect through these communities, it provides a “sense of belonging,” as well as a catalyst for change.
“What these types of coalitions provide is an understanding that this is a phenomenon impacting all women,” Farmani added. “Once you understand that, once you have the language for it, I think you’re much better equipped to engage in advocacy campaigns against it, much better equipped to protect yourself, and much more supported in what you’re experiencing.”
The NDI is working to empower women through several other campaigns including a project collecting data on violence against women in politics.