Emerging technology connects and empowers women at UN CSW63

Anna-Grace Milward, University of Sydney Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Sitting across from Lydia Cacho in the back seat of a bumpy car ride, I was engrossed in her shocking recount of the violence and intimidation she suffered at the hands of the Mexican Cartels responsible for trafficking tens of thousands of victimised women. Lydia is a journalist, so she is on a mission to tell emotive stories, but the fact that this one was delivered inside a virtual world made it all the more impactful. Just inches away from each other, I truly felt like Lydia was speaking with me, not just to me; It was a shared moment of connection. 

Taking off my ‘Daydream-powered Lenovo Mirage Solo’ (that’s a VR headset for all those who are yet to realise their obsession with emerging tech), I found myself returned to the United Nations Headquarters. Thanks to my participation in the Global Voices Scholarship program, I’ve been privileged to spend the week attending in the 63rd Commission on the Status of Women. Along with a number of exceptional networking events and side panel discussions held by hardworking NGOs who have gathered from across the globe to ensure the most rigorous and impactful policy outcomes for women and girls, I also stumbled across a few Easter Eggs. In gamer terms, an ‘Easter egg’ is an ‘unexpected surprise’, which developers include in the user experience as an added bonus for the player. For example, you might find a hidden level, reward or a power-up. The VR  experience I got to demo, a collaboration between UN Women and Google, was one such hidden treasure. Not only did the VR series, ‘Courage to Question’, help me to connect with the raw emotions I know so many women must feel when speaking about the seemingly endless number of examples in which women continue to endure suffering and oppression, but it affirmed the importance of technology as a powerful tool for change. A tool which can build empathy, encourage new perspectives, educate and enriching connection. These are, after all, some of the many benefits which I believe could be used to support women in Australia,  should my policy recommendation of Mixed Reality labs for women in regional and remote communities, be adopted. 

But while technology can have a really positive impact and is increasingly being centred as the key for accelerating rapid growth in women's access to knowledge, services and enterprise, as the week progressed so too did the discussion around the dark underbelly of the internet and its cyber violence. Internet governance is, at best, underdeveloped, and many of the social realities which oppress women are, as well as being perpetuated online, intensified. Those who gathered at the UN side panel event to discuss how we can build 'safe and empowering spaces for women and girls' identified that women with low digital literacy were particularly vulnerable online, after having very little access to ICTs in their youth. While other women, simply remain disconnected from the world wide web. In a meeting with Natasha de Silva, Senior Policy Executive at the Australian Human Rights Commission, we discussed the need to expand the definition of work so to include work which is done online, in virtual spaces, and thus protect the rights of women who now encounter workplace harassment across 'platforms' rather than 'in person'. 

The digital world is evolving rapidly, but it is not yet inclusive. Both the positive and negative elements of the digital revolution are drastically impacting women's physical and social realities, and certainly require the collective efforts of all those who have gathered at CSW in 2019. At this delegation we have been building a very real and positive connection, and I hope that, with some hard work, we can ensure that this translates into the online experiences of women. Connection is imperative.