Netsanet Muluneh was recently awarded the East African Women’s Digital Safety Fellowship which has taken her to Entebbe, Uganda as part of the one-year program. Here she reflects with Samuel Getachew of The Reporter on what she hopes to achieve through the fellowship, on digital safety issues, human rights and on how to empower young women to protect them from the vulnerability that is the digital age. Excerpts:
The Reporter: Congratulations on winning the fellowship. I understand you are to work on issues on human rights and media within the region. Tell me about that?
Netsanet Muluneh: Thank you for this opportunity. As you mentioned, I am, along with other awardees are expected to work on digital safety issue related to human rights. In particular, in human rights activism and journalism among others. We offer training on issues of digital security, in safer applications, data and mail encryption and others. We also explore safe ways to utilize the online environment. But the heart of our project is to work on issues of human rights
Locally, you have helped cascade, the training you got from Safe Sister. Tell me about that?
‘Safe sister’ is the name of the fellowship and we did not create that locally, but we cascade the training we get from safe sisters with the title of “Becoming Safe digital”.
The goal of the program is to enable women in East Africa to solve and tackle digital safety challenges. The long-term vision is to help create capable women technologists within Ethiopia as well as the region. These are women with potential and those that are capable of solving existing digital safety challenges and who can, in return, support and help others, in particular those who work within civil societies with high tech issues.
I would like to highlight what a great and important experience it has been to those who have become participants. For many, including myself, it remains a life-changing and transformational program.
What are some of the local projects that you were involved in through the fellowship?
While applying for the fellowship, I was asked what I would do if I was selected. My answer was how I would be able to fulfill a long-held dream of helping the female youth that are still in high school and expose them to the issue of digital safety. I knew that, if they are exposed to the issue (security methods) early on, they can better take care of themselves from being victims of gender-based violence and cyber- bullying.
I did my project with three other women, my colleagues in the fellowship – Selamawit Tezera, Haymanot Tefera and Hanna Asmare. We merged our small budget and offered training based on our collective experiences and knowledge to have a better practical impact. We gave the training for three consecutive days in Addis Ababa earlier this year and selected those in grade 11.
All were young girls, still in their teens and I have to tell you, there was much interest from many areas. In total, we had 50 students apply for the training but due to budget constraint we offered the training for only 12 students free of charge. In the near future, we hope to work with the Sub Cities Education Bureau and intend to partner with them and invite high schoolers from all grades to take part in the training. And we intend to offer it within publicly run schools. Our long-term plan is to address teens throughout Addis and beyond
We are also translating digital safety manuals from English to Amharic. Again, we intend to distribute the books free of charge. We also plan to work with political parties, civil societies and journalists to help create awareness.
In your experience, what are some of the local digital challenges when it comes to women human rights activists?
Getting access to information is a problem. But regarding digital safety, the problem is not only for women human rights activists but for most users. Saying that “I don’t have anything to hide” or “I don’t have sensitive information to secure” might be true. But what we should really know is once you go online, there is no going back. Ones you put your personal information on the internet, then you cannot do anything to erase it back.
Remember, the internet does not forget. So, the idea we should have in our minds regarding online safety is, focus on what our information are being used for or should be thinking what others who have access to that information will do with them.
Many people still do not know the safest application to use, inefficient utilization of the safety related settings on our digital apparatus, applications and accounts, less knowledge of different and easy data and email encryption methods.
Compared to the challenges other contemporary women face within the region, what do you think makes the challenges of Ethiopian women different than those from other parts or do you think or challenges uniform like among East African women?
Mostly, as women we share the same challenges and experiences when it comes to online gender-based violence in different forms. These include slurs, shaming, bullying, cyber stalking and others. But the challenge that makes Ethiopian women different is that most of it is related to access and exposure. Most other East African countries have access to different trainings, workshops and the like on this issue, even relatively they got a better access to the internet than us.
The fellowship boldly claims how “East Africa needs a league of women technologists working within civil society who can dispense appropriate advice and support for people facing these high-tech challenges. What is your take on that?
That is precisely what my team and I are planning to address. We are doing it, mindful of limitation we may have, doing it one group at a time and we shall see where that might take us. We will ultimately like to work with political parties and are currently looking at any possible collaboration with some. At the end, we really want to contribute and help to anyone who is interested on knowing more about online digital safety.
I also would like to announce, we want anyone, individuals and parties interested in what we do to contact us and benefit from what we can .