Digital advocacy in a digitally unequal society: exploring the inclusivity of gender justice campaigns in India

Tutkimustuotos: Artikkeli kirjassa/raportissa/konferenssijulkaisussaKonferenssiartikkeliAmmatillinen


While many countries in the Global South have been swift to embrace modern information and communication technologies, the accompanying side effect has been the exacerbation of a digital divide, resulting in unequal access to the digital sphere between urban and rural populations, different socio-economic groups and genders. Such a divide is particularly visible in a country like India which has a large rural population, widening income inequalities and restrictions on female mobility and public participation that translate to limits in accessing the digital realm for women.

When considering these issues in relation to digital social justice campaigns in India in general and campaigns addressing gender justice more specifically, a huge paradox emerges. On one hand, gender justice organizations in India often claim to empower the most vulnerable groups of women in society. However, when these groups cannot access the internet - the main medium through which campaigns are promoted nowadays - one must ask which issues are prioritized and whose issues are represented by these organizations in their digital communications. Do campaigns address nuances related to the urban-rural divide and class and caste hierarchies that are intrinsically linked to gender-based violence, for example? Or, do they merely reflect the concerns of urban middle-class populations who are the primary consumers of social media platforms in India?

To answer such questions, visual campaign material of over 300 videos, produced by three organizations working for gender justice in India, were analysed using tools of visual semiotics developed by Roland Barthes including connotation and denotation. The organizations comprised of the Ministry for Women and Child Development, Amnesty International and Breakthrough India. The material was collected from these organizations’ YouTube channels and/or web-pages from the last five years.

Preliminary findings suggest that campaigns focusing on sexual harassment and violence against women are usually located in an urban setting and represent the “ideal victim” of sexual harassment as a middle-class woman, targeted by men from lower class backgrounds who have no prior acquaintance with her. In contrast, when the issues of socio-economically disadvantaged women, usually from rural areas, are given attention, they are framed from the perspective of allowing rural areas to “progress” by encouraging girls to remain in school and avoid early marriage. These divisions and hierarchies in digital advocacy not only point to broader societal manifestations of the digital divide but also to enduring historical stratifications that technology does not appear to be bridging. In addition to offering a novel perspective on digital advocacy efforts to promote gender justice in the context of India, the study also illustrates how to conduct a systematic qualitative analysis of extensive visual material using visual semiotics.
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