It was refreshing to start the day with some good news. The European Union and the African Group delivered a cross-regional statement on child, early and forced marriages yesterday afternoon at the HRC, and it was supported by over 100 states.

This is particularly important for the World YWCA, as it followed the side event that it co-hosted with Plan International last Friday. It also demonstrates that the advocacy of the World YWCA and its members at The Commission on the Status of Women, Session 57 (CSW 57) has influenced the framing of the issue and subsequent debate.

The language about “child, early and forced marriages” that was part of the agreed conclusions at CSW 57 has featured prominently in discussions at the 23rd Session of the Human Rights Council. A great win! The World YWCA will continue to work with its allies to push for a resolution at the Human Rights Council in September.

While Jenna covered the third informal consultation on the draft resolution on the elimination of violence against women, I headed off to a session on freedom of expression.

While waiting for the session to start, a mysterious Kashmiri NGO representative introduced himself and insisted on reading my palm (not the kind of offer one expects in the halls of the Palais Des Nations)!


The conversation went a little like this:

He said: I can see you recently bought an apartment, you’ll buy another one soon.
Me: Wow, looks like I’m going to win the lottery then.
He said: you do things well when you’re going 100%, don’t slow down because you won’t be as effective.
Me: yep, that’s generally how I roll.
He said: you have a queen’s heart.
Me: sweet.
He said: nice to meet you, you can go now.
Me: ok…

People that know me well will be able to make up their own minds about how accurate his reading was!


Now, back to business!

Shahzad Ahmad is a development communications expert and is at the forefront of the internet rights movement in Pakistan. He’s the country coordinator for an organisation called Bytes for All, which focuses on building the capacity of human rights defenders through the strategic use of digital communication (wow + awesome).

Bytes for All’s focus areas include:

  • Strategic use of ICTs for women’s empowerment and combating violence against women
  • Youth & peace building in the South Asia region
  • Freedom of Expression
  • Privacy Rights in Pakistan
  • Digital Security for Human Rights Defenders
  • Open Governance
  • Open Net Initiative
  • Greening IT
  • The Internet & human rights
  • Global information society watch
  • Innovation for development
  • Internet governance

He opened by talking about major human rights issues in Pakistan that came about during the last election.

There were violent acts that attempted to prevent certain parties from campaigning, refusing women of their right to vote in certain regions, and curbing of people’s freedom of speech in both online and offline environments. For example, YouTube was blocked by the government apparently due to its widespread blasphemous content. However it was clearly about muzzling the voices that posed a threat to the government of the day.

The Pakistani code of conduct states that religion can’t be used to promote the platforms of political parties. But this is being breached left, right and centre. It also prohibits the display of arms during promotions, yet there are many examples of political parties parading the streets with weapons, aiming to intimidate anyone who opposes them.

Mr Ahmad then introduced the PakVotes project, which is all about empowering ordinary citizens to participate in the electoral process in Pakistan. Essentially, it’s a platform for people who would otherwise be voiceless throughout the election process. The main way they do this is by highlighting people’s stories, and bringing human rights abuses (such as pre-poll rigging, violence at polling stations or issues in voter mobilisation or discrimination) to the attention of the global public sphere.

So one of the first things they did was go out into communities, and train people in the use of smart phone technologies and social media so that they could:

  • report in real time from the field with “just a smartphone”
  • be able to use a variety of social media tools for reporting
  • understand the essence of honest, safe and accurate journalism
  • be able to unearth stories which may otherwise be overlooked by mainstream media

Some key points about their approach:

  • the online platform, www.pakvotesmap.pk monitored and documented violations in different regions
  • citizen journalists reported back on what was happening in their region
  • stories were then picked up by mainstream media, bloggers, and political activists as a source of new and fresh content, who would then report to their own networks about what was happening during the election
  • Storify was used to document their discussions with different minorities and make them publicly available
  • Twitter and Facebook were used to facilitate instant, dialogic communication with citizens and social influencers to raise awareness about the unfolding issues

They had some fantastic outcomes, with thousands of people engaging in the Twitter and Facebook discussions, hundreds of stories being submitted and verified for the website, and gaining significant national and international media coverage on the issue.

Mr Ahmad closed by saying that when you engage the citizen you can promote openness and participation to influence political processes, and that new technologies provide us with a unique opportunity to amplify the voices who otherwise have no voice, and no agency.