Femena: Right, Peace, Inclusion

Femena: Right, Peace, Inclusion
Supporting WHRDs & progressive feminist movements in MENA & Asia.

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The Virtual Capacities for Collective Care

Author: Yara WHRD Center

For many social media users and women’s rights activists who use social media in their work, the virtual space can often turn from a space for activism, organizing, advocacy, and self-expression into a forum for harassment, intimidation, bullying, and violence that can undermine mental health, a medium of harm that can, at times, render activists silent and passive. Nakita Valerio, a Toronto-based community organizer and researcher who specializes in building cross-cultural bridges believes that despite the violence it may entail, the digital space can also provide opportunities and capacities for high-quality community-based collective care. As these forms of virtual violence may impose feelings of isolation and loneliness on individuals, it is even more important and necessary to recognize and emphasize the caring capacities in the digital world. Valerio believes that collective care and community-oriented approaches in the digital space happen in the digital sphere and on a very deep level.

Creating Private Virtual Groups

The groups we create in various communication software and social media platforms serve as sources of care. These are groups where we feel safe and where can seek support and solidarity from others, sometimes without even having met the group members in person or knowing them in the physical world. These groups may seem trivial and unimportant to many of us as they are often formed spontaneously and out of necessity, and many of us are members of at least one such group. However, given the various constraints on physical interactions, these groups should be seen as a source for promoting collective care, and it is worth making conscious and earnest efforts to preserve and sustain them. These groups can make community-oriented care widespread and more accessible.

The coronavirus pandemic clearly demonstrated the capacities of digital tools for resilience. At a time when governments had utterly failed citizens and official resources and institutions lacked support and care systems, Teresa Gayo writes about her own experience: “I had never understood the power of virtual community-based care until I experienced it myself. During the pandemic, I was hospitalized, and visitors were not allowed. The hospital had taken away my phone. As someone reliant on technology for care, this prohibition was very challenging for me. Upon leaving the hospital, a friend of mine created a document on Google Docs where people could write their names and express their desire to contact me. I was in a very bad situation and extremely depressed. I didn’t even have the capacity to seek support. I will never forget this gesture. These people showed me that a significant part of community-based care is related to creating online care networks.”

Practices of Care in the Virtual Space

The practice of care in the online realm is not limited to private groups alone. When an individual speaks out about experiences of sexual and gender-based violence, a network of empathy, support, and solidarity forms around them. In the Me-Too movement, we experienced various forms of such care, ranging from offers of personal support to survivors of violence to assistance in seeking lawyers, therapists, and so on—all actions made possible in the online space. Similarly, when women and other marginalized groups recount their encounters with violence on their social media accounts, a similar trend emerges. One of the most important forms of care in social networks is supporting individuals who express severe depression, lack of motivation, and in severe cases, suicidal thoughts or attempts on their personal platforms. Strangers and acquaintances on social networks strive to monitor the status of the person in question and support them in various ways—sending them messages, contacting their relatives and acquaintances, referring them to therapists, and generally providing specialized support. However, to transform these care processes into long-term and sustainable practices, there needs to be organization and structuring of these empathetic actions and solidarity efforts. For example, some counselors and therapists have taken steps to create support groups in the form of online sessions for survivors of sexual violence.

Collective Care Against Cyber Attacks

In an article titled “How to intervene in online violence and support victims?” We detailed how relying on virtual platforms and tools can support individuals experiencing online attacks and violence – from building public support and solidarity to reporting perpetrators. These are all forms of collective care that extends beyond the self but is not separate from individual interests and can ultimately include us all. Many individuals who have experienced cyberattacks say that the care and empathy they received in the same online space helped them significantly to confront and overcome their situations. Sending a message, a comment, or a tweet in support of the victim may initially seem insignificant, but experiences and personal accounts of violence attest to the positive impact of such support, showing that caring for others in the online space is an effective way to reduce the harms of digital violence. A women’s rights activist said, “Just when I was under severe attacks by the Islamic Republic and its affiliated users on social networks, someone I barely knew, and whom I had never met in person, brought together several activists in an online session so we could talk. Although some members of this group had never seen each other, had no knowledge of each other, and even lived in different countries, this group became a stable community for caring for each other.”

Creating a Culture of Care in the Online Space for People with Disabilities

Digital spaces and tools hold even greater importance for individuals with disabilities and those facing mobility and physical limitations. The Internet provides an opportunity for self-expression and inclusivity for people with disabilities, who are often excluded from physical public spaces, especially where cities and physical spaces are not designed for their presence and have not taken the necessary measures to accommodate them. Jensine Larsen from the World Pulse organization shares her successful experience in creating safe, caring, and inclusive spaces for people with disabilities: “We have learned that it is possible to consciously design sustainable online spaces that enable women — including women with disabilities — to speak out, join each other, and become leaders in their communities. We know that access to the right online environment can nurture women’s ability to make tangible, offline change. Unlike many other spaces, we have prioritized a culture of inclusivity and care in our activities.” Members and leaders of this organization believe that despite all the existing violence, the digital space can be transformed into a liberating tool, and the culture of care can be created and expanded within it.

Care-Oriented Software

There are software applications designed specifically to care for others and provide collective assistance. However, when it comes to these applications, caution must be exercised regarding the commodification of care and its monetization so that it is not appropriated by large companies and turned into a profitable resource that runs counter to the concept of self-care. The most important aspect of such software is that they be developed based on social care criteria and created in consultation and collaboration with the target groups themselves. For example, Be My Eyes is an app that enables blind or visually impaired individuals to connect with volunteers willing to help them. Freecycle is another app that assists neighbors in exchanging goods and services with each other. These serve as models for creating groups and care platforms in the online space, especially for those who do not have strong social networks and have been isolated for various reasons. Building friendships requires emotional and sometimes financial resources. Many people cannot afford these material and emotional costs. That is why we need to consider the capacities of virtual space to create care networks.