Engaging Youth via New Media: Beyond ‘Clicktivism’

Originally published at http://blogs.worldbank.org/endpovertyinsouthasia/engaging-youth-new-media-beyond-clicktivism

Photo by Pavithra Jovan de Mello (facebook.com/JovanDeMelloPhotography)
Photo by Pavithra Jovan de Mello (facebook.com/JovanDeMelloPhotography)

In my work with Women and Media Collective (WMC), a leading women’s organization in  Sri Lanka, I have often noticed the lack of engagement with young women (and young men) and also their apparent lack of interest to engage with WMC’s work. Being a young woman myself and often being one of the few representing my demography at various events, I started to analyze this issue. I still haven’t cracked the formula but being both a young woman and part of a women’s organization, I decided to experiment with ways to engage the youth by meeting them halfway.

WMC set up a new media unit with the intention of expanding our target audience and in addition to a revamped website, we began to engage and communicate via avenues of new media such as Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Blogging, etc.

In 2011 and 2012, as part of our work for the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence, we curated the Sri Lanka 16 Days Blog, using social networking and blogging as a platform for raising awareness about gender based violence. Our target audience was young women and young men as statistics show that they are the largest group active in this sphere. For an example, the largest groups of Facebook users in Sri Lanka are between the ages of 18-24 years, followed by 25-34 years.

Therefore we met them halfway by creating an online platform on which they could express themselves in any format (blog, tweet, upload photos and/or videos, upload podcasts, creative writing, art, photography, essays, short films, interviews, cartoons, etc.) and in Sinhala, Tamil or English. And the reaction was quite positive.

We received a variety of blog posts ranging from personal accounts to creative writing, photo essays to cartoons and some of them went viral resulting in youth groups such as Beyond Borders and Reach Out conducting their own online campaigns inspired by our blog.

Through this exercise we broke the silence about gender-based violence, at least to a certain extent, within the limitations of what one would call a “safe” space (though it isn’t the case anymore). And the interest generated in the online campaign resulted in it being featured in mainstream media, which meant that we took the discourse on gender-based violence further and increased our audience. What we realized was that there were young people who were keen to express themselves but didn’t have a good platform to do so and others who also spoke up with a little encouragement from us.

Another obstacle to engaging the youth to break their silence is that they are not receiving the necessary information. Therefore, we make it a priority to constantly react to incidents of violence and also to raise awareness on the necessary legal and policy reform and to this end, we collaborate with other organizations. For an example, we promoted a working paper by the International Centre for Ethnic Studies (ICES) regarding the Prevention of Domestic Violence Act of 2005, which analyzed the lead up to the Act as well as its shortcomings.

This experience was helpful when I joined a small team of individuals who conducted an online campaign and organized an event for the One Billion Rising movement. Our strategy was to use new media, especially Facebook, to engage and mobilize a large group of people, mostly young. This was a challenge in an age of clicktivism where the enthusiasm displayed in an online sphere is rarely translated into the offline sphere.

With this challenge in mind, we launched Reason to Rise, an online campaign to which anyone could contribute by sending in photographs, videos, notes, blog posts, artwork, etc. telling us why they will rise against gender-based violence.

There is a widespread denial about the existence of gender-based violence in Sri Lanka, starting from State officials to policy makers to the general public. In particular, domestic violence is often disregarded as a concept derived from Western culture and also as something that does not occur among the urban, educated middle class. But statistics tell otherwise.

In Sri Lanka, police statistics show that there has been a 6% increase in sexual abuse of women and girls in 2012 with at least 700 incidents of sexual abuse of girls reported in the first half of 2012. These include gang rape and sale of young girls for sexual abuse. It has also been revealed that 90% of women are abused when using public transport. 4000 of the 15,000 cases that are being heard in courts are regarding violence against children.

Also, since 2008 there has been a trend in imposing suspended sentences in cases of rape and child molestation. Of 129 reported cases from 2008 onwards, an alarming 114 cases (88%) received a suspended sentence, which included a nominal compensation fine. This is perpetuating impunity in cases of violence against women and is a gross injustice to women victims of violence.

Our reiteration of these statistics and sharing of news reports on incidents of violence against women and children made an impact and again, we had people speaking up, especially young people. Many approached us with hesitation, some choosing to remain anonymous, but as more people spoke up, the numbers started growing.

Our main challenge of mobilizing the same group to the offline sphere was successful to some extent when about 600 people gathered at Lipton Circus, Colombo to demonstrate against gender-based violence and hold a candlelight vigil in honor of victims and survivors of the same. For many, it was there first protest/demonstration/vigil. The One Billion Rising campaign was a great example of the potential in new media to engage youth in breaking their silence both online and offline.

As for Women and Media Collective, we continue to engage with the youth via our new media avenues and we’re always looking for ways to make our work more relatable to young people. We’re also working with women new media producers and giving them space on our online platforms to speak up. But we are aware of the challenges that lie ahead in getting youth to get involved and stay involved offline. We’re developing strategies to face this such as opening up more opportunities for volunteers and interns, consulting youth groups for our work, organizing workshops for young people, etc.

Some of the questions to ask yourselves therefore would be:

For civil society organizations.

  • – Why engage the youth?
  • – What is stopping you?
  • – How to get started?

For the youth:

  • – Are you an active member of the civil society?
  • – What is stopping you?
  • – What are the tools, information and exposure you need to get started?
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