Exploring the digital gender divide in collaboration with young women in Vanuatu and Tonga

Portable partnered with ABC International Development, a branch within Australia’s public broadcaster who use media and communication to support social and economic development in the Asia Pacific region. As part of this work we collaborated with local in-country facilitators from Vanuatu and Tonga, to plan and deliver a series of workshops exploring cyber challenges and how young women can be empowered to meaningfully engage online. Read on to find out how our design team worked with in-country partners to deliver an international co-design project that sought to empower young women in the pacific region.

During the cold winter months of Melbourne’s 2020 lockdown, the design team at Portable were given an opportunity for some virtual sunshine. As a continuation of the 2019 Pacific Women and the Pacific Islands Media Assistance Scheme (PACMAS) Tonga Cyber Safety Project, ABC International Development and Portable worked together to secure further funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) as part of their Cyber Critical Tech Cooperation for further work in the pacific region addressing cyber safety.. Portable’s role in this new engagement, called the ‘Girls Online (GO!) project’ was to assist in the design and delivery of a series of new co-design workshops to uncover the cyber safety challenges young women in Vanuatu and Tonga face when going online, and support them to design solutions. 

This year, Vanuatu released their National Cyber Security Strategy 2030, a landmark document designed to strengthen national security and address cyber-threats to the country. While the strategy is comprehensive in addressing external security threats, such as phishing attacks, malware and hate speech, there is little focus on the internal threats happening within communities in Vanuatu and in particular for women.

Globally, online abuse and discrimination against women and girls is increasing, a fact that is particularly true for women of colour and those from LGBTQIA+ and other marginalised communities. As the COVID crisis forces the world to rely on the internet more than ever for work, education, social and political engagement, the need for safe and empowering digital spaces is more crucial than ever in enabling women to meaningfully participate in society.

On top of this, the gender gap in internet users in Asia and the Pacific is growing. In 6 years, the gap between male and female internet users has increased from 17 to 24%, only further decreasing opportunities for women to earn, learn and be heard. 

The team were faced with an interesting design challenge:

How can we deliver in-person workshops required for this project, with a travel ban in place?

With the help of ABC International Development, and partner organisations CARE (Vanuatu) and Talitha Project Tonga, we recruited two incredible in-country facilitators, with expert knowledge and lived experience of working within their respective communities. Yasmine Bjornum and Aiona Prescott worked alongside Portable’s Design Strategists, Celia Delaney and Joanne Osbourne-Taylor and Portable Producer Libby de Souza. Together we designed and prepared the co-design sessions for Yasmine and Aiona  to then run independently with their own chosen team of co-facilitators. 

Yasmine Bjornum

Yasmin is a writer and women’s rights activist. Born and raised in Vanuatu, Yasmine is the founder and Executive Director of Sista, a charitable association for women and girls. Sista uses arts, media and communications to empower, inform and advocate on issues affecting Ni-Vanuatu women and girls.

Aiona Prescott

Aiona is a youth worker and talented dancer. In 2016, she was awarded the Queen’s Young Leaders Award for her work with Icon Creative Tonga, which uses the arts to help at-risk young people to build their confidence and learn new skills. 

Running the Girls Online project

None of this came without its challenges. From unreliable internet connections to extreme weather conditions, the teams in Vanuatu and Tonga worked through each challenge to deliver a series of workshops that not only uncovered some compelling insights including themes of lateral bullying, image based abuse, and discriminatory support networks, they also gave young women an opportunity to finally share their own experiences and find solidarity in the stories of others. 

In a second round of workshops, participants worked together to co-design media solutions for spreading awareness within communities of the threats young women face online, strategies for overcoming challenging situations, and tips for setting healthy and respectful boundaries. These solutions were synthesised alongside the previous insights, assessed for risks by the design team and reported back to ABCID as briefs ready for production.

What did we learn?

While there is no replacement for getting on a plane to our friends in the Pacific, there is so much value in forging true partnerships with people who are a part of, and therefore deeply understand, the community you are designing with. With  Yasmine and Aiona crucial input, we were able to design sessions that were not only culturally safe, but relevant and engaging for young women in Vanuatu and Tonga. Having them as part of the team, sense checking our synthesis throughout the process, helped us understand not only what was happening at an immediate level, but the wider systemic issues influencing these insights. 

Through partnering with locally based facilitators we were also able to disrupt the power dynamics which so often exist in design projects which see internationally-based facilitators, from other countries, fly in and then out of local contexts.

In Vanuatu, this work is the first of its kind. An honest and truthful report of the challenging reality for many women throughout the country. While there is much to be done, we believe this is a positive step forward in ensuring the voices and experiences of women are heard and acted upon.

We are so excited to see the next phase of this project happening now, as ABC International Development works with in-country partners to move these ideas into production.

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