On a typically brisk winter evening in Saket, South Delhi, Jyoti Singh and a male friend enjoyed a trip to the movies to watch Ang Lee’s Life of Pi.
Heading home afterwards they waited at a bus stop, and then boarded a private bus bound for Dwarka at around 9.30pm. But Jyoti didn’t make it home. Six men brutally gang-raped and tortured her while her friend was beaten. On December 29 2012, after fighting for her life for 13 days, Jyoti Singh died.
The savage murder of this young woman sent shockwaves throughout India. Thousands of protestors took to the streets across India and South Asia, as anger erupted in every corner of the country and spilled out across the world.
To many, it felt different this time, as if Jyoti’s cruel fate could spark meaningful cultural and legal change, as if perhaps the country was reckoning with the fact that India’s traditionalism and inherent values weren’t enough to keep its citizens safe. Young women were especially concerned; many had experienced enough harassment to recognize that Jyoti’s fate could have easily been a friend’s, a sister’s, their own.
Once-silenced voices began to make themselves heard. Nascent citizen journalism made use of the internet and social media to collect and disseminate information, opening up a new space for survivors and allies to express their thoughts and unleash their despair, and exposing a swelling tumor of discontent and outrage to the world. ‘Nirbhaya’, the internet screamed out in pain for Jyoti, meaning ‘fearless one’ in Hindi, a word which quickly became synonymous with the movement itself.
But speaking out on these issues is a tough decision, one that takes substantial courage; the desperation for change and justice can outweigh the fear and eclipse the risk, but there is no denying it can change your life, and put a target on your back.
It changed the life of journalist Meera Vijayann, herself a survivor of sexual violence. Meera says in a 2013 TEDx talk that December 29 was a day that India “plunged into darkness”, as people across the country woke up to the “horrific truth” about the treatment of women in the country. As protests spread to where Meera was living in Bangalore, she made a spontaneous decision. Logging onto a citizen journalism platform, Meera recorded and posted a video of the scene in her city and aired her frustrations and concerns. “I realized, for the first time, that my voice mattered”, she asserts in the talk.
There were, of course, risks associated with speaking up. She received hateful comments and online abuse. I asked Meera if she thought the option to report or even just to access support anonymously would encourage survivors to speak up and reach out for the assistance they need. “As a survivor myself, I’ve thought about it a lot,” she tells me.
I stayed silent for many years because I knew that there’d be consequences when I talked in public.
“I decided to do so because I knew that I had supportive family and friends. So yes, personal stories can put survivors of violence and their families at risk. I think the option to report on violence anonymously will definitely encourage women to speak up (especially when they are at-risk or marginalized), but it does make a huge difference when women share their stories publicly.”
Reporting and documenting sexual violence
If the internet democratizes information, blockchain goes some way toward safeguarding it. Not every survivor seeking access to justice and support wants to be the latest poster child for rape victims in the media. Nobody is obligated to speak up before they are ready or even at all, particular in cultures in which stigmatization is more prevalent. So how do we ensure that survivors aren’t facing a choice between waiving anonymity or waiving access to support and justice?
Smashboard, ‘your digital ally to smash patriarchy’, is an app that utilizes the Ethereum Blockchain to create an encrypted space for survivors in India to report sexual violence. Smashboard users are able to obtain medical, legal, or psychological support, and store information such as photos, video and audio files, screenshots and documents as time-stamped evidence that could prove crucial to a case.
As the Smashboard website puts it, “fighting the patriarchy is real and risky labor – and tech can simplify a lot of this work”. As well as helping survivors of sexual violence access justice and support through connections with legal representatives, emotional and psychological support, and offering the ability to create an immutable record of evidential material, Smashboard can connect users with feminist journalists sensitive to their stories — and enables them to leave anonymous tips, without having to make the difficult choice to speak up publicly.
Choose your anonymity?
Founder Noopur Tiwari, a survivor of sexual violence herself, is a strong believer that while survivors speaking out is an essential part of empowering others to do the same, pushing people to report or speak out particularly before they are ready can be retraumatizing. The app provides an element of ‘choose your own anonymity’ by implementing a blockchain solution alongside a wealth of additional features.
“Smashboard’s implementation is heavily geared towards zero knowledge proof,” says Noopur. “That, for us, is paramount so that users can remain anonymous for as long as they need to, and still manage to access all the features that they want to access. We also felt that the system needed a way to indisputably link anonymized artefacts to a given user at any point, irrespective of whether they have chosen to remain pseudo-anonymous or not. And blockchain allows you to do that – it affords users the secure comfort that they need.”
The pseudo-anonymity that a blockchain solution delivers was a crucial element for Noopur. “I have been through the ups and downs, the insecurities of reaching out and asking for help. the primary thing that you’re afraid of is that you will lose your agency,” she explains. “You want to control the way in which you’re reaching out. Sometimes you don’t have the energy to even ask for help. So how do we reduce the effort that the survivor has to make to tell their story and be able to speak? Just that little comfort of pseudo-anonymity can go a long, long way in helping survivors.”
For Noopur, there is another value proposition of blockchain that is more ideological than technological. She explains: “We found that the disruptive nature of blockchain could actually find a synergy with feminist values. The whole idea of decentralization at the center of blockchain is something that appeals to us, because patriarchy is something that functions due to misuse of power, and the centralization of power. So the disruption of centralized networks is something which appealed to us as feminists.”
Decentralization as a feminist doctrine
The idea of blockchain and decentralization as a feminist doctrine is tinged with a modicum of irony. Noopur isn’t the first woman in the space to allude to blockchain’s ‘tech bro’ trouble, with men disproportionately representing the industry when it comes to high level positions, speaking gigs, and investment.
Noopur very clearly asserts Smashboard’s rejection of such a culture, giving an account of how Smashboard’s original project fell to pieces as a result of a collaboration with the wrong people. “We tried to work with the tech bros,” Noopur tells me. “If they thought that our project was something that deserved their labor, we thought, why not?”
But the collaboration was ill-fated, and short-lived. She continues: “It turned out that the way in which they function, the way in which they communicated was terrible for us. It was almost traumatic. They were behaving in ways that were extremely patriarchal. In the end, we had to stop working with them, and we lost all our code for the first app. Our entire project was ready to go online, and on the day we planned to launch, our collaboration with those tech bros fell apart – the way in which they were behaving was just not acceptable to us as feminists.
“We begged them to give us the work that they had done with our labor for a long time, and we didn’t succeed. So we started from scratch, and this time, we decided not to work with tech bros. And obviously it’s more difficult, because there are more men who know the technology.” Building a digital feminist community that centers survivors and their needs is at the core of Smashboard’s ethos, and that means doing things differently, and a little more slowly, than your average crypto start-up.
“We’ve had enough of misogyny online,” Noopur tells me.
We want to build trust, we want to be able to actually show that it is easily possible to not punish people that have marginalized identities in the digital space.
“It’s the people who are behind those digital spaces or who are helping that digital space exist that needs to work on feminist principles.” One of the ways Smashboard is achieving that goal is by building a business model that does not rely on harvesting data that could be lost, hacked, or eventually sold.
Taking into account Smashboard’s commitment to holding space and centering the needs of survivors, I asked Noopur how the project tackles the challenge of trust – many users would presumably be unaware of how the underpinning technology that affords them pseudo-anyonymity works, and therefore may be apprehensive about sharing sensitive information.
Noopur is pragmatic; Smashboard isn’t taking on the task of erasing sexual violence, nor does it aim to help every single survivor. The ‘strength in numbers’ benefits of citizen journalism translate to the building of a robust digital community, and Smashboard’s approach, rather than setting about the impossible task of reaching out to every potential user of the app to convince them and explain the technology, is to build a community of feminist influencers whom survivors independently advocate for the platform and the trustworthiness of the blockchain element.
Smashboard is just one way that survivors of sexual violence in India can make other survivors’ lives a little easier, and help them move forward without being needlessly retraumatized.
Tech solutions to societal problems?
Niki Kandirikirira, Director of Programs at Equality Now, a charitable organization that works to end sexual violence, recognizes the potential benefits of Smashboard while acknowledging the wider social change needed to make a difference on a macro level. She tells me:
India’s criminal justice system has largely failed survivors of sexual violence. It’s estimated that over 90 percent of rape cases go unreported, with stigma, pressure from family members to remain silent, and victim-blaming all rife.
“Even when cases do make it to court, conviction rates for crimes against women are abysmally low and it is extremely hard for victims to obtain justice, particularly if they are from marginalized communities.”
“Investments in tech like Smashboard offer opportunities for feminists to connect and for survivors to tap into support systems, store evidence safely and, hopefully, improve their access to justice. But, of course, what we ultimately need to invest in, is effective legal responses that put an end to impunity and deter men from raping and violating women and girls. In India, most perpetrators of sexual assault are not held to account for their actions and are able to act with impunity. The government needs to do much more to improve the criminal justice system, including better implementation of existing laws and reform of procedures, and ensuring more funding goes to address gender-based violence.”
Of course, these issues are not unique to India, and the current COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating and intensifying physical and sexual violence against women and girls globally. Quoted in a press release from UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the organization’s Executive Director, says: “Since lockdown restrictions, domestic violence has multiplied, spreading across the world in a shadow pandemic. This is a critical time for action, from prioritizing essential services like shelter and support for women survivors, to providing the economic support and stimulus packages needed for broader recovery.”
LACChain, a regional program from IDB Lab, the innovation laboratory of IDB Group, an organization focused on improving lives in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), has taken aim at the issue in a different way, looking to blockchain for the solution in the form of the BlockchAngel challenge.
“Through BlockchAngel, we are looking for blockchain solutions to stop violence against women, children and the elderly,” explains Itzel Nava Valdez, Organization Coordinator at LACChain. The challenge, organized by IDB Lab, LACChain, and non-profit Everis Foundation, has closed for entries, and an eventual winner will enjoy ‘free, open and preferential access to the infrastructures promoted by LACChain’, and support from IDB to obtain funding.
Itzel continues: “The challenge can involve entrepreneurs, companies, startups, NGOs, or foundations, which can present their proposals either individually or in consortia. The projects can be in prototype phase, or in a more advanced stage of development.” While this challenge is currently focused on solutions for LAC, there could be scope to expand its reach or for the projects themselves to cast their nets wider. Itzel continues: “We believe there are [solutions among those submitted to BlockchAngel] which could be adapted to other countries. The issue is whether or not [the solutions] comply with other legal jurisdictions.”
Other blockchain-based initiatives for women in crisis
UN Women itself is no stranger to exploring the applications of blockchain technology to improve the lives of women in crisis situations.
The organization has previously identified cash transfers using blockchain to boost financial inclusion among women as a way to utilize the technology in a humanitarian setting, partnering with the World Food Program (WFP) to trial an interagency blockchain project, ‘Building Blocks’. The pilot focused on Syrian refugee women in the Azraq and Zaatari camps in Jordan, and a case study on the project describes a potential use-case: “A Syrian woman will soon be able to scan her eye to request cash back at WFP-contracted supermarkets. The scan will link to her account on the blockchain, and the amount of cash dispensed will automatically be sent to Building Blocks.”
The fact that UN Women and WFP validate each other’s transactions through a common blockchain network results in improved security and accountability. This reduces risks and costs, while promoting the increased harmonization of aid efforts.
Additional toes dipped into blockchain’s waters by UN Women include a four-day hackathon in January 2018, during which seven blockchain companies presented humanitarian solutions to participants from UN agencies, permanent missions to the UN, tech communities, humanitarian workers and academic researchers. The strongest of those pitches were invited to submit proposals for field testing. Further to this, a blockchain mobile wallet solution was developed by a private sector partner of UN Women, and was piloted in Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp. The challenges with these pilot projects and hackathons may be in growing promising seedlings into scalable, adaptable programs.
The most dangerous place on Earth to be a woman
Violence against women and girls and sexual violence in particular may not be confined within India’s borders, but there are unique challenges in a country such as India with conservative laws and values, an oppressive caste system, and a number of archaic laws that punish women and girls disproportionately.
It’s true that the violent rape and murder of Jyoti Singh and the outrage and protests that followed marked a shift in public perception, but the passage of time means momentum can fade. We’re all guilty of it; think of every news headline that has filled you with white hot rage, caused tears to sting your eyes, induced a sickened feeling in the pit in your stomach. Eventually, the cases fade from chyrons, the raw wounds scab over, and the mundanity of everyday life engulfs us.
India is still the most dangerous place on Earth to be a woman. Reporting of sexual violence is estimated to be as low as 1 percent, which may be partly due to the fact that marital rape continues to be legal across the country, with one in three men admitting to raping their wives.
Nirbhaya, #MeToo, these movements went some way toward challenging taboos, but the ephemeral fury of an inflammatory news item or the fleeting engagement of a social media post just don’t endure.
Just like Noopur Tiwari’s acknowledgement that projects like Smashboard won’t change the world or eradicate sexual violence and the culturally-ingrained issues and belief structures that allow it to thrive, we can acknowledge blockchain’s limitations as a tool for humanitarian aid as well. Intentions aren’t always pure, risks aren’t always fully considered, and shoehorning in blockchain-as-a-buzzword for its headline grabbing clout leaves a bad taste in the mouths of those fighting for real change.
However, sometimes it’s worth looking at the smaller picture; these solutions do have the capacity to change the entire world. For an individual.