Ending gender-based violence can't be done through the legal system alone. Rape culture and misogyny need to be addressed using a holistic approach, according to the global youth-led organization Awareness 360.
Co-founded by Global Citizen Water and Sanitation advocate Shomy Hasan Chowdhury, and Youth Activist Rijve Arefin, Awareness 360 empowers young people in 23 countries to work on community service projects that support the United Nations’ Global Goals. When rape incidents spiked in Bangladesh in October 2020 and several gang rape cases sparked outrage in the country, the organization wanted to bring together young people and stakeholders to find a solution.
That was the idea behind “Awareness 360 Virtual Hackathon: Dismantling Gender-Based Violence,” born in the spirit of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence. Fifty Bangladeshi universities broke into teams with the organization to brainstorm and attend education sessions on how to tackle the root causes of rape over the course of four days in December 2020.
“We wanted to bridge the gap between the government bodies and the young people because young people have fresh ideas and they are the ones who are aware of the problems that they have,” Chowdhury told Global Citizen ahead of the hackathon. “They grew up in a patriarchal society.”
At the end of the hackathon, every student received a certificate of participation, but four winning teams walked away with a 10,000 Bangladeshi taka (around $470 USD) seed fund and support systems to make their projects a reality.
Speakers offered up tools and advice for students to take their ideas to policymakers and government representatives to discuss actionable next steps.
Awareness 360 held workshops for the students that touched on how education, law and enforcement, media, and cybersecurity all contribute to gender-based violence.
Sex education is completely lacking in Bangladesh’s schools, Chowdhury explained, and might attribute to widespread patriarchal and misogynistic mindsets that motivate acts of gender-based violence.
Over 70% of married women or girls surveyed by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics said their partner had physically assaulted them in 2015. Divorce is highly stigmatized and women who leave their marriages often struggle to survive because they don’t receive support or respect, Chowdhury said.
Community-based women’s groups that work with the organization BRAC reported a 24% rise in gender-based violence incidents in 2020 compared to 2019, and as many as four cases were reported a day in October 2020. More teenage girls are also being forced to enter child marriages during the COVID-19 pandemic as families see it as a way to alleviate financial burdens, putting girls at an even greater risk.
Many women in Bangladesh do not report incidents of violence because they fear retaliation, are ashamed, and law enforcement usually does not respond properly. Between January and September 2020, 397 women died as a result of domestic and sexual violence but only 208 cases were filed. The number of gender-based violence cases is likely much higher.
While the Bangladeshi government introduced measures to use the death penalty as rape punishment following the protests in October 2020, advocates pushed back on the announcement.
“This is not really what the protesters were protesting for because ultimately when there’s a death penalty, most of the time there is victim-blaming and the victims are too shy and afraid to actually speak out and talk about what happened to them,” Chowdhury said. “Now that there is a death penalty they would feel even more restricted.”
The hackathon served as an opportunity to think beyond criminalization to help stop gender-based violence.
The portrayal of sexual assault survivors and victims in the media and the objectification of women in film, television, and music also made it onto the agenda.
What’s more, Awareness 360 thought it was critical to highlight online safety. Women and girls of the current generation are facing more threats, social media blackmail, and abusive comments online, but not much is being done about it, Chowdhury said.
“When we talk about gender-based violence, it's not just about physical force — it can even be emotional,” she added. “A lot of times it starts online and then it goes offline, and it's very important that cyberspace is safe for girls and women.”
The hackathon’s winning teams’ ideas varied in approaches and strategies.
The Project Ekotanteam wants to build a harmonious society free of gender-based violence by implementing a TV ad campaign, putting on educational theatrical shows, creating an online platform for survivors’ stories, and launching an animated series. Another team known as Mind Is the Power hopes to recruit mentors to teach children about sexual abuse and design a safety watch that can be used to call for help if they’re in a dangerous situation.
Team Project Shahajjo envisions a mobile application that can serve as an emergency hotline and makes it easy to contact the media and the authorities about a gender-based violence incident. Meanwhile, team App Equity would offer resources such as martial arts registration tools and an emergency button for use on public buses, where Bangladeshi women often face harassment.
Awareness 360 put together a task force made up of decision-makers and young people who plan to follow up on commitments made during the hackathon. Depending on the rollout of the pilot projects, winning teams will form a task force with government and partner representatives to provide support, mentorship, funding, networking opportunities, and the resources to scale up the projects.
The organization hopes the hackathon has the potential to grow and be replicated across different countries.
“We don't want it to be a one-off event where people come together,” Chowdhury said. “We actually want this to be the beginning of something bigger.”