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  • Writer's pictureManushya Foundation

WHRDs in the Digital Space: Realities & Solutions to Speak Truth to Power Freely!

BANGKOK, Thailand - On 25 March 2021, the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship led by ALTSEAN Burma, Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR), ELSAM, Manushya Foundation, PEN Myanmar, and SAFEnet, hosted a live webinar “Women Human Rights Defenders in the Digital Space: Realities & Solutions to Speak Truth to Power Freely” as a part of our regional effort to bring together ASEAN community in order to amplify our voices on the digital rights-related issues on the ground and to build momentum in the fight against rising digital dictatorship by governments in the region.

The webinar was also taking place as part of Women's History Month and the NGO CSW65 Forum. Inspiring Women Human Rights Defenders and Activists from Southeast Asia have shared with us the challenges they’ve faced online and how they found a way to fight back, resist and respond to it. Our conversation was rich and provoking, touching on the cyberbullying and online harassment each of the speakers had to face due to their human rights advocacy work, their gender identity and sexual orientation.

Moderated by Debbie Stothard, Founder & Coordinator of ALTSEAN-Burma, the conversation allowed us to hear the voices of inspiring women who have been working on the ground and are bravely and proudly speaking truth to power, including:

  • Sopheap Chak, Executive Director, Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR)

  • Nada Chaiyajit, Transgender Rights Activist & Human Rights Campaign Advisor, Manushya Foundation

  • Tin Tin Nyo, Managing Director of Burma News International (BNI)

  • Nicole Fong, LGBTIQ+ Activist

  • Ellie Glino, Asia Security Lead of Access Now 24/7 Helpline

Members of the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship also joined to provide their insight, and showed their solidarity to the struggle shared by women human rights defenders not only just in the region but worldwide. They included:

  • Blandina Lintang Setiani, Researcher, ELSAM

  • Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel, Access Now

Watch the LIVE WEBINAR on our YouTube Channel:


Part 1: Lived Experience of Online harassment, Disinformation, & Hate Speech against WHRDs

Cambodia's Culture of Victim-Blaming Online: Sopheap Chak, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)

Sopheap Chak started the conversation by sharing her own experience of a truly nasty online harassment she had faced. Sopheap has been vocal in her criticism of the Public Order Law, new draft law in Cambodia which would prevent women from wearing ‘sexy’ and ‘revealing’ clothes. This new law was clearly rooted in the conservative and misogynistic mindset, rampant in Southeast Asia. Thus, due to her advocacy against the new law, she was subjected to very negative comments online and cyberbullying; some even went as far as spreading edited pictures of her face on a naked body around the internet to humiliate her.

Sopheap was not the only one to be exposed to this type of online harassment, but it was also the case for so many women human rights defenders who were vocal in their works especially those who used the digital space to advocate and fight for their causes. Sopheap stressed on the importance of acknowledging online harassment as one of the most critical risks WHRDs have to face for being at the frontline of the human rights response. It does have a huge impact on WHRDs’ mental health, and this needs attention and effective response.

Sopheap Chak, Executive Director of Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR)

“Sex and advocacy against the mainstream ideas is an unpopular advocacy, we know that. Because when it comes to the culture and women dignity people are really subjective, but we will continue to fight because if we stop fighting now, the next generation will suffer more”

Transphobic Hate Speech & Online Harassment: Nada Chaiyajit, Transgender Rights Activist & Human Rights Campaign Advisor, Manushya Foundation

After a strong and emotional opening by Sopheap, Nada Chaiyajit, Lawyer and Transgender Rights Activist also shared her own experience of online harassment. Nada was working on a case of a transgender teen who was harassed by a journalist for a news scoop which led to her also being harassed and threatened by the same journalist to drop the case. She had to face death threats and transphobic hate speech from the journalist. He did not just target her work but also her gender identity, calling her “you faggots” and threatening her with “when would you all go extinct, you buffaloes?”.

The online harassment was, again, similar to what Sopheap had experienced, not only targeting Nada’s human rights and advocacy work, but it also tailored specifically to attack her on her gender identity. It is evident that the cyberbullying and online hate speech Nada and Sopheap had experienced was clearly gender-based.

Nada also underlined the mental health impact such harassment could have on a person, citing her own experiences which caused her mental health to deteriorate and she is still deeply affected until now. She further stressed that as the impact of online harassment was far-reaching and could affect several aspects of a person's life; WHRDs at the frontline who are the most vulnerable and often the targets of such harassment, should receive digital literacy training. These training would equip them with the knowledge to respond to online harassment and protect their mental health. The training should also include all the necessary knowledge such as an online complaint/reporting process on each social media platform, and the legal process when filing an online harassment case to the police. The training would empower women human rights defenders to fight back against the threats and harassment they’ve received!

Nada Chaiyajit, Transgender Rights Activist & Human Rights Campaign Advisor, Manushya Foundation

“When we receive this kind of death threat it impacts our mental state, it is really difficult to carry on. It is really important to gather as much evidence and information as possible. What we need to understand is that we need to make sure that we have skills in digital literacy to make sure to fight back in this digital world”

Weaponizing Women’s Bodies to Take Revenge Online: Tin Tin Nyo, Managing Director of BNI Multimedia Group

Tin Tin Nyo provided us with the real situation on the ground from Myanmar where, as she stated, the situation has worsened for everyone since the military coup on February 1, 2021. She stressed the situation is even worse for women who are the most vulnerable group, this also included WHRDs in Myanmar. Tin Tin Nyo further explained that the reason women in Myanmar were the most vulnerable group when it came to online harassment and/or digital rights related issues was due to the fact that they lacked knowledge in digital literacy and ICT skills especially compared to men. This was, of course, not because women didn’t care to learn, but in a developing country like Myanmar, women were simply the ones who are left behind in almost all aspects of life.

“When it comes to the access to digital and ICT, many women are left behind and are illiterate, so they do not have any information on what they need to avoid, what they can post, who they can trust... Why men have more advantages? This I why women are most vulnerable even if there are WHRD. They are still left behind regarding ICT skills”

Furthermore, WHRDs in Myanmar have to combat “fake news” disinformation created around their human rights and advocacy work to destroy their imageand their personal reputation. Tin Tin Nyo mentioned that the increased use of ‘fake news’ was worrying since the majority of people would “believe in anything”.

Tin Tin Nyo also raised a very thought-provoking question when she mentioned how some Myanmar people threatened to fight back the military by releasing pornographic videos of their mothers, sisters, wives, and daughters. Although she agrees on the importance of fighting back the military using the digital space, Tin Tin Nyo highly disagrees with the strategy proposed as it would violate women’s privacy and women’s rights over their bodies. She questioned:

Tin Tin Nyo, Managing Director of BNI Multimedia Group

“Why does a way to threaten men seem to be through hurting women? Why must women pay for a bad deed committed by men? Why is it that women’s gender is used as a tool to humiliate her and other men?”

Online Attacks & Online Harassment against LGBTIQ+ Advocacy: Nicole Fong, LGBTIQ+ Activist

Being an LGBTIQ+ activist in a conservative country with heavy religious belief like Malaysia, Nicole has faced online harassment from religious groups. Nicole told us that Islamic NGOs in Malaysia filed police reports against her for the infographics she created and shared online to denounce the conversion therapy targeting LGBTIQ+ people. Her infographic went viral and that angered many conservative and religious people in the country.

Other than the police reports, many trolls also harassed her on her personal social media account. Nicole stated that she received many anti-LGBT threats via her Twitter account. Some of the threats even borderline sexual assaults, using harsh and explicit language and telling her that she was “asking for it”. Nicole said that she did try to report the harassment to the police but unfortunately, the police were very slow to respond and to investigate. She also tried to report all the online harassment to Twitter but the platform did not take any action.

The harassment she faced has left a lasting impact on her. Nicole relied on social media for her advocacy work but now, whenever she wants to speak out, she wonders “who is going to file a police report against me this time?”

Nicole also addressed the conflict between religious belief and sexual orientation with this simple but haunting and thought-provoking question:

Nicole Fong, LGBTIQ+ Activist

“Is it because I’m a woman, I’m queer, I’m not a Muslim?”

Indeed, how can her gender and sexual orientation disqualify her from belonging to the Muslim community? Only her, and her alone, can decide for herself.

Part 2: How can we fight back? Practical solutions on how to respond to online harassment and speak Truth to Power Freely

In the second half of the conversation, our three commentators joined in to provide their comments and offered practical solutions plus tricks and tips they gathered from their own experience to fight back against online harassment.

Need for Mental Health Support & the Important Role Tech Companies shall Play in further mitigating risks of attacks & sexual harassment faced by Women online

Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel, Access Now

As for Dhevy, she chose not to go online and engage with the harassers as a way of dealing with threats and online harassment. Dhevy agreed with all speakers that the impact on mental health was very real, stating that online harassment could affect women deeply and mental health support should be provided to those who had experienced harassment.

According to Dhevy, social media platforms could play a big part in mitigating and responding to online harassment. However, there are no clear gender-specific guidelines to protect women and LGBTIQ+ people. There is a lack of clear leadership from companies such as Facebook or Twitter to protect women online.

Dhevy Sivaprakasam, Asia Pacific Policy Counsel, Access Now

“They (social media platforms and tech companies) need to step up their game and protect women online, from harassment, discrimination, and threats.

Blandina Lintang Setiani, Researcher, ELSAM

Blandina’s comment echoed the painful observation raised by Tin Tin Nyo earlier; for many, their identities as women were turned against them by their harassers. Especially for WHRDs, the people who harassed them didn’t even care to attack them based on their work and opinion, instead choosing to use their gender as an insult, as a weapon to hurt them. It is degrading and it renders their importance and what they’ve accomplished to just their gender identity.

Social media platforms’ accountability was questioned by Blandina. She made an interesting observation that most social media platforms are run by male-dominated companies which resulted in a biased approach to technology itself. As a result, many social media platforms took way too long to respond when they received complaints or critics about online Gender-Based Violence (GBV). The long and complicated complaint process was not designed to best help victims of harassment. Women in Asian countries also faced further obstacles from language barriers as English wasn’t their native language.

Blandina Lintang Setiani, Researcher, ELSAM

“The online gender-based violence no longer focuses on attacking the point of view of women but on the individual as a person. Trolls target women's right to privacy as they attack their gender identity of being a woman or their sexual orientation."

Protecting our Online Privacy is a MUST to avoid online harassment

Ellie Glino, Asia Security Lead of Access Now 24/7 Helpline

As the Security Lead of Access Now helpline, Ellie has assisted many civil society organizations and human rights defenders in responding to online harassment. From her experience, Ellie stated that online harassment was a prominent threat on the digital space especially in the South East Asia region. Acknowledging this, she offered advice on how to respond and report online harassment. The first and the most important step is to document what happened; either getting a screenshot of comments, or usernames or even URLs of the sites. Evidence is crucial when filing a complaint on online harassment because if we don’t have any proof of online harassment, it is very likely that the complaint won’t be addressed nor investigated.

Privacy is also crucial when it comes to protecting ourselves from online harassment. From her experiences, Ellie indicated that the harassers would try to gather as much information as they could on their targets so they could use it to threaten them; be it personal information like their address, workplace, family members. The harassers would use personal information to make their targets feel unsafe. Some would even try to hack their targets’ personal social media accounts. In order to prevent this, strong password and two-steps verification to our online accounts are a must.

Ellie Glino, Asia Security Lead of Access Now 24/7 Helpline

“Often times the result of online harassment is a threat to your physical safety and well-being, it is not only about physical being but also psychosocial well-being…(in order to protect yourself) Privacy is also crucial. You need to restrict the information about you online”


Debbie Stothard, Founder & Coordinator of ALTSEAN-Burma

In her closing remarks, Debbie, our moderator, emphasized on the importance of effectively responding to online harassment; namely, the acknowledgement that online harassment is a crime and should be treated as such! Social media platforms, the police, and even those around people who were harassed online need to take online harassment seriously and acknowledge the far-reaching impact it had on the harassed.

Moreover, everyone needs to recognize that trauma from online criminal intimidation, cyberbullying especially against WHRDs and LGBTIQ+ women is very real. It isolates them from their peers and family. It makes them fear as though they are fighting everything alone but Debbie also reminded everyone that they are not alone, that there are solidarity and support to be found among them and women everywhere.

“You are not alone...the worst thing you can feel is feel alone and feel scared, not just for yourself but for others”

Debbie stressed that trauma from online harassment It also requires health professionals to acknowledge it and treat it seriously , it requires massive amounts of solidarity and support, it requires policies to tackle it and it requires all of us to hold tech companies accountable!

Debbie Stothard, Founder & Coordinator of ALTSEAN-Burma

“Our democratic space, our civic space are becoming increasingly oppressed, not just in Cambodia but also in Myanmar, Thailand, Indonesia or elsewhere, or Malaysia. We want all the stakeholders in the world to take this more seriously, that online criminal intimidation is still a crime and should be treated as such especially when this is a serious and prevalent form of violence against women.”

With the closing remark from Debbie, we successfully concluded our webinar with the feeling of encouragement and hope. Many valuable inputs provided by our speakers gave us guidelines on the next step we could take to protect WHRDs and women everywhere in the digital space. And sincere experiences shared by our speakers gave us the feeling of solidarity, them bravely sharing with us what they have gone through reminded everyone that we are not alone in our fight and that we will always have people who will continue to stand by and fight with us no matter what.

We would like to thank all the leading women human rights defenders for joining us and giving us their invaluable input and experiences from the digital space of countries in the South East Asia region. We are so grateful for our participants from all over the world who joined in the conversation. All of the support from our speakers and our participants doesn’t only make this webinar possible but the support also keeps our collaboration of ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship going and we are endlessly grateful for that. Finally, we would like to thank Access Now and the German Federal Foreign Office whose guidance and financial support made this webinar a reality and the vital work of the ASEAN Regional Coalition to #StopDigitalDictatorship can continue.


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