In 2016, Digital Rights Foundation (DRF) launched Pakistan's first helpline for people facing online harassment. DRF shared with IFEX what sparked the campaign, some of the challenges they faced in developing the project, and what transferrable lessons they learned for similar future campaigns.
The idea grew from DRF's work on Hamara Internet ('Our Internet'), an initiative to train young women in digital security and empower them to reclaim online spaces for themselves. Many women told DRF they had experienced sustained harassment, but were afraid of not being taken seriously if they brought their experience to Pakistani law enforcement. Those who had done so often said they had been shamed or blamed for their experience.
On the side of law enforcement, agencies reported having received over 400 reports of cyber harassment in 2015/2016, and that they wished to address these crimes, but they were often slow to respond, and lacked expertise in the technologies involved and speaking with victims.
Now, from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, seven days a week, DRF's Cyber Harassment Helpline is open to calls from those experiencing online harassment. Although aimed at young women, 37% of callers have proved to be men – though many of them are calling on behalf of family members and friends.
- How to provide secure, anonymous counseling that cannot easily be linked with callers? A culture of intense scrutiny and shaming is a major reason for the Helpline's existence, but poses particular challenges for protecting helpline callers. Many women do not feel comfortable sharing their experiences for fear that it could lead to further harassment.
- How to connect the helpline with those who need it? There is an issue of outreach to far-flung areas where women are most vulnerable and need urgent service.
- What relationship to strike with government? The slow and inadequate response of Pakistan's government and law enforcement agencies had led to the creation of the helpline – how should the helpline engage with them?
- Protecting the privacy and confidentiality of callers needs to be the first priority. At DRF's Cyber Harassment helpline, calls are not recorded, no answering machine is used, and callers are treated anonymously unless they prefer otherwise. Soundproof rooms separate from DRF's main office are maintained for the calls, and only helpline staff are allowed inside them. While sometimes challenging, these precautions are necessary to build and sustain trust with their clients. DRF maintains a policy document that defines the goals and terms of the helpline, procedure in different situations, and how clients are to be handled and protected.
DRF always advocates for the right to privacy and data privacy - but for women and vulnerable communities, privacy is particularly important to avoid endangering their personal safety.
- Have scaleable plans in place to handle the potential volume of calls. When DRF started the helpline they knew that demand could be high, but the volume of calls – almost 100 in the first month, and 160 the month after – still surprised them. The helpline rapidly added more staff, and is considering acquiring a separate space with improved soundproofing. Having plans in place that can adjust to a range of possible requirements of staff time and resources pre-launch will best enable a smooth and stable response to increasing demand.
- Frontline harassment support requires an emotional budget. While DRF had accounted for the physical and policy needs of the helpline, it soon became clear that psychological support of staff was also important after particularly difficult calls. Making time and space for decompression and emotional support has proved important to sustain the work.
Although we're critical of the FIA and the police, there are individuals there who want to help, and will hear us out, despite their brush and blunt approach at times. We understand that is a genuine problem of capacity with the FIA that can only be addressed at the policy-making level.
- Positive lines of communication with government can help. DRF staff have worked with the Federal Investigation Agency to refer cases to them and supplement their services by providing psychological and gender-sensitive services that the FIA currently lacks. Helpline staff also support their clients around what kind of information they'll need to provide to file a case.
- Word of mouth is the most powerful form of promotion. While DRF secured print and television coverage of the launch of the helpline in several Pakistani news outlets, it was strong word of mouth between users of the helpline that has largely picked up and sustained its outreach since.
We have gotten multiple calls from friends and families of previous callers raising their own problems with us. We pride ourselves in providing empathetic services to our callers, and hope that they recognise the value in our approach when recommending us.
The popularity of the helpline has already led to the expansion of services from five to seven days a week, and the active recruitment of additional staff.
Possible plans for the future include starting new helpline sites better able to serve areas away from Lahore, where the helpline is currently based. The Helpline is expanding its referral network to provide better services on the ground through its partners and existing structures.
The Helpline complements the other work that DRF is undertaking. Our awareness workshops have become more robust because participants now walk away with a resource to contact once the training is over. Our advocacy has become stronger because now we can back up our claims about harassment through concrete figures and experiences.
Nighat Dad, Executive Director of DRF
For more detailed information about the Cyber Harassment Helpline, please see Digital Rights Foundation's six-month evaluation report, released in July 2017.