Fostering a Feminist Internet: Insights from Pada Platform’s Founder

In our latest conversation, we shine a spotlight on the journey of Karen Mukwasi, our community member from Zimbabwe, and her organisation’s remarkable efforts in promoting digital inclusion and women’s rights. Through her relentless efforts with Pada Platform, she exemplifies the potential of grassroots movements to build a feminist Internet. Delve into Karen’s story to understand the challenges, successes, and aspirations shaping the future of digital empowerment in her region.


DIGRA: Hi Karen, thanks so much for joining us and being willing to share your story with us. It has been a year since your participation in the Digital Rights Learning Exchange Program, and we are eager to hear what you have been up to since then. But first, let’s talk about your organisation and your personal journey into becoming a filmmaker, writer, and women’s rights advocate. How did you find the intersection of these fields in your work?


Karen: I think it emerged from a need. My initial path led me into software engineering right after college. I worked in Botswana for a few years before returning to Zimbabwe in 2008. There, I joined a women’s filmmaking organisation, starting as an information officer focused on IT and communication. However, my work soon diversified. I ventured into writing, producing, and managing productions. The women’s rights organisation I worked for used film as a tool for advocacy. I coordinated a women’s film festival in countries like Malawi, Uganda, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. It was during this tenure that I delved deep into women’s rights advocacy. Joining the Women’s Coalition opened my eyes to the need for digital inclusion, especially since no women’s organisations seemed to be focusing on this. That’s when I revisited my roots in IT, this time from an advocacy perspective. This eventually led to the creation of the Pada Platform.


DIGRA: It is remarkable to hear about how international your journey has been leading to the Pada Platform. Can you elaborate on the symbolism behind the organisation’s name?


Karen: Certainly. “Pada” is a Shona word derived from the game hopscotch, known in Shona as “Pada”. In Zimbabwe, almost every girl has played this game, especially in less privileged areas, as it requires minimal resources. For us, it symbolises sisterhood, competitiveness, creativity, and the celebration of women’s achievements. We wanted our Platform to resonate with these values and to foster a space where young women and girls come together. Thus, “Pada Platform” was conceived by three of us, each rooted in film, IT, and women’s rights.


DIGRA: Our understanding is that you create a space for young women and girls to innovate and create. How do you achieve that? What practices and activities are implemented?


Karen: We run various programs, including digital literacy sessions targeting girls aged 13 to 21. Another segment, “Tech to Participate,” seeks to leverage technology to enhance the participation of young women. This encompasses both the digital literacy program and coding classes. We even host an annual hackathon where university students create tech solutions aimed at bolstering women’s participation. Additionally, we advocate for safe spaces for women, emphasising how the internet can be a potent tool in this pursuit.


DIGRA: With respect to your mission, we are also curious to hear how the Pada Platform challenges the perception of IT being male-dominated, especially when working with girls from less privileged backgrounds.


Karen: Our approach is deliberate: creating all-female spaces. We only allow female and non-binary participants, focusing on fostering confidence without intimidation or stereotyping. The transition we have observed is astounding; initially, timid girls evolve into confident coders, proudly showcasing their work.


DIGRA: Storytelling, given your background in filmmaking and writing, must hold a special place in your advocacy. Can you speak to its power?


Karen: Indeed, storytelling is transformative. It not only resonates with women by showcasing relatable success stories but also influences decision-makers. By presenting impactful narratives, we highlight the crucial role of internet access for women, especially during unforeseen situations like the covid lockdown.


DIGRA: You touched upon the internet as a space because you mentioned that we have one of the programs that run online. As a follow-up to our DRLX program that you engaged in last year, how do you see the internet and digital space as mediums to amplify your message and the work you’ve been doing?


Karen: The internet is a critical space at the moment, especially when you look at Zimbabwe. There has been a significant shrinking of the engagement space. Many arrests have occurred. We have lost our freedoms of assembly and association. The only safe assemblies we have are online. This is our most crucial outlet to tell our story. In Zimbabwe, there was an internet shutdown in 2019. Many violations occurred during that period. We documented 20 violations in one area alone, specifically against women. These were incidents of rape, physical assault, and political violence. Without the internet, women aren’t safe, nor do they have a voice. Bringing them online provides access to both a national and international audience. Our issues as Zimbabweans require an international audience. National advocacy often meets with resistance. But with international solidarity, we can be heard at the African Union level and even the United Nations.


DIGRA: Considering the national challenges you mentioned, what strategies have you found most useful for promoting your work, advocating for change, and providing women a safe space online?


Karen: Petitioning has proven effective. In 2020, we had a massive online petition for a 15-year-old girl who died in childbirth due to child marriage. At first, the police claimed ignorance, but after gathering 60,000 signatures, the police commissioner responded positively. Online advocacy, supported by Facebook and Twitter activity, amplified the issue. During the 16 days of activism last year, we initiated “Black Friday.” Participants shared images of themselves in black, protesting child marriage. We now have a Children’s Act that tackles these issues, thanks to consistent online advocacy.


DIGRA: You have also mentioned internet advocacy campaigns. Can you share your experience during our Digital Rights Learning Exchange Cohort 1 program and any insights you have been able to incorporate into your work?


KarenCertainly. During the program, I was part of the Access and Affordability group, focusing on women’s digital inclusion. With the Internet Society, we started a similar project in Zimbabwe, promoting women’s online access and affordability. We hope to expand our project after the upcoming elections. Working with the local chapter of the Internet Society, plan to train women parliamentarians on digital inclusion and necessary policies. We are also considering a community networks school next year to empower women further.


DIGRA: It is inspiring to hear. In terms of community engagement, how do you facilitate the transfer of knowledge in your context, and what are your aspirations for the Pada Platform and the broader landscape of digital inclusion and women’s rights in your region?


Karen: We collaborate with other organisations and community-based institutions. They send representatives to us. We have trained 20 women human rights defenders, who are our liaisons in various communities. When I think about our vision, I would say our primary aspiration is to establish feminist digital hubs in communities, making it easier for women to access the internet, digital devices, and training.


DIGRA: That is amazing! Please keep us updated about your work and achievements. We would love to hear about Pada Platform successes. 


Karen: Thank you. I appreciate the platform to share my story.