Hashtag movement: amplifying gender equality consciousness from youth and beyond

This op-ed is part of AASYP’s Digital Dialogues 2021, which is a programme that aims to provide a platform and forum for future leaders from across the region to contribute to the policymaking and diplomacy sphere by engaging in issues relating to Gender and Diversity, Green Recovery, and Emerging Economies.

Youth today are tech-savvy and find quick, efficient and creative ways to deal with global issues. They grew up amidst new technologies and thus, have learnt to adapt to fast paced environments. They are always updated with global challenges and trends. Additionally, with an acute sense of justice, they constantly advocate for their values and beliefs to promote healthy development of the world, revolving around humanitarian, environmental issues and especially on gender equality.

In Australia, women begin to fall behind their male peers as soon as they leave school. According to recent data, they:

  • earn less, 
  • take on more unpaid domestic work, 
  • work fewer hours, 
  • interrupt their careers to care for others, 
  • work in underpaid feminized industries, 
  • are overlooked for promotions, 
  • encounter systemic ignorance of their health needs, 
  • are vastly under-represented in the media and on the sporting field, 
  • work twice as hard to achieve positions of leadership in business, 
  • struggle to break through the ranks of political power, 
  • experience harassment, abuse and violence both in the home and in the workplace, and 
  • ultimately retire into much greater levels of poverty than men in their old age.

Meanwhile, in ASEAN, some member states are reported to lead the way on gender equality whereby rates of women’s participation in politics (Lao PDR and the Philippines) and freedom from violence against women are above the global average. However, the cultural sentiment on stereotyping gender roles remained a prevalent aspect that hinders the advancement of gender equality in Southeast Asia. Patriarchal values persist, creating biases and the belittling of women. In addition, COVID-19 has increased the unpaid domestic and care work burden, with 30 per cent of women noting increases in the intensity of domestic work since the spread of the virus compared to only 16 per cent of men.

Both ASEAN and Australia have shown their commitments in upholding gender equality for a healthy, respectful and well-functioning society. This includes working towards the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals of which goal 5 is gender equality, which is to end all discrimination against women and girls. Both regions have also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). However, as described earlier, their communities continue to encounter gender discrimination across different areas namely education, workplace, home and security. So, this op-ed aims to elucidate the roles that youth can play to achieve and raise awareness on gender equality.

Research shows that social media campaigns have the potential to generate awareness and increase individual knowledge of social issues. Furthermore, political conversations, be it local, national or global, have already been happening online on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram etc.). One of the unconventional ways that youth have been using social media campaigns to influence and raise awareness is through hashtag movements. 

Hashtags hold an epic power and are an effective way to filter the chaos of social media posts, so it makes sense for youth to take advantage of using hashtags to spread a message and work together. Feminist hashtags, in particular, can amplify calls for gender equality across the world. Many campaigns to unite millions of people behind the goal of gender equality have been mobilized that previous generations could hardly have imagined, all thanks to hashtags. This includes #MeToo, #WhyIStayed, #WhatAboutUs and many others. These gender-sensitive hashtag movements proved that a hashtag can broadcast personal stories and support messages while attracting the attention of million others especially feminists worldwide.

ASEAN and Australia have also initiated and advocated several hashtag movements. For instance, in the City of Adelaide, South Australia, the #ImNotOkayWithThat campaign mobilizes people to step up for gender equality and aims to promote positive and respectful behavior and increasing women’s safety in the Adelaide community. Similarly, ASEAN supports for the #HeforShe campaign which aims to raise awareness on gender equality by encouraging men and boys as agents of change to promote a culture of respect for women and girls. The initiative invites men and boys as partners for women’s rights and recognizes how society can benefit from gender equality.

In Indonesia, #MulaiBicara (start talking) and #TalkAboutIt promote online discussions to encourage speaking up about sexual assault and harassment. The hashtag movement was launched by Lentera Sintas Indonesia, a support group for survivors of sexual violence, and Magdalene, an online feminist magazine. It has led to an increase in the number of online gender rights groups involved in International Women’s Day street marches between 2017 and 2019, and demanded that the Indonesian government ratify a bill on domestic violence.

In Myanmar, the societal belief that girls are less valuable than boys remains deeply rooted. So, inequality, discrimination and stigmatization of women triggers all forms of violence against women and girls including domestic violence across the country and hence, hampers women’s leadership role in political and development sectors. For that reason, #SheCounts advocates for the respect of women and girls, gender equality and the end for harmful practices. It aims to change harmful attitudes and practices that do not value girls and develop equality in Myanmar’s society. 

In Thailand, #DontTellMeHowToDress was kick-started by a Thai celebrity and activist, Cindy Sirinya Bishop, to stop violence and other abuses against women. Cindy, as the newly appointed UN Women Regional Goodwill ambassador for Asia and the Pacific, first spoke out when she came across a newspaper headline where Thai authorities told women to dress appropriately and not sexy if they want to avoid sexual assault during a public festival. #DontTellMeHowToDress quickly turned into a movement advocating gender equality and gained local and international media attention.

Although research criticizes that hashtag movement as a form of passive activism—merely liking or retweeting, it is worth noting that by doing this, individuals are exposing their broader social network to the presence of social injustice and signing as an ally of the movement seeking for redress. It is in the long run and through the course of multiple exposures, that there can be significant potential to impact the belief systems and actions of people in their social networks. So, at the same time, as we’ve seen, hashtag-based movements can be transformational and have an incredible capacity to initiate change via digital organizing. 

In the past, youth have lived in a world where their voices have been muted. Now, hashtags give them the voice to speak out and stand up for themselves, as well as for survivors who have survived gender discrimination including sexual harassment, assault and bias. They represent not only the end of an era of silence about things that make many uncomfortable, but also a shift in the burden from survivors to perpetrators, where it truly belongs. Hashtags help raise awareness on an issue, and raising awareness is the first step in taking action. What previously was invisible are now visible through hashtag expressions and representation of gender equality now soar in media.

This op-ed was written by Nurul Ruwaidah Ahamad, edited by Lauren Twine, and reviewed by the AASYP Publications Team.

Note: The views and opinions expressed in this op-ed are solely those of the writer and in no way represent nor reflect the position of AASYP and members of the AASYP Publications Team. The AASYP Horizons Blog provides a platform for the free expression of opinions and intellectual discourse.

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