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“Governments in South Asia are making a blunder by bringing education back to religious roots”

UK civil servant, lawyer and policy advisor Juhi Javed Husain talks about modernising education, enhancing internet safety, and social-media accountability in South Asia.

By Pragya Narang

A civil servant, lawyer and senior policy advisor in the UK, Juhi Javed Husain has worked in digital privacy laws for several years helping to develop policies related to increased accountability of social-media companies. Born and raised in Pakistan, she has also worked for a few years there both as a lawyer and a policy advisor, but was forced to abandon her work after receiving threats from the Taliban.

Juhi was a panelist at eShe’s South Asia Union Summit Led by Women‘s panel titled Web Warriors: Arming Girls with Internet Tools and Infrastructure, which discussed why equipping girls and young women with internet tools is the key to women’s empowerment in the 21st century.

In this interview with eShe, she shares her ideas on education, internet safety, and holding social-media companies responsible for the abuse that women face online.

Juhi Javed Husain was forced to abandon her work in legislative policy in Pakistan after receiving threats from the Taliban

Tell us about your journey from Pakistan to the UK and some of your milestones along the way.

I grew up in Lahore in a mildly patriarchal family and it took me a few years to find my calling. I decided to study law and began training to be a barrister. However, I always wanted to work in policy and was enveloped by a desire to give back to my country since I was concerned about the massive brain drain from South Asia.

My mother, who was in politics, deeply influenced my choice of career and especially the value of serving one’s country. And so, I began working in the area of legislative policy, which I was forced to abandon when I began to receive death threats from the Taliban. I started working with a law firm in Pakistan where my work revolved around heavy constitutional laws.

However, I remained inclined towards making the law as compared to defending it. So, when the opportunity presented itself where I could take up policy work again and make a difference, this time in the UK, I took it up immediately.

I was part of the team at the department of Digital Culture and Media Support (DCMS) that focuses on combating online harm by creating policy and setting up a regulator to enforce it.

I was there for more than two years before transitioning very recently to the department of Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, which focuses on environmental issues and renewable energy.

“Every single able-bodied person who has received an education must mandatorily give two years of their lives to society.” – Juhi Javed Husain

What are some of the changes you envision in the education systems of South Asian countries and what can make them more gender sensitised?

Currently, one of the blunders governments in South Asia are making is that they are adopting a slightly less cosmopolitan view and attempts are being made to bring education back to religious roots. This is bad news and we must focus on competing globally with respect to education. To achieve peace in our countries, education must be made completely religion-neutral.

What I propose is something radical. In countries like Israel, there is compulsory military service where every citizen is expected to serve two years in the army. It ends up creating a sense of pride and patriotism for their nation-states. South Asia needs something similar, albeit in education.

While I definitely don’t think we need any more military conscription in Pakistan’s Army (we have a large enough army and humongous military budgets as it is), I strongly feel that every single able-bodied person who has received an education must mandatorily give two years of their lives to society.

In our countries we face massive teacher absenteeism as teaching is a profession associated with people who don’t have any overarching ambition, and teachers aren’t paid well. In the absence of teachers, what kind of education can we expect?

In such a scenario, if normal people like us – people with privilege who had achieved an education – are forced to serve others, it provides a perspective. This would also ensure that the quality of education rises instead of trudging at bare minimum.

Women will get educated as well and would be forced to work and earn for at least two years. An element of mandatory service is essential to ensure such a situation that would promote gender equality, because only when citizens have been involved at the grassroot levels will they feel committed to the cause, or understand the issues, and have a say in policy making.

Juhi Javed Husain with her son

How can governments, civil-society organisations, and we as individuals ensure our women are safe on the Internet?

We need to spread awareness and constantly pre-empt the danger. Every individual must be aware of their rights and must proactively report any suspicious or abusive activity. We have a lot more rights than we realise!

Unfortunately, our legal systems are hardly a deterrent to abusive elements online; even serious crimes take forever to be solved and very few offenders are prosecuted. In such a scenario, the best way to make the internet safe is to create awareness and push the responsibility of making the internet a safe space to the social-media organisations.

Globally eight million pieces of content are taken down each day and 90 percent of these are done by social-media companies themselves as they have hundreds and thousands of moderators in every language possible. However, in South Asian countries, they tend to go scot-free; there are no responsibilities accorded to them.

Just like we have employment laws – where, if an accident happens on one’s premises, the organisation is responsible for it – why can’t we shift the responsibility of abuse that happens on social-media platforms to the social-media companies themselves who currently turn a blind eye and allow it to go on blatantly and sometimes even profit from it?

Social-media awareness must also be taught in schools so that everyone knows about the rights they have in internet spaces. Teenagers who are the most avid users must be made aware of the tools for reporting and how to block harassers. Laws need to be beefed up the world over keeping the safety of citizens in mind. Also, there needs to be adequate protection for whistleblowers.

Most of the time, laypersons don’t understand the correlation between social-media platforms overstepping privacy and safety issues. How are social-media organisations violating privacy harmful to the safety of women?

The struggle to optimise privacy versus freedom is a tightrope walk. The UK adopted the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) a few years ago and the EU has it too – it is a mechanism that takes your consent before sharing your data with third parties, and you can opt out of it entirely. Here’s a question we must ask ourselves: “Why should anyone have our data? Are we monetised for our data?” It is almost always used against us irrespective of whether we are a man or a woman.

We need to have laws in place so that privacy is enforced, that is the only way big internet companies shall learn to respect privacy and ensure that it is at the heart of their designs. Currently, it is based on user experience and interface, and if we demand privacy as users, it would be knitted into the algorithms too. Different requirements for kids and adults must also be specified.

We must consider the example of our cars – with time, technology is making them increasingly safer. Initially, we didn’t have airbags but now they are compulsory. In the case of internet technology too, we are headed in the right direction and I am optimistic that it would eventually be a safe place.

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