Nighat Dad (Human Rights Tulip Winner 2016) - Equal rights for women and girls


‘My dream is for all women to have access to the internet, be able to post online under their own names, their own identities, and not be afraid of what will happen if men find out.’ – Nighat Dad in an interview with Making All Voices Count.

In 2012, two teenage Pakistani sisters were shot dead by their stepbrother after making a video of themselves dancing in the rain. They were accused of tarnishing their family’s name. In 2013, Arifa Bibi was stoned to death by her relatives, on the order of a tribal court in Pakistan. The crime? Owning a mobile phone. In 2016, social media star Qandeel Baloch, known as Pakistan’s Kim Kardashian, was found drugged and strangled in her own home. She had been killed by her brother. He told news reporters afterwards he had no remorse. ‘Of course’ he had to murder her. Her behaviour had been ‘excruciating’. These human rights violations began with online threats which were executed offline. The online and offline worlds are often no longer separate. When it comes to violence and hatred, those worlds reinforce each other. Online violence is just as destructive as offline violence.

Such stories are not unusual in Pakistan. The internet is an unsafe space for Pakistani women. Instances of online harassment, stalking, threats of physical and sexual violence, abuse and blackmail are common. Nighat Dad – a lawyer, internet activist and founder of the Digital Rights Foundation – explained in an interview with Making All Voices Count that the internet is an important tool for women’s rights. It can change women’s expectations and help them find the information and resources to change their circumstances. ‘This kind of harassment keeps women from accessing the internet, from knowledge. It’s a form of oppression,’ Nighat said in a TED Talk.

Personal experience

In her TED talk Nighat explains that, when she was young, her parents did not allow her to use a mobile phone until she married. When she got married her mobile phone became a tool to keep an eye on her. When she resisted, her then husband kicked her and their six-month-old son out of the house. This was the first time she asked herself ‘Why aren’t women allowed to enjoy the rights enshrined in our constitution? Why is it always up to men to grant us these rights, making the law basically irrelevant?’ Nighat divorced her husband in 2007 and continued working as a lawyer on women’s rights issues. 

Digital Rights Foundation

Back then, the social media platform Orkut was popular among women for exploring the online world. Nighat’s work as a lawyer began to take a new direction, when more women began to approach her with stories of harassment. Victims came to her asking what law could protect them. But there was no such law. So, in 2012 she set up the Digital Rights Foundation. Since then she has been educating Pakistani internet users, particularly young women, on how to protect themselves from online harassment. She supports them in the form of digital security training courses and public awareness campaigns.

The Human Rights Tulip Award

In today’s world young people, and girls in particular, lack awareness about digital security, digital rights and the related international and national laws. Digital literacy and the associated digital rights are the most significant aspects of human rights. ‘Despite the many threats Nighat has received, she continues to fight to improve adherence to human rights in Pakistan in a unique and innovative way. She is a pioneer who is working to remove everyday obstacles to internet access,’ said then foreign minister Bert Koenders who presented Nighat with the Human Rights Tulip Award in 2016. The award is an annual prize for courageous individuals or organisations who promote and support human rights in innovative ways. The prize consists of a bronze sculpture and €100,000. This money allows human rights defenders to continue and expand their work.

Cyber Harassment Helpline

Nighat used the prize money to start the Cyber Harassment Helpline for victims of online harassment and gender-based violence on 1 December 2016. It is Pakistan’s first dedicated helpline for issues of online harassment, abuse and gender-based violence. The helpline can be reached seven days a week and provides a judgement-free, gender-sensitive, safe and confidential service free of charge to all its callers. It provides legal advice, digital security support, psychological counselling and a referral network to survivors and victims of online harassment and abuse. The helpline now receives up to 20 calls a day and this number is still increasing. Many calls are about intimate images of the caller being shared. The helpline explains the legal consequences of the non-consensual distribution of intimate images online. If someone’s personal data is being used to blackmail them, that can be reported. Sensitive files will be taken offline as soon as possible.

Thousands of women in Pakistan have been helped since the helpline was launched, including human rights defenders and journalists. In a press release on the Digital Rights Foundation website, Nighat said: ‘The past 1.5 years have solidified our conviction of working towards a tangible movement that results in a safe and secure online space for both women and men. We pledge to continue to provide a safe arena for survivors and victims where they can share their experiences and become empowered to take control of their situation and continue to make informed decisions.’