‘Ready to get started? Get out your credit card and make a donation now by filling in the simple online donation form. Order Your Pixels. Fill in the number of pixels you wish to buy, and enter your credit card details.’ What! Why would anyone buy pixels? And who will benefit from pixel sales? Well, here are the answers to these questions: Firstly, today anyone – whether in New Delhi or New York – interested in voicing support for violence against women is logging on to this very unique online initiative and secondly, these donations power many campaigns and organisations that help women victims of violence.
There may not be many women in the world who would know what the word ‘pixel’ means. Their numbers are minuscule when compared to the millions who deal with violence – domestic violence and sexual assault – day-in-and-day-out. It’s for them that Regina Yau is redefining the significance of a pixel, or the smallest unit of a digital image. Founder of The Pixel Project, a virtual non-profit social enterprise that uses social media and other online tools to raise awareness, funds and volunteer power to end violence against women, Yau believes that men are an integral part of the solution to the issue of violence. “Everything we do – from our Twitter Tag Team programme to our annual ‘Paint It Purple’ promotion – is designed to take the cause to end violence and fulfil our mission of getting men and women working together to end this most entrenched of human rights violations,” she says.
It all started when Malaysia’s Women’s Aid Organisation was in need of funds, after the global financial crisis in late 2008. “I was washing my hair when it suddenly occurred to me: What if we took Alex Tew’s original stunt of selling one million pixels of online advertising space for $1 per pixel and gave it an original non-profit twist?” recalls Yau. “The concept involves us taking an exclusive picture of a few major male celebrities and turning that into a one-million-pixel mystery picture that people all over the world can unveil by buying pixels of it for $1 each. Just like a giant virtual jigsaw puzzle that people can do together,” she explains. So, four world-famous celebrity male role models, including a Nobel Laureate and a Pulitzer winner, have been photographed. Their images are masked by one million purple pixels.
Launched early in January 2009, the project has also made it super easy for anyone to volunteer. “We don’t have nor need a physical office because our team members can work on campaigns from anywhere around the world. ‘Have internet, will volunteer’ is our motto,” she says. In fact, Yau herself volunteered on the project before becoming a full time member in May 2010.
Pixel volunteers are currently scattered across four continents, 12 time zones and 15 cities worldwide proving that there are no cultural or social barriers when it comes to this issue. India, too, has its very own vibrant chapter. Says Yau, who hasn’t visited India yet, “There is no denying that India is one of the countries that has very highly visible and specific forms of violence against women, including dowry deaths, honour killings, acid attacks and widespread female infanticide. But then India also has an equally vocal, pro-active and creative community of activists and campaigners, who have come up with extremely innovative and effective solutions for eradicating violence against women.” Her favourite is the example of the Dhahara village in Bihar, which has institutionalised the practise of planting fruit trees to mark the birth of daughters. The fruit harvests raise money for dowries and, as a result, the village has virtually no female infanticide or dowry deaths.
Talking about the project’s impact in India volunteer Lalita Raman, who stumbled on to this initiative on Twitter, says, “Many women who have seen what we do at The Pixel Project have [been inspired to] set out on their own to help other women and children in need.” And what keeps Raman motivated? “Well, it’s the courage of women who speak up. There are those who have been able to say: ‘I was raped and lived in fear. But The Pixel Project has encouraged me to do away with my fear and speak up. I am no longer scared and try helping others who may have faced similar situations’,” she says.
But this is not a ‘women-only’ kind of initiative. Men too have volunteered their time. Like Abhijith Jayanthi. He believes that women’s issues are perceived to be the domain of women only and that women alone can define the approach. “Gender issues are not the usual ‘Men Vs Women’ fights, but need a more collective and comprehensive approach. I believe the Pixel Project holds that promise,” he says.
But while Raman and Jayanthi may have derived their motivation from brave victims or the need to speak up for the voiceless, Yau’s reason is more personal. A Malaysian-born Chinese, Yau comes from a family where the women have gone from having bound feet to becoming Rhodes scholars within four generations – she was sent to the UK and US on a succession of scholarships, including a Rhodes scholarship. “My maternal grandmother is a strong but illiterate woman who married at 16 in the midst of World War II to escape being raped by Japanese soldiers in wartime Malaya. But if her marriage saved her from one form of gender-based violence, it catapulted her into another: Domestic violence,” she elaborates.
So rescuing women trapped in similar situations is what Yau does full-time. Besides the ‘donate pixels campaign’, this project has a number of programmes, annual events and initiatives. There’s the ‘Paint it Purple’ campaign, which includes organising cupcake parties to raise awareness and funds during Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Also, in the run-up to 16 Days of Activism, the Global ‘Walk a Mile in Her Shoes’ Day is held that gets men to walk a mile in high heels on Father’s Day to protest violence against women. In fact, the five cities of New Delhi, London, Singapore, Washington D.C. and Kuala Lampur are now gearing up for the run on June 19. And, of course, the Twitter Tag Team works to bring the global audience relevant news and helpline information on VAW round the clock.
Yau has structured The Pixel Project to mostly run on a combination of skilled volunteer power, donated or sponsored services and products and aid from her network of contacts. Anything that requires cash, such as photo shoots, is run on a shoestring budget. “I wanted to prove that you can run a world-class, non-profit organisation and first-rate global campaigns on very little cash,” she asserts.
Now, after two years of successful digital and hybrid digital and offline programmes, early critics have largely been silenced or have become staunch allies. “Many people take action to show appreciation – a couple of staunch supporters have got our ribbon tattooed on their ankles as a reminder that they will never let a man hurt them and the dedicated informal group of followers on Twitter devote time to re-tweeting every single helpline we tweet during our daily helpline retweet session,” reveals Yau.
Many NGOs and organisations working to end violence against women still have not made their presence felt online and Yau hopes that The Pixel Project will not only lead the way there but will eventually have enough capacity to provide the help these organisations need to get up to speed with online campaigning.
“We really do mean it when we say that it’s time to stop violence against women. Together,” she says emphatically.