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Facebook Fellow Spotlight: Empowering women in rural communities through research in HCI

Each year, PhD students from around the world apply for the Facebook Fellowship, a program designed to encourage and support doctoral students engaged in innovative and relevant research in areas related to computer science and engineering at an accredited university.

As a continuation of our Fellowship spotlight series, we’re highlighting 2020 Facebook Fellow Sharifa Sultana.

Sharifa is a PhD candidate in Information Science at Cornell University. Her work focuses on human-computer interaction (HCI) and information and communication technologies for development (ICTD) from a critical computing and feminist HCI perspective.

Raised in Jessore, Bangladesh, Sharifa noticed that women were underrepresented in STEM education and other professions around the world, particularly in Bangladesh. Because of this underrepresentation, many women in rural communities have difficulties accessing, trusting, and using technology. This inspired Sharifa to work towards creating a more inclusive environment in which women would feel empowered to use technology, and where technology could, in turn, help fight the oppression of women in her home country.

“My research asks the questions, ‘Why is tech not working for rural Bangladeshi women? How can we fight against oppression using tech?’” she says. Sharifa’s approach explores how women interact with technology in rural communities in an effort to develop and implement solutions that address their critical needs.

One of these needs is combating gender harassment. “In Bangladesh, women are often harassed by colleagues, friends, family members — people who they want to trust,” she says. “Yet it is often difficult for them to seek legal help for many reasons.”

In order to empower women to counter harassment, Sharifa designed a digital tool – ‘Unmochon’ – to collect evidence of tech-based harassment through Facebook Messenger. Users can install and run it to collect image evidence of harassing messages and the harassers’ Facebook handles. This tool allows users to report the incident to the appropriate authorities and confirm the authenticity of the evidence.

Sharifa’s most recent research focuses on alternative rationalities in computing – namely, exploring how rural communities determine what information is true and how misinformation can prevent women from seeking healthcare. “The aim is to design tech that would actually help [women], that they would actually use,” Sharifa says.

Healthcare misinformation is a serious issue for rural communities in Bangladesh, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes to develop technology that will give people access to reliable information and connect them with the healthcare they need.

Sharifa’s research has opened up a new discussion on how HCI design can be used to address online gender harassment and on how studying HCI can help bridge the gap between women accessing life-saving healthcare. Currently, Sharifa is in Bangladesh, collaborating on a local research project to determine what kind of technology and healthcare practices could benefit rural communities.

To learn more about Sharifa Sultana, visit her Fellowship profile.

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