Women Act, a non-profit working on gender-based violence and promoting women’s empowerment, used to host in-person catered seminars in hotels in Kathmandu before the lockdown three months ago.
The meetings gave a chance for face-to-face interactions, networking, and were effective for planning and evaluation of the group’s activities. The lockdown has increased domestic violence against women, so like many other activist groups, Women Act has moved online to hold its meetings.
“Despite the drawbacks of virtual meetings, online webinars save money and time, it connects people internationally and within the country,” says Srijana Adhikari, Executive President of Women Act.
Indeed, the global pandemic has changed every aspect of life: 9-5 office days have changed to remote working from home, students are taking online classes, and attending webinars to network and plan activities.
The Nepal government has eased restrictions on movement and businesses, but inter-district travel is still banned and gatherings of more than 15 people are not allowed.
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Kathmandu’s hotels–which used to be packed with seminars, conferences and workshops–have been empty since March.
British Council Nepal used to conduct in-person workshops to help facilitate different educational needs for teachers, or educators. Now, the Council provides practical online support through its English Language Teacher Education Project (EL-TEP).
“We are doing online core skills training for teachers and head teachers, and running #StayAtHome, Continue to Learn webinar series from May to July,” writes Bhogendra Lamichhane, a program manager at British Council, in an email interview with Nepali Times. “More than 3,800 teachers across Nepal have already attended the webinars.”
Lamichhane says going online has changed the mode of delivery, use of gestures, session planning, the pattern of interaction and engagement. While only 25 participants used to attend each face-to-face session before the lockdown, the webinars have 150 people logged in at one go.
ForestAction Nepal is another non-profit that finds it much more cost-effective to gather stakeholders, researchers, policy-makers online than in-person. Because the organisation works on environmental and climate change issues, it finds webinars have much smaller carbon footprints than physical meetings.
Says ecologist Lila Nath Sharma at ForestAction: “It does not cost anything to conduct webinars, it saves time, we don’t have to buy stationery, spend on hotels and transport, so the online meetings have a much lower environmental impact.”
Webinar regulars in Nepal also find the ability to ask questions on live chat, Q&A and breakout sessions, make participants more interactive than during physical sessions.
However, Sharma says there are challenges: fixing time suitable for all participants has been tricky, and grassroots groups that Forest Action works with may not be computer savvy or do not have access to WiFi or Internet.
“The biggest drawback we have seen is the digital divide,” he says.
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Abbal Women Entrepreneurs (Abbal-WE) works with mental health awareness, at a time when the prolonged lockdown, loss of jobs and economic hardships have increased the risk for vulnerable groups. So, the group uses Zoom, Skype and Messenger for online training, workshops and individual counseling.
“Counselling is very interactive, and needs in-person meetings to observe a person’s facial expressions, gestures, the pitch of the voice,” says Bijaya Bijukachhe. “Online meetings are not a problem for people who are naturally outspoken, but it is for others when we have to do counseling online. Digital platforms also do not allow us to do practical interactions to identify mental illness during training sessions.”
The shift to online has allowed groups to form interactive platforms for activism and to talk about issues affecting Nepal during the lockdown. For example, the Young Feminist League, created by ten friends in May, has weekly webinars to discuss fundamentals of feminism, philosophy, and its relevance for contemporary Nepali society. While the weekly webinars have attracted up to 70 people, members face problems with connectivity because of slow internet and power cuts.
Federation of International Nepali Students has started ‘Adhyapan: A Lecture Series’ in which it holds eight learning sessions collaborating with professors from universities around the world to discuss subjects as broad-ranging as ‘Geopolitics of South Asia’ to ‘Physics of Film’. Martin Chautari is also holding popular weekly seminars on the social sciences.
Even the government has taken to Zoom in a big way, but there have been issues with hacking and security. The Nepal Communist Party held a training session with the Chinese Communist Party last week.
A seminar to talk about tourism prospects by the Ministry of Tourism and Nepal Tourism Board (NTB) was zoom-bombed with a pornographic video just as Minister Yogesh Bhattarai had started addressing the virtual meeting. Another webinar by Female Forester Nepal also had pornography during a session. Government agencies and non-profits now do not share their links on social media and say they have tightened criteria for registration of people who want to attend public webinars.
But the trend towards holding frequent online meetings has caused people to ‘Zoom out’, and suffer from stress, eye fatigue, sleep deprivation, and other side-effects. It has also left out a large section of the population which does not have access to information technology.
Despite these limitations, both Sharma and Adhikari say the benefits of web-based seminars outweigh the disadvantages – especially because it looks like the coronavirus is here to stay and in-person meetings are not likely to resume soon.
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