Virtual Reality Is Empowering Women: Here Is How

“What does it feel like to be hungry on the streets of LA?

Nonny de la Peña,the Founder of Emblematic Group created a Virtual Reality Experience called Hunger in Los Angeles that tried to foster empathy by immersing people in the experience of what it feels like to be hungry on the streets of LA. The film made it to the Sundance Festival in 2012 where many viewers tried to touch the non-existent characters of the 7-minute flick. Some of them even broke down into tears at the end of the film. The VR documentary fostered empathy among several viewers who donated generously to the ‘Food Banks’ in Los Angeles.

The much-hyped global #MeToo movement has achieved little that is quantifiable by statistics than mere social media attention. Although several women have come forward to address their woes,  hardly anyone discussed about the women who don’t use a smartphone, let alone social media.

The role of women and the problems faced by them varies across societies and culture. Sometimes, religious obligations add to their woes. While a Caucasian lady in New York may be struggling to get an equal paycheck in the corporate world, a farm laborer in Odisha maybe struggling to educate her girl against the wishes of her family members. However, giving a vent to the problems is the first step of solving a problem. That’s when Virtual Reality (VR) steps in. VR is the ‘new voice‘ for underrepresented women.

Here is an insight to the 5 instances where VR played a major role in championing the cause of women.

1. The Sun Ladies

Sun Ladies VR for women emppwerment
Courtesy: The Sun Ladies

“Honor and dignity can often become a very strong force against the enemy.”

In August 2014, ISIS soldiers killed all the men of the Yazidi community in Sinjar and took the women and girls as sex slaves. More than 3000 women and girls had to undergo a horrifying experience of trauma and violence. Amidst the chaos, a group of courageous ladies vowed to fight against ISIS and liberate their people.

The Sun Ladies‘ is a 7-minute immersive documentary that uses VR technology to explore the personal stories of the women fighting the ISIS in Iraq. The fighting scenes were recreated using the VR painting tool Quill.

Quill is a VR animation and illustration tool. Quill can support large extensions of drawings and it can handle heavier folders. The user experience with Quill has been up to the mark as the traditional CG animators could easily blend in with the new technology.

‘The Sun Ladies’ wouldn’t have garnered the same emotion had it been screened on the regular flat screen. When the viewers in the Sundance Film Festival, Utah watched the movie, most of them wrote a letter of support for the women at the line of fight.

2. Notes To My Father

A Scene from Notes To My Father

A Scene from Notes To My Father

‘Notes to My Father’, directed by independent filmmaker Jayisha Patel, is a short documentary that explores the story of a human-trafficking survivor. Ramadevi, a resident of Andhra Pradesh, is the survivor of a harrowing experience. When viewed through a headset, the perspective is chilling.


The Train Scene and ‘Male Gaze’ from the movie

One of the most harrowing scenes positions the viewer inside a train carriage full of men. In virtual reality, it is a vivid and uncomfortable depiction of what it is like to be the subject of the male gaze. Thus, VR is a new platform to amplify women’s voices, stories, and narratives. ‘Notes to My Father’ explores the love, pain, and reconciliation between a father and his trafficked daughter. Again virtual reality brings in empathy among the people.

3. Virtual Police Station In India


Awareness Program ‘Get Ready To Report’ by Amnesty International in Bengaluru in 2015 using Google cardboard and Android app to know the legal procedures using VR experience. (Courtesy: Deccan Herald)

In a report published in 2016, it was stated that 106 women in India are raped every day. With several cases of rapes being unreported especially in rural India and over 50% of rape cases reported in Delhi alone found to be fake, the exact number can’t be predicted for sure. However, it is quite certain that women even in posh cities of India aren’t ‘Safe’. In fact, ‘cyberbullying’ and ‘internet shaming’ is on the rise in the last few years. Recently, Facebook came up with an interesting finding that only 55 % of women users in India put up profile pictures for fear of those being misused.

Courtesy: Virtual Police Station

While only 30% women confide in someone to tell about experiencing sexual harassment, only 1% of them report it to the police. According to the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI), “Women often don’t report an instance of rape for the fear of being ill-treated by the police, social stigma and ignorance of the legal procedure”

Today, VR is trying its best to wipe away the deep-rooted fears in the minds of women about reporting cases of sexual harassment. CHRI in cooperation with Rajasthan Police has come up with a multilingual ‘Virtual Police Station‘ which allows citizens to know about the various laws concerning their grievances. One can simulate the environment of a real-world police station using a 360-degree video technology. For example, one can use a Google Cardboard and its corresponding mobile app to have the VR experience of a police station and police functioning like knowing the steps to file an FIR while maintaining anonymity. This tool currently doesn’t enable the victims to file an FIR using its Virtual Reality platform but this is going to be the next target.

CHRI describes ‘Virtual Police Station’ as an ’empowerment tool for the public’. The VR tool has been funded by the European Union as a part of its Civil Society and Police Reform in South Asia.  Earlier, Amnesty International also came up with a VR-based awareness program in Bengaluru, India in 2015. In the future, a Virtual Platform may allow victims to file an FIR and describe their harrowing circumstances without visiting the police station.

4. VR To Improve Pregnancy Rate In Women

Courtesy: Unsplash

Several research groups have previously studied the effect of psychological stress and anxiety in In-vitro Fertilization (IVF). However, researchers have contradicted each other time and again regarding the correlation of stress and pregnancy rate. (You can read report 1 and report 2 which contradict each other to verify this for yourself).

Although it’s inconclusive yet, infertile couples have self-reported in some studies regarding experiencing anxiety and depression. A pilot study presented at the Euroanaesthesia Congress in Copenhagen, Denmark shows that women undergoing VR therapeutic sessions prior to sedation for IVF treatment to become pregnant can reduce their anxiety.  Since anxiety is still believed (inconclusively) to affect pregnancy rates, these VR-based therapies can improve upon the pregnancy rates.

The pilot study was carried out at Catholic University of Louvain, Brussels, Belgium in which 100 women between 18 and 42 years participated. Two different VR therapeutic strategies were implemented. 56 women underwent a therapeutic VR session in which they experienced walking underwater cut off from all ambient noise. The remaining 44 underwent VR-based hypnosis. VR-based hypnosis slowed down the respiratory rates and calmed down the patients. The anxiety scores were found to decrease in both the types of therapeutic strategies. The average anxiety scores reportedly fell from 40 to 23.

5. Mothers Of Atlas

Temme (Tech+Femme) Media’s first virtual reality film Mothers of the Atlas, a project with Qualcomm Wireless Reach and Trice Imaging, premiered at the Social Good Summit during the United Nations General Assembly in New York in March 2018.  The purpose of the film was to showcase how mobile technology can reduce maternal mortality in remote areas, such as Morocco, where it was produced.


Sybil Steel, Founder of Temme Media

Sybil Steele launched Temme Media as an immersive creative studio dedicated to informing and inspiring women’s journeys through virtual reality (VR), augmented reality (AR) and other emerging technologies. Temme Media is a platform to make sure girls and women have a strong voice in immersive media.

Conclusion

Women empowerment is a major solution to some of the extant challenges in developing countries like ‘Food Security’ and ‘Better Health and Sanitation’. This is primarily because most households are looked after by women. Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) have lately changed the art of storytelling. Unlike the traditional modes of entertainment, the viewer is active and immerses into the environment shown in his VR headset. The latest technological innovations have brought affordable VR headsets like HTC Vive and Oculus Rift into the market. Although VR is not mainstream and currently at its infancy, it has got tremendous potential and we can expect it to solve a few more socio-economic problems. In fact, Virtual Reality is an ‘Empathy Machine’ that can help women voice their plight.

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