World Pulse’s ‘web’ of women keeps growing

BY Larisa Epatko  September 30, 2013 at 4:00 PM EDT

Photo by Scott Stulberg/Corbis Images

In her early 20s, Jensine Larsen was working as a freelance journalist in Burma and the Amazon region of South America, and learned that many of the stories affecting women weren’t being reported in the media. She then realized that women shouldn’t have to depend on the media to tell their stories. “If we want to solve water issues and health care, the only way we can solve them is by listening to women,” she told the PBS NewsHour recently over the phone.

Larsen, a Portland, Ore., native, visualized a place where women could report for themselves, and founded World Pulse magazine, which came out with its first edition in 2004.

As technologies and social media evolved, so did World Pulse, and it launched an online component in 2007 with the goals of bringing women together and giving them a voice and the ability to improve their communities and their lives.

“We’re not about professional journalists, we’re more about that emerging woman leader who’s just coming online and has a powerful contribution to make,” Larsen said.

For example, one of its users, Neema Namadamu, is an activist in the Democratic Republic of Congo, known for its civil war and violence toward women. She spoke Sept. 22 during the Social Good Summit in New York City.

Diagnosed with polio as a youth, Namadamu told the audience that many people in her hometown wrote her off as a “lost cause.” But later in life, she connected through the website with other women in DR Congo and around the world to form Maman Shujaa — “Hero Women” in Swahili — to advance women’s rights. The group opened a women-only media center with 28 computers in April to help women communicate their causes and mobilize.

A video explains how World Pulse works.

Since its modest beginnings, World Pulse has signed up about 60,000 women in more than 200 countries. (View some of its correspondents in this interactive map.) It’s funded by private donors, business partnerships and foundations.

One of World Pulse’s community members is Stella Paul, who lives in the city of Hyderabad in southern India.

She got involved in World Pulse in the summer of 2011. “I had just resigned from my last job to report stories that I really cared for such as gender, women’s health and so on. But every editor I approached turned down my story pitch.”

World Pulse was offering a 6-month online journalism course at the time. She applied and was one of 31 women journalists from 28 countries selected. “These six months completely turned around my life.”

Paul now writes about gender-related issues and, as a board member of World Pulse, helps train women to use the website and how to network with different international women’s organizations and women’s rights leaders.

She said one of the technical challenges is training women who don’t know English on software systems that are often written only in English.

Stella Paul (center) with an all-women village council in Warangal district of Andhra Pradesh state in India.

The hurdles can be cultural as well. In the developing world in particular, said Paul, women must ask permission of their families to be trained on computers, and they don’t always get it. “Oftentimes, the family discourages them saying ‘there is no use of learning this. It is not going to make a master out of you.’ This really affects the women and they begin to feel both scared and demoralized.”

But when women in those settings do get the training, there is a “visible change” in their attitudes, said Paul. “She begins to feel confident of herself and doesn’t feel shy any longer to speak of issues that are normally considered taboo, such as domestic violence, corruption by local employers, etc.”

It’s rare, but sometimes the comments can be harassing or even threatening, said World Pulse’s founder Larsen. The organization uses its worldwide network to monitor the website all day and night. Staff members issue warnings or block accounts of those who continue the verbal attacks.

World Pulse has less participation in countries that have heavy Internet censorship, such as Iran, Syria and China, Larsen continued. But the women even in those countries, or in the diaspora, can work around the censors with alternate email accounts.

Eventually, Larsen said she would like the growing local and regional hubs of women to lead World Pulse’s online network. But she said she hopes the network itself will always be there.

“I’m not so sure there will ever be a day when women won’t need a space to gather,” she said.

The reporting for this piece was supported in part by the U.N. Foundation’s press fellowship program. See more of the PBS NewsHour’s Social Entrepreneurship profiles.