Surfers against social injustice

Sophia Chauchard-Stuart looks at Aviva, a lively Web site inspired by India's bandit queen
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Inspired by hearing Phoolan "Bandit Queen" Devi speak about poverty and oppression in the run-up to the general elections in India last year, Kate Burke became angry that Devi's words were largely ignored by the mainstream media. The feeling was electric when Devi spoke. But, as Burke knew, such enthusiasm to right the world's wrongs would disappear soon after the event was over - unless there was something that could continue to fuel the debate.

So Aviva was born, last November. The name was chosen as a word that drew on the root for "life" in many languages, with a feminine suffix. "I wanted a name that would convey the enthusiasm we all felt about the project," Burke explains.

The project was initially planned as a international magazine for women, heavily informed by both feminism and activism, but Burke soon realised that the cost of printing and distributing it worldwide would be too great. Her partner suggested the Web. He was particularly interested in technology and pointed out that the costs were minimal, with a fast-emerging readership.

Burke had never surfed the Net before, but was persuaded. She set about negotiating 10Mb worth of space and an account on TotalWeb's server, and is now a cautious fan of the Internet's possibilities.

"Surfing the Net held no attractions for me," Burke says, "as I would come to realise it does not for many women."

With her experience of print (she worked on the listings magazine City Limits during the Eighties) and knowledge of socio-political issues through her MA in gender studies at Birkbeck College, London, Burke drew together a small team of volunteers. Day-to-day editing is carried out in her flat in west London, mostly by Burke herself and Patience Agyare-Kwabi, a fellow Birkbeck student and a journalist on various African publications.

Unfortunately, the site is rather badly designed and contains typographic errors, but the enthusiasm is evident. Burke was keen for Aviva to be vivid. "I love colours; I'm not a pastels person," she says. "I don't want us to hide our light under a bushel." But the title page takes an age to download - not the right idea when most users just want to get to the information - and the button bar of flower emblems is slightly twee for a site dealing with serious issues. Still, it is early days yet, and the site is improving all the time.

Aviva's influence as a centralised source of information about oppression, poverty and other ills worldwide is growing. Burke has written a chapter in the forthcoming book from the civil rights campaigning organisation Liberty, Civil Liberties and the Internet. Since its launch, Burke has been contacted by activist organisations from as far afield as Mexico, Nepal, Peru and Palestine. News from these places is available on Aviva, together with contacts at the relevant government bodies responsible for civil rights abuses. As Aviva can provide new information each day, response to current issues is immediate.

With the increasing commercialisation of the Web, it is heartening to see a small corner of ferocious activism alive and well. As Burke agrees: "It's been remarkably straightforward. I had a vision of what I wanted and it's a success. I get so many e-mails every day from women around the world, offering support and thrilled at the possibilities of Aviva".