Fighting online harassment and violence against African women

The consequences are far-reaching. The effects can be psychological and physical
African women fighting online sexual violence

Technological innovations have without a doubt changed the way we live in the 21st century. One of such innovations that have proven to be a blessing to humanity is the Internet. From the ease of acquiring information to fast communication, you name it. But, like many other things, the digital space has its downsides. This is the case with online media. 

The online space has offered a platform for the voiceless and oppressed in the society to air their views and opinions on issues affecting them but at the same time, has served as the hub for verbal abuse, threats, bullying, cyberstalking and other similar vices. This dark side of the internet has become a major source of worry to many. Sadly, women are majorly at the receiving end of these vices. Women have been threatened, abused and harassed online for airing their opinions, for being women.

This is even worse in some African societies where patriarchy thrives and women are still looked upon as being inferior to their male counterparts. The invention of the internet offered a channel through which individuals are able to hide behind a screen, somewhere, anywhere. The anonymity of the internet makes it easy for bullies, harassers, and others to employ verbal abuse, intimidation tactics, blackmail and threats predominantly at women. The aim? To intimidate women and young girls into keeping silent, not sharing their stories, and in some cases, leaving the digital space altogether.

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One example of what women go through on our cyberspace in Africa is what happened in the aftermath of the 2019 Vice Presidential Debate in Nigeria. The host, Kadariah Ahmed received hundreds of hate messages and comments threatening violence against her. Those who sent the messages felt that Ahmed was biased with her questions and the manner with which she asked them. But is that reason enough to threaten someone with physical violence? We also have to ask ourselves would a male host have received the same level of online abuse and threats? The answer is no. 

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A report by the European Institute for Gender Equality titled ‘Cyber Violence against women and girls’ listed various forms of online violence against women. They include slut-shaming, non-consensual pornography, revenge porn, sextortion, rape and death threats among others. It further reported that up to 90% of ‘non-consensual’ porn victims are women and the number keeps increasing. 

Another report by the Media Foundation for West Africa in 2018 found online harassment is one of the major challenges Ghanaian women face on the Ghanian Cyberspace. Furthermore, research conducted by the Association of Media Women in Kenya showed that among the common attacks targeted at female journalists in Kenya are cyber stalking, sexual harassment, surveillance and unauthorized use and manipulation of personal information, images and videos. The survey said that women journalists were targets for these types of targeted harassment because of the topics they cover. The topics are politics, sports, sexuality and lifestyle.

Many believe that the numbers of female victims of online abuse and harassment are underreported. The consequences are far-reaching. The effects can be psychological and physical – from total loss of confidence, and distrust to humiliation, loss of respect, and even suicide. In 2015, a 19-year-old Kenyan student committed suicide after a man she met on Facebook threatened to post her nude photos online.

This ugly incident happened during the opening of the Forum on Internet Freedom in East Africa which was held in Kampala Uganda. The Forum brought together people from across Africa and beyond to debate issues impacting online freedom of expression and cybersecurity in Africa. Participants included law enforcement officers, communication regulators, media, human rights defenders, legal practitioners, tech experts amongst others.

What measures have been put in place to make the digital space safer for women and girls? What is being done to help fight online harassment of African women? Do tech companies have policies in place regarding abuse, harassment and threats? How easy is it to make a report?  Where are African governments in terms of legislation that will protect internet users and particularly women when it comes to these issues online? 

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The United Nations

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur On Violence Against Women, Its Causes and Consequences, presented a report to the Human Rights Council. The report emphasized the importance of adopting a human rights-based approach in combating online violence against women. In June 2018, the G7 made commitments to end sexual and gender-based violence, abuse and harassment in digital contexts. The G20 also stated they were committed to addressing cyberviolence towards girls and women to facilitate their online presence and participation. 

Nigeria in the fight against online harassment of women in Africa

In 2015, the National Assembly passed The Cybercrimes (Prohibition, Prevention, Etc) bill into law. The Act aims to provide an effective and unified legal, regulatory and institutional framework for the prevention, prohibition, detection, prosecution and punishment of cybercrimes in Nigeria. 

The Act criminalizes both cyberbullying and cyberstalking. Cyberstalking is defined to include:

(i) knowingly sending grossly offensive, pornographic, indecent, menacing or obscene messages 

(ii) knowingly sending a false message for the purpose of causing harm

(iii) knowingly transmitting any communication to bully, threaten or harass another, causing fear of death, violence or bodily harm.

(iv) knowingly transmitting a message with a threat to kidnap, or request any ransom for the release of any kidnapped person

(v) knowingly transmitting any threat to harm the property or reputation of a person

The Act provides that an accused person who is alleged to have committed any of the Cybercrime offences shall be liable on conviction to a fine of not more than ten million Naira or imprisonment for a term not exceeding three years or to both such fine and imprisonment. The court in her discretion can also make an interim order for the protection of victims from any further exposure to the alleged offences.

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How social media companies can help fight online harassment against African women

It appears that most online social platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Twitter rely heavily on their anti-abuse filters, account blocking and muting options in the fight against harassment, violence and bullying on their platforms. Though social media companies can directly report incidents of violence and harassment to the police, it appears they are not doing that. They appear to be taking only reactive measures. With this, online violence may continue to happen no matter the amount of effort put by the government and users to curb it. It is still at the discretion of the victims to decide whether to report or not. Earlier this year, women and feminist organisations complained that Facebook does not act on half of the abuse and harassment reports made on its platform.

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The fight against online harassment against African women is one that can be won. But only when countries across Africa and regional bodies set up adequate legal frameworks to curb these vices and also back it up with implementation. But most importantly, there is an urgent need for African governments to establish agencies whose key roles should include sensitizing people on these issues through workshops, rehabilitating traumatized victims of online violence and also encouraging them to report these cases while guaranteeing their safety at the same time. 

In the end, we all lose when women and girls cannot freely express themselves in a space where anyone regardless of location, gender, affiliation, socio-economic class, educational level and more is “supposed” to be welcome.

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