Towards a gender-just internet: Combating online violence against women
he United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which came into effect in 2016, include an important goal on gender equality while at the same time underscoring the crucial role that technology will play towards advancing women’s rights. Furthermore, a commitment is made through the SDGs to connect all people in least developed countries to the internet by 2020.
Also in 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council passed a resolution on the protection and promotion of online freedom as a human right; a watershed moment in the ongoing struggle for universal access to the internet. Significant changes are taking place with over 3 billion (almost 40% of the world’s population) now unique internet users globally. Yet even with this growth in internet access, there remain pertinent gendered disparities.
A recent survey carried out in nine countries in the global south by the World Wide Web Foundation found that women are about 50% less likely to be connected to the internet than men in the same age group with similar education levels and household income. A further breakdown of the same information shows that while women are almost as likely as men to own a mobile phone, they are a third less likely to use them to access the internet. Reasons for this range from patriarchal norms around women holding public (online) opinions to women’s unequal access to resources – such as finances for internet data – that enable them to be online.
At the same time as these factors, it cannot be ignored that women suffer a greater predisposition to online abuse and violence than men do. A 2014 survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that one in 10 women in the EU has experienced cyber-harassment since the age of 15. According to a report prepared by the European Institute for Gender Equality titled ‘Cyber violence against women and girls’, there are various forms of online violence against women including – but not confined to – non-consensual pornography (sometimes referred to as ‘revenge porn’), ‘slut-shaming’, unsolicited pornography, ‘sextortion’, rape and death threats and cyber stalking. According to the same report, research suggests that up to 90 % of ‘revenge porn’ victims are female and that that number is increasing
As Juliet Nanfuka, media and communications officer with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) notes, “Online narratives about women, particularly those in public positions is shaped primarily by a male audience who in many instances, particularly in Africa, have more access to the internet than their female counterparts.”
She adds that as a result of online violence, many women either then opt to completely remove themselves from the online public arena, or to practice self-censorship. As a result, women’s participation in political debates and discussions is severely curtailed.
It has also been observed that in some contexts, rates of online violence may correlate with high rates of offline violence and intimidation against women, as well as intimate partner abuse.
An example of the former is the case of Ugandan activist Dr Stella Nyanzi, who in April was seized by state agents, then held in police custody before being charged with cyber harassment for posting criticism of President Yoweri Museveni (which included reference to him as a pair of buttocks) and First Lady, Janet Museveni, via her Facebook account.
Prior to being taken in by state officials, Nyanzi had reported stalking and intimidation of her relatives (including her three children) and armed raids of her home. Nyanzi has since been suspended from her position within the public University of Makerere; a warning of the might of the state ideological apparatus against those – especially women – who speak up against it.
And rapidly across the global south, governments are promulgating legislation where online freedom of expression and assembly is increasingly framed as cybercrime. According to AccessNow, there were 56 documented cases of internet shutdowns in 2016; a figure significantly higher than that registered in 2015 when the same organisation reported 15 cases.
From Algeria to Zimbabwe, instances of internet blackouts have been observed across different parts of Africa with the large majority being linked to government directives to quell dissent during political protests and elections. In Chad, the government blocked social media after a contentious election result; something similarly authorised by governments in Uganda, Gambia and Gabon.
Nanfuka notes: “Hate speech laws [as they pertain to the online realm] have primarily been used to defend the interests and public image of politicians such as has been seen in Tanzania, where for instance, a Facebook post referring to President Magufuli as an ‘imbecile’ led to an arrest.”
She adds that there is little documentation of how these same laws have been used to curb online violence against women.
Stephanie MacLellan, a research associate with the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), further observes that while some progressive legislation on online violence does exist globally, it tends to address various aspects of online gender-based violence rather than provide a comprehensive, holistic response.
In 74% of countries included in the Web Index (the world’s first measure of the internet’s contribution to progress in countries globally), it is reported that law enforcement agents are failing to take adequate action in response to acts of gender-based violence where digital technology is involved. Part of the challenge of the dearth of women online can therefore be justifiably attributed to this important factor.
"Law enforcement agents are failing to take adequate action in response to acts of gender-based violence where digital technology is involved."
“Much of it [the solution] has to do with educating law enforcement and justice officials about the need to take online abuse as seriously as they would offline abuse, and to treat women with sensitivity and respect when they report abuse, as well as making sure officers have the technical skills to identify and investigate online abuse,” says MacLellan.
She adds that governments – in collaboration with civil society – also have a role in public awareness and education through informing women of their rights and how to exercise them, while making sure that general society understands the serious consequences of online abuse.
The private sector, particularly social media companies, also has an important role. In April, Facebook announced a new tool that will prevent the onward sharing of an intimate image (distributed without consent) via Facebook, Messenger and Instagram; a necessary step in beginning to address ‘revenge porn’. The National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) and Facebook have also recently collaborated to produce information materials for survivors of domestic violence, sexual assault and stalking on how to use Facebook while ensuring their safety and privacy. In yet more advocacy research conducted by the World Wide Web Foundation, online service providers were called upon to make it easier for women to report abuse – including in local languages.
MacLellan notes that abuse policies should be clear, transparent and easy to find, with clear and consistent measures for redress. “For example, in cases of Twitter “mobbing” where users receive hundreds or thousands of abusive emails in a coordinated effort, women had to report each individual tweet, which is onerous and discouraging,” she says.
As conduits to the internet, and not platforms for content production itself, the general omission of telecommunications companies from the rubric of advocacy around online violence appears to make some sense. However, the lines of distinction continue to blur within the sector, with both telecommunications companies and technology firms seeking to boost customer loyalty while guaranteeing profitability. As telecommunications companies and technology firms compete to position themselves as consumers’ main points of access to the internet, new forms of collaboration and cooperation across sectors need to emerge.
Synergetic relationships between governments, civil society and the private sector are increasingly seen as necessary towards improving general societal outcomes. A multi-sectoral approach to addressing online violence against women and girls is essential for the extensive mitigation of this rising phenomenon. As more women and girls enter the online world, it is imperative to make the space safer and more conducive for their self-actualisation needs.
To this end, all providers in the service chain of access need to be held accountable; and also, show their solidarity in fighting for a gender-just internet. This does not exempt governments from fulfilling their supreme mandate of ensuring that citizens enjoy the full spectrum of their rights online and offline. However, it does begin to augment efforts being made across the various sectors of society towards this goal. Just as fighting violence against women offline requires the investment and commitment of multiple actors and sectors, so too does fighting violence against women online.
(Main image: Thomas Trutschel/Photothek/Getty)
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of SAIIA or CIGI.