When popular gender activist Juliette Karitanya wrote a tweet suggesting that Rwandan men need to wear deodorant more often, she did not anticipate the backlash that would follow. This single tweet, written back in October 2019, would go on to completely change how she interacts online. At first, Karitanyi, also a feminist, says that the comments were general but soon after that, they escalated into personal attacks on her looks, her family, and her sex life among others. “It wasn’t supposed to be serious. I thought that maybe we would agree to disagree but soon enough, I realised that this tweet had been taken personally by many people. The comments were cruel. They wanted me to back off, but I was determined not to be pushed around by social media bullies,” she says. Karitanyi says that while she responded to most of the comments, she was stopped in her tracks when one of those commenting shared with her a video of a gruesome murder scene onto which he attached a clear warning that she would be next. “This was not the first time I was being attacked by men online. But this time, I was terrified. I realised that this could very easily escalate from online to physical violence. On my way home that day and many days after that, I constantly looked over my shoulder, scared that maybe someone was about to attack me,” she says. Since then, Karitanyi deals with episodes of anxiety when she is approached by strangers who recognise her from social media. “I am cautious because I don’t know if someone saying hello is the same person who was bullying me or sending me death threats. As a result, I have also minimised my social media engagements to only people with real and not pseudo accounts to preserve my mental health,” she says. Karitanyi’s story is one of many. Rwanda’s Demographic Health Survey 2019-20 indicates a high prevalence of violence against women and girls countrywide. Overall, 45 per cent of surveyed women aged 15-49 have experienced physical or sexual violence. Although Rwanda continues to register increased participation of women and girls in digital technology, online violence against women and girls has not been measured. Online or cyber violence is described as acts of gender-based violence (especially done against women) that result in, or are likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological, or economic harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life. This abuse includes but is not limited to direct or indirect threats of physical or sexual violence, trolling, hate speech, online harassment, cyberbullying, body shaming, cyberstalking, blackmail, defamation, non-consensual intimate images, public shaming, identity theft, and hacking. Reports indicate that online violence against women is increasing worldwide having hit its peak during the Covid-19 pandemic. As a result, this violence is affecting women’s online participation and threatening to alienate them from taking advantage of the opportunities that these platforms have to offer. Annonciata Mukayitete is the Senior Program Officer, Gender and Inclusion at Health Development Initiative (HDI). She says that while the internet is meant to give women a rare opportunity to express themselves freely, it has also exposed them to potential offline GBV. “Online abuse not only silences or censors women’s voices, but it also has the potential to impact women’s safety offline. Very often, for many women active online, social media threats can lead to fear for their physical safety and as a result, compromise their ability to freely express themselves,” she says. The numbers breakdown According to DataReportal (a portal designed to help people and organisations all over the world to find the data, insights, and trends they need to make better-informed decisions), as of January 2023, there were 4.25 million internet users in Rwanda. The portal also indicates that there were at least 800,000 social media users in Rwanda as of January 2023. Of these, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter registered—roughly—644,000, 264,000, and 218,000 users respectively. Although the number of men is less than that of women in Rwanda, the former has more access to the internet and social media platforms. For instance, Twitter indicates that 19.9 per cent of Twitter’s ad audience in Rwanda was female, while 80.1 per cent was male. Sylvie Nsanga is a feminist and digital inclusion activist. She is also popular on Rwandan social media circles for her strong voice on women rights related issues. As a result, she is often a target of online abuse. Nsanga has had troubling experiences having been a strategic target of abuse across multiple platforms, including Twitter Spaces, that are hosted to attack her as well as having her image manipulated to humiliate and sexualise her. “But why not back off and preserve your sanity?” I ask. “Many women fear being bullied and choose to keep away, so I fight knowing that I am doing it for many others. If all the women online live in fear of being bullied, who then will speak for us?” she asks in response. Nsanga tells me that comparing herself to women activists who came before her, pushes her to do more. “Women activists before me were not privileged to have the technology. They had no media platforms that enabled them to express themselves freely. They were not this lucky. If I don’t use this privilege to push for equality even further, then who will? If not now, then when?” she asks. Nsanga, who holds a Master’s Degree in Sustainable International Development with a focus on ICT for Development, says that although the cyber law seeks to mainly prevent and punish cybercrimes, there is a disconnect between the law and implementation. “The law can only be helpful if the people that it is meant for, are aware of its provisions and know how to report the crimes. Some of those committing these crimes are not even aware that they are breaking the law. Neither do the victims know that what is happening is criminal and is punishable by the courts of law,” she says. For instance, Article 35 of the Law on the Prevention and Punishment of Cybercrimes says that any person who, intentionally, uses a computer or a computer system to display or distribute information in a manner that substantially increases the risk of harm or violence to any other person; commits an offence. Upon conviction, he/she is liable to imprisonment for a term of not less than six months and not more than two years and a fine of not less than Rfw1M and not more than Rfw2M. However, the prosecution of offenses under this article is only pursued upon complaint of the offended person. Nsanga points out that for Rwanda to be able to fully embrace the digital economy, efforts must be made in putting in place a human-centred approach. “Technology does not benefit anyone if it is not safe,” she says. She suggests that just like it is done for other crimes, the government should invest in online surveillance mechanisms that detect this abuse. “We are holding big technology companies accountable, but we would like to see our governments also put in extra effort to protect users, especially women and girls,” she says. The journey continues In February 2022, local journalist Scovia Mutesi, who runs the Mama Urwagasabo online media house stunned social media users when she successfully sued one Prudence Iraguha for using the social media platform, Whatsapp, to insult her. Filed in Gasabo Primary Court, Mutesi accused Iraguha of insulting her in public and inciting others to do so, in a case that she said was aimed at making an example of others who continue to use social media to harass others. On April 1, the court found Iraguha guilty and slapped him with two months of a suspended sentence and a Rwf20,000 fine. Iraguha was also ordered to pay Rfw500,000 and Rwf10,000 in attorney and court fees. “I was not interested in his money. I sued him to prove to everyone that social media bullying should not be tolerated because the laws against it exist,” she said at the time. Natacha Umutoni is the Project Lead of Women@WebRwanda, an initiative started by the DW Akademie in 2018 seeking to enhance women in urban and semi-urban areas who only have basic internet skills and those who are active online but don’t know how to respond to threats and cyberbullying. The initiative is also based in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda. Umutoni says that as digitalisation grows annually, so does the need to equip women with the tools to protect themselves online. “Based on the needs of these women, as network partners, we developed a curriculum with modules on digital platforms, digital rights, digital citizenship, digital security, digital storytelling, and digital resilience to support women getting online, those who are online and victims of online violence,” she says. Besides women, the initiative also trains duty bearers including Rwanda Investigation Bureau (RIB), members of the media, and activists among others. Since they began, they have trained at least 310 people.