Tackling online gender-based violence

In line with the theme ‘Shrinking democratic space online – mobilising for a free, open and secure internet’, the Stockholm Internet Forum that was held last week in Sweden, addressed a number of obstacles that are rising with the growing digital trend, especially with the use of online platforms.

One of the issues that were discussed was ‘the shifting terrain of gender-based violence online’. During this session, panellists revealed how women are a target and subject for cyberstalking, online harassment and threats, noting that even though this form of violence comes off as virtual, the effects are daunting and real.

Harassment and abuse are taking new forms in the online space. Compared to their male peers, girls online are facing more threats of sexual violence, more comments about their appearance and behaviour, and are more often told not to speak out and have an opinion, this is according to information from Plan International’s website.

GBV online is huge yet really difficult to capture its skill and texture because it is constantly shifting, as tactics change and as technologies.  /Net 

Plan International’s research shows that just as it is in the offline world, harassment and bullying online is gendered. While many young people struggle with the pressures of social media, compared to their male peers, girls online are facing more threats of sexual violence.

What do stakeholders make of this unfortunate situation?

Jac sm Kee, the manager of Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Programme, thinks that what is encouraging this situation is impunity.

There is absolute impunity towards all of these actions because some perpetrators hide under anonymity, nobody knows them, she says.

Kee argues that GBV online is huge yet really difficult to capture its skill and texture because it is constantly shifting, as tactics change and as technologies emerge.

“How do we define it and how do we ensure that there is access to justice? All of this requires very consistent and sustainable documentation, modification of people who are experiencing this violence,” she says.

With this, she believes that there is a lot more research that needs to be done to understand what GBV online really means and what it entails.

Kee reasons that what fuels such negative vices is people’s desperate need for presence and followers on social media platforms, something she says makes people post just about anything to get shares and likes.

“It’s a bit of a struggle but these issues should be made more visible, they should be put in the open for people to understand what is happening and that this really has effects. We also need to know why it is a trend. Is it a movement of anti-gender ideology that we are really using to prevent empowerment?” she wonders.

With this, Kee therefore calls for close collaboration and specific analysis of what is happening.

“Let’s fight for a much healthier environment by coming together and recognising that this is the real issue. We need more engagement and most of all let’s be positive.”

Esther Esperanza, a gender activist, observes that the violence experienced online is just a reflection of what is experienced on a daily basis only that it is more intense because of the opportunity for many to hide behind fake profiles.

Need to see the bigger picture

Irene Mizero, the founder of Mizero Care Organisation, says what people need to understand is that disrespecting women affects the entire society.

Mizero believes that most perpetrators who abuse women online hold personal grievances. He cannot wrap his mind around the idea that someone can choose to take to social media platforms with such ill manners.

He also partly blames journalists who seem to facilitate such behaviours by publishing or circulating certain content that undermines women empowerment.

“Sometimes you come across naked photos published in some journals, this has to stop and journalists need to use professionalism,” he says.

Mizero, hence, says that there is need to address online harassment to ensure a safe space for women online because it limits their rights to free and full participation.

“There should be public awareness that there is a legitimate and harmful manifestation of gender-based violence. There should also be a partnership between individuals and government so that the voices of women who experience online harassment can be heard.  Of course those women can raise their voices, experiences and be part of the solutions,” he says.

Gender activist Sharon Mbabazi says this vice is fuelled by several factors, noting that one of the many is cultural beliefs.

“In most cultures, they take men to be right and their opinions to be valid, however, when it comes to women it is vice versa. The digital era we are living in, people are free to share their opinions though in most cases women end up being harassed and insulted, this shouldn’t happen in the first place because every individual is entitled to their opinion,” she says.

She says that such is so intimidating because it affects women’s self-esteem and confidence to the extent that they start to shy away from sharing what they believe in and their opinions.

“It hinders progress since it’s biased, where one’s view is taken under consideration and the other is attacked.”

Stakeholders need to act

Frane Maroevic, Director of the Office of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) and representative on freedom of the media, says social media platforms should crack a whip against fake accounts because people hide behind them and insult others.

He notes that there is need to look at online space in a slightly different way because there is a way people behave differently online and offline. Why do people feel the ability to behave irresponsibly online when at times they cannot behave that way when they are face-to-face with someone? Maroevic questions.

“Such speech is not necessarily illegal but it is damaging, so how do you deal with this? We need to see how we can work with governments to address these threats to be taken far more seriously,” he says.

“We need more practical solutions, and support from colleagues is important. We need good people to speak out but sometimes people who have a positive views cannot express themselves.”

Esperanza says she would like to see more spaces open to women, “We need to take time to see that what we publish is sexist free and more sensitive, this should be an issue that concerns us all. Let’s continue to speak up about our reality and give a response to whatever is happening.”

Mbabazi shares her view, saying that this can be dealt with by enforcing punishments for the attackers, and that more can also be done through sensitisation.

“Freedom of speech is a right that every human being must enjoy and this applies to the right to share your opinions online, whether you are a male or female it makes no difference.”

What can be done to address online gender-based violence?

Women should invest in self-awareness because this will help them understand their worth. This way, they will know how to deal with those harassing them. And, knowing their worth will help them undermine any harsh comment thrown to them online. Women should also know the difference between online and real life, they have to understand that any attack online should not be a downfall in real life.

Barbara Burabyo, Photographer


If comments are about what they wear and post, this is harassment and it is bad, but I cannot say the same if a woman posts a half-naked picture of herself— yes, it is her right but you have to accept everything that comes with it and the fact that it is on social media. People who should be punished are the ones that post pictures that were shared in privacy, but if you posted it yourself, accept whatever comes with it.

Shadia Mfuranzima, Journalist


Society needs to recognise this form of violence. They need to understand that even though this happens on line, it has real effects in the lives of women.

Jamil Sentamu, Businessman


Just like there are numerous measures in place to fight offline violence, the same should be done for this form of violence. But first of all, there should be campaigns sensitising people on how dangerous online gender-based violence can be for women and men as well.

Pie Kombe, Reflexologist

editor@newtimesrwanda.com

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