We need more research on SGBV in local online spaces

This year’s figures by the Rwanda National Public Prosecution Authority (NPPA) show some increase in cases of sexual and gender-based violence, including defilement of minors, rape and domestic violence.

However, the NPPA also indicates that use of ICT has boosted its capacity to investigate and prosecute GBV related and other crimes.

This is noteworthy, as an integrated electronic system eases case management, especially with the expansion of internet and technological reach across the country.

But, with the draft law criminalising cybercrime having been passed by the Chamber of Deputies in May this year, we should also mind issues of internet-based sexual and gender-based violence and how prevalent they may be in Rwanda, if at all.

The internet and our interactions there-in is a reflection the physical world we inhabit and, like any other technology, does not offer a gender-neutral environment.

Even as it has served to empower us in every sector, it is also subject to abuse, including often being used like a club to attack and/or silence its victims.

Therefore, is it that no case of online abuse has been reported, or there could be individuals that have been cyber bullied into silence frustrating their cases capture by the NPPA?

Sometime in July 2015, the Rwanda National Police unearthed a child pornography ring in the country connected with a paedophile case in the United Kingdom the RNP were collaborating with the British police.

That same year in Kenya, a 19 year-old student committed suicide after a man she met through Facebook threatened to publish her nude photos.

And, in Uganda, the following year, a budding 21 year-old broadcast journalist was brutally disgraced when her naked photos were stolen and leaked on social media. This forced her to cut short her promising TV career and relocate to another country.

These only go to show that cases of online abuse are not unknown in Rwanda or the region.

However, as reported in the media in the country in 2015, no research had as yet been conducted to find out the extent of child online abuse or other abuse in cyberspace.

The cybercrime Bill passed last May now anticipates these. The then Chairperson of the Standing Committee on Education, Technology, Culture and Youth, Agnes Mukazibera, was quoted explaining to “the MPs that the law had been thoroughly scrutinised to especially protect children.”

More broadly, the anticipated law targets to safeguard private and government information and infrastructure against online crimes and cyber-attacks, as well as crimes of a more personal nature relating to adult online sexual and gender-based violence.

It reads in part: “Anyone who displays, distributes or publishes indecent documents, sounds, pictures or videos, or takes pictures, videos or sounds of any person without his or her consent or knowledge or displays or distributes information in a manner that substantially increases the risk of harm or violence to any other person, commits an offence.”

However, even as the social malady should keep rearing its head, it is not only Rwanda, but across the region and the world, reminding us of the battles that remain to tackle factors at the socio-cultural and economic realms that enable gender-based violence in its various manifestations.

Consequently, scholars have been looking at the online phenomenon of trolling, of which I think it would serve to be clear about what it is about – and especially the law being more explicit about how it manifests – to clarify on how online spaces are being used by individuals to perpetrate sexual violence, sexual harassment and domestic violence.

Therefore, in as much as it may relate to SGBV, one may presume the proposed law refers to an identified range of behaviours that may include the following types: Relationship retribution, where revenge is a motivation within the context of a current or past intimate relationship; “Sextortion”, where the perpetrator seeks to obtain further images, money, or unwanted sexual acts using existing images, or the threat of images, regardless of whether or not they exist.

Another is “sexual voyeurism”, where perpetrators are seeking to create or distribute images as a form of sexual gratification, including (but not limited to) “upskirting” and “down-blousing”.

Others are “sexploitation”, where the primary goal is to obtain monetary benefits through the trade of non-consensual imagery; and “sexual assault”, where perpetrators or bystanders record sexual assaults and rapes on mobile phones or other devices and then distribute those images via mobile phone or online.

These are well documented and the descriptions in the public domain, and include online sexual harassment that may comprise “coercive sexting” that entails being pressured into sending intimate images, or the receipt of unsolicited nude or sexual images.

Images may be “selfies” taken by the victim, or taken by another person. They could include stolen images, or images that are manipulated in order to depict the victim’s face or body in a sexual way.

It is an area understanding of which largely lacks in our local cyber contexts, but that our local scholars should delve into and explore to better counter and safeguard privacy rights in the EAC and within the different countries.

Twitter: @gituram

The views expressed in this article are of the author.