KAMPALA – As of January 2020, there were 2.50 million social media users in Uganda. This number increased by 532 thousand (+27%) between April 2019 and January 2020 and social media penetration in Uganda stood at 5.6% in January 2020.
Reports by the International Telecommunications Union show that the global proportion of women using the internet is 12% lower than that of men.
According to a report released by Pollicy.org, in Ethiopia for example, Facebook, and additionally, Telegram were the main platforms where women experienced online violence.
The prominence of social media platforms such as Facebook, Whatsapp and Telegram among others can be due to two main reasons; Facebook does not require the verification of users on signup (such as providing a phone number), making it easier for one to hide their identity while using the platform and there are no evident community standards on closed platforms such as Telegram with sole authority resting on the administrator of these large groups.
While respondents suffered from offensive name-calling and threats on Facebook, they were often doxxed on Telegram and were unable to remove this content.
“From my stand, I would say Telegram is unmanageable communication media. It is worrying and out of regulation. You can’t do anything about it. We can say the Facebook community standard is weak…but the good thing is it has a regulatory system. Revenge porn on Facebook takes 0.05 micro seconds until AI recognizes it after and it is immediately taken it down,” one of the responders in the research findings said.
She added that if your pornography is posted on Telegram, you can’t do anything, they wouldn’t take it down as far as she knew.
In both situations, the final outcome is the silencing of women and their dismissal from digital spaces. Looking deeper, the perpetrators use three overlapping strategies, namely intimidation, shaming, and discrediting to limit the voices, power, and influence of women in digital spaces.
The report says that women who have experienced online violence have also reported about its impact on their mental health, including but not limited to suffering from depression, anxiety, fear, and an overall sense of powerlessness.
In Senegal, 53% of women surveyed reported suffering from mental stress and anxiety. In Ethiopia, 20.4% reported problems with friends and family, 14.8% damage to reputation and 9.2% problems at their workplace. This gap widens further in countries in the global south, reaching up to 32.9%.
While some women respond to violence online by blocking perpetrators, others choose to leave online spaces (and offline spaces) completely.
A much smaller proportion reported blocking or un-following suspicious persons (8.4%), using VPNs (3.6%) or updating their applications (3.6%). Respondents who did not take any concrete steps to increase their safety online attributed their behavior to “never having thought about it” (25.7%) or “no one would take the time to hack my account” (34.6%).
Several of the women in the focus group discussions reported taking more stringent measures such as changing passwords frequently, keeping passwords confidential or using pseudonyms on digital platforms.
The in-depth interviews as well as quantitative data both illustrate how online violence affects mental health, and the interviews further go on to show that there is an immediate need for appropriate counselling tailored to the needs of women who have experienced online violence.
The report noted the important to understand that while research and legislation can be helpful in tackling online gender-based violence, recourse measures such as psychosocial support remain vital in supporting women who have experienced online violence.
Some women who would have been new users choose not to access the internet at all out of fear.
Sixty-six percent (66%) of the women we interviewed reported blocking perpetrators as means of responding to online violence. More disturbingly, 14.5% of women deleted or deactivated their accounts whereas 12.2% stopped using a digital service after experiencing online violence.