KAMPALA – The growth of internet users has brought about social and economic benefits on a global scale. It is no doubt that the internet has become an effective tool for instant communication and is used for productive and useful purposes.
However, the internet growth seems to be becoming negatively impactful to the lives of many, particularly women and girls through significant harms such as online violence, disinformation, and hate speech.
A study by Policy, (feminist civic tech organization) revealed that 1 in 3 women in Uganda had been victims of online violence and 66 percent had resorted to blocking perpetrators while 14.5 percent had deactivated their social media accounts to escape the abuse.
Reports indicate that discriminatory gendered practices are shaped by social, economic, cultural, and political structures in the physical world and are similarly reproduced online across digital platforms.
In a bid to end this, the United Nations Population Fund – UNFPA has on Wednesday held a 16 Days Media E-Chat intended at combining efforts to fight the practice.
Dr. Edson Muhwezi, the Assistant Representative, UNFPA has said that globally there has been an increase in digital violence against women and girls and Uganda is no exception.
“Violence online is real, wrong and we must stop it.”
He said that online harassment has gone rampant from cyberstalking and hate speech to doxxing and the non-consensual use of images and video—such as deepfakes.
“Perpetrators may without permission attach pictures of women and girls’ faces to sexualized bodies and share them widely over social media,” said Dr, Muhwezi.
“No, more than ever, this is the moment of turning words into reality for women and girls by accelerating efforts, ending gender-based violence and other harmful acts by 2030,” he urged.
According to the Economist Intelligence Unit*, 85% of women with access to the internet reported witnessing online violence against other women, and 38% experienced it personally. Around 65% of women surveyed have experienced cyber-harassment, hate speech and defamation, while 57% have experienced video and image-based abuse and ‘astroturfing’, where damaging content is shared concurrently across platforms.
Ms. Lucy Ladira, Advisor, Criminal Justice, Governance and Security Programme Secretariat said that normally, women are targeted specifically across multiple platforms.
She said that these attacks often employ malignant creativity—the use of coded language; iterative, context-based visual and textual memes; and other tactics to avoid detection on social media platforms.
“For instance, abusers often send threats with deliberate typos to avoid detection by algorithms.”
“The expansive reach of social media platforms magnifies the effects of psychological abuse by making those effects seem anonymous, borderless, and sustained, hence undermining women’s sense of personal security in ways not experienced by men,” she said.
Ms. Ladira said that a recently released research study by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) looked at online safety for women.
“The findings show that despite having a lesser presence on the internet, more women are likely to face various forms of online violence compared to their male counterparts, further undermining their participation in online spaces.”
Ladira said that they are challenged by the fact that the subject matter of online sexual abuse is new to all duty bearers in the country and there is a need to create awareness amongst several individuals.
Also, she said that there is limited public awareness about the existence of online sexual abuse amongst the key parts of the population that are affected by this crime like the children, parents and teachers.
According to her, there is no specific law that constitutes the offence of online child sexual abuse and exploitation.
“There are no clear policy guidelines on how to handle the various aspects of the offences especially in relation to the management of victims, investigations and prosecutions.”
Ms Batula Hassan Abdi, Senior Policy Advisor said that most of the digital harassment victims suffer self-censorship as women and girls start censoring themselves online.
She said that the act also keeps women away from participating in major sectors of the public sphere.
“Online violence is a public health issue which results in physical, sexual, psychological and economic harm and erodes self-esteem,” she said.
Ms. Ulrike Kahbila Mbuton, human rights officer, UN Human Rights said that with the increasing levels of digitalisation over the years, there is a need – now more than ever before – to protect human rights online, especially through prevention and response to digital violence.
“In today’s digital age, the Internet and ICT are rapidly creating new social digital spaces that are transforming how we meet, communicate and interact. While the internet is a good tool for realising human rights, in particular the freedom of expression, this also tends to be abused and has served as a channel to perpetrate human rights violations. Digital violence – especially against women – has emerged as one of the negative consequences of digitalisation, and has become increasingly common, particularly with the use of social media platforms and other technical applications.”
She said that human rights are interdependent, saying that digital violence, therefore, has huge implications for the enjoyment of other human rights such as the right to health and the right to work, especially for victims of digital violence who have suffered mental health issues, and deprivation of professional and economic livelihoods for people whose work depends on digital and social media spaces.
“Digital violence also has huge implications for women’s right to political participation,” she said.
Ms. Mbuton recommended the following as ways to address digital violence in Uganda
- Appropriate normative and institutional framework, especially Independent regulatory mechanisms – must address the role and responsibility/liability of the primary perpetrators, secondary perpetrators (re-transmitters) and internet intermediaries. Possibility of ordering internet service providers to divulge the information required to identify perpetrators where necessary, injunction orders to take down or de-linked violent content from the result of searches
- Due diligence – effectively investigate and take action against perpetrators once they occur as well as provide redress and reparation to victims/survivors.
- Training – Skilled personnel is required to confront and eliminate online violence (law enforcement to judiciary and social services for survivors)
- Awareness-raising on the application of human rights in digital spaces, combat discrimination, intolerance and violence in digital spaces.
- Journalists to play a key advocacy role in highlighting these issues.