Violence Against Women Online Stifles Freedom of Expression

Violence Against Women Online Stifles Freedom of Expression


The right to freely express oneself is a fundamental right. Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights” states – “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

The Internet is a new platform for women in Africa to engage freely. However, this freedom has been stifled by online violence against women, manifested in cyberbullying, threats online, body shaming, “revenge porn”, patriarchy and misogyny.
Prior to the African Internet Governance Forum, I attended a Gender and Internet Governance eXchange workshop in Durban that gave me a platform to reflect on the subject of online violence against women and freedom of expression.

The workshop made it clear that many times when women are faced with violence online, they retreat and disengage. Violence against women online is an extension of existing offline violence. What happens online is a reflection of our society. Have you heard the phrase, “It’s just Twitter”? Well, if it is not okay offline, it is not okay online.

From the discussions, men online seem to have the entitlement of women’s nude pictures, which they share to get attention (likes and retweets) and use them to get leverage for a failed advance or relationship. When that happens, many women go into hiding.

A report by Thomson Reuters on “Taboos in Southern Africa” reveals that in Mozambique, some men think that it is a taboo for women to use the internet. Men for centuries in Africa have had access to land and other resources, and now they have also taken over the access to the internet, as is the case of Mozambique. There is need to challenge cultural practices that inform attitudes about perception of women.

And yet, the mainstream media is not helping as they continue to fuel gender stereotypes, click-bait using women’s bodies, and trivialise serious women’s issues.

What therefore needs to be done?

It is important that government bodies – the police and judiciary – are trained to deal with these new challenges.

Activists can equip online users with the tools that are needed to empower women online to be in control of what they are sharing. They should know about what is safe and what is not safe to share. Women need to be in control of what they share online; this control can only be achieved when women are made aware. It is important to break down legal instruments and share them widely for women to know about them when seeking redress.

Creating safe sisterhood online platforms where women can report and share their stories in a safe space is also needed, because online violence thrives in silence.

There is need to challenge laws that police women’s bodies, such as the Anti-Pornography Act that was passed in Uganda in 2015, which works against the victims of “revenge porn”.

Internet intermediaries have a role to play in responding quickly to reports of violence against women online.

Everyone that is online has the responsibility to stop violence against women online and make a commitment to not share anything that is damaging to anyone’s reputation.

Women’s voices are important for any country to progress. It is therefore critical that we speak up against violence against women online.

First published  on the APC blog 

Ugandan Women Online and The Challenges They Have To Overcome

Ugandan Women Online and The Challenges They Have To Overcome

Picture Source: Internet

Women in Uganda use the Internet for business, political dialogue, to blog their thoughts, share beauty and hair tips, counsel, to inspire, to advocate, , to connect, to chat, to rant, and whatever.

It is ideally supposed to be space for free expression. What happens when this space is invaded?

I thought I should ask my online female friends whether they had faced any challenges online and what they had done to deal with these challenges. Stalking, harassment, verbal abuse and self-censorship came across as some of the challenges women face online. The perpetrators are both men and women.

Evelyn: “Yes I have; there are so many of them but I think the biggest one would be the constant disrespect most women get from our male counterparts online. I have been stalked several times with someone obtaining my contacts from someone else and calling me at odd hours, texting me, stalking my Instagram and Facebook. When I didn’t do much, they start insulting me, filling my mentions with hatred from different fake accounts. I used to censor myself on what I say online due to how women are perceived but after some years I have learned to speak my mind.” I have been insulted several times after I said No to men/ women online or responded to them about some of the mean comments they give to women online. Of course there are situations I have said something stupid and been castigated by my friends about, then I have to apologize for that. The saddest experience online though is seeing how we women go up against each other because we seem to interpret feminism differently. And of-course those who find joy in putting others down”

Maria “Can I call it Stalking? This happened two to three years ago, I was in a conversation with a male acquaintance that I had recently befriended on Facebook, and they randomly referred to an event in life that I had posted in 2006! After more interactions with this person I realized they had scanned all my social media profiles, and even downloaded my photos to their phone. One of my biggest challenges online is total lack of social media etiquette. I find it weird when some people start privately texting, whatsapping or DMing me about posts or tweets I have made. Yet they will never publicly post a comment. It’s a public post, they should comment on the post publicly! When they only ever approach me privately over a simple post, I can’t help but feel like I am being watched and I feel very uncomfortable. I have had to block and restrict a number of people because of this behavior. Because nothing physical is being done, I can’t report such behavior. What to do?” Not everyone is like this. But it certainly makes you paranoid.

Lucinda: I have had stalkers online. People pretend to want to do business with me then I invest in a lot of time only to realize that all this time the person was interested in a date. I have tried to be polite by telling them that I am a married woman and Facebook is strictly for business. If they persist, I block them.

Linda: Uhm as a woman, not exactly, but as a young adult using social media, the biggest challenge is self censorship which is a necessary defense mechanism against being attacked for my opinions, I have dealt with it by having sufficiently informed opinions which I can back however bold, with facts and truths.

Emily: Well, I was attacked for my political views, the troll hurled insults at me, he told me that I was rubbish and that I had no Idea of what I was talking about. I blocked him immediately.

Women cannot afford to acclimatize to abusive online behavior that distresses them, if tolerated, online abuse just like physical violence is detrimental. It can cause women to reduce their online activity yet only 1 in 9 women in Africa use the internet.

So then what must women do? Stand up, speak out, do not feed the troll, and do not indulge the stalker, empower other women.

So how far is too far?

Dr Emma Short a Co-Founder at the National Centre for Cyber-stalking Research and a leading researcher on online harassment says, “you’ve gone too far in your online activities if you know your actions are upsetting another person: “Once you are causing fear and distress through your communication and you know the communication is unwanted, then you are engaged in harassment which is against the law.”

Take Back the Tech defines Technology-based violence against women (tech-based VAW) encompasses acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs).