Southern Africa: We Must Protect Women from Cyber Violence

women Internet violence ICTs
Wednesday, 21 September, 2011 - 10:00

Government, civil society organisations and other stakeholders should work together to empower women to use the Internet safely in order to protect them from cyber violence

Most people see Facebook as a fun way to chat with friends, post pictures and keep up with news. Social networking has become such a large part of our lives it sometimes seems it has always been around. However, it is a relatively new phenomenon and one women need to be cautious about, especially new, young and inexperienced users.

By posting intimate details of our movements, moods, holidays and new purchases, we could be making ourselves vulnerable to what is increasingly referred to as cyber violence. And the threat is growing.

A study by Oxygen Media and Lightspeed Research indicates that 57 percent of young women aged 18-34 years chat to people online instead of face-to-face. Facebook users spend more than 700 billion minutes per month on the site, updating every detail of their lives. But in sharing so much, we may be opening ourselves to abuse, cyber stalking, bullying and identity theft.

While watching television recently I lazily accepted a request from a ‘friend’ of a friend I had not spoken to or seen in 15 years. In viewing her profile, a picture in her friend list caught my eye. It was a close-up shot of a woman in a very skimpy pink bikini with one hand behind her head, and the other between her legs. It was a profile picture for all to see. At first I brushed it off; after all, everyone is entitled to represent themselves as they wish. Besides, partial nudity is not uncommon in the media.

A few hours later, however, my curiosity got the better of me and I was soon trying to find more information about this woman:

I did an Internet search but the only pages I found contained the same information as her Facebook profile.

I then revisited her profile, hoping to get more information about the company she keeps. This also drew a blank as she only had two ‘friends’, and the only information included was the name of her high school, full date of birth (born in 1973), full name (including middle name), and the picture.

Her profile settings were not secure, allowing anyone to view her photo and personal details, whether they were connected or not. She did not have much information included, but the picture, as they say, spoke a thousand words.

My bemusement that she would include this picture where potential employers could see it (increasing numbers of companies now routinely include Facebook and social networking sites in their reference checks for potential employees) slowly turned into suspicion that she could have been the victim of a smear campaign, perhaps on the part of an ex-partner with a score to settle. Who else could have had such an intimate photo of her? The use of her full name, birthdate and high school information could have been deliberately placed in order to bring as much attention as possible to her page, leaving no doubt as to her identity. The picture would attract the attention of all others.

The Association for Progressive Communications notes that almost one million adults are the victims of cyber-stalking every year. In many cyber crimes, women log onto the Internet to find their faces have been placed on pornographic pictures and posted, sometimes alongside personal information.

Imagine how many friends, family members, colleagues and mere acquaintances can access defamatory or damaging information about someone before it is removed? Facebook alone has 750 million active users around the world.

I use social media as an effective and quick means of communicating, socialising, sharing information related to my work, advertising products, connecting with colleagues and peers and undertaking HIV prevention and mitigation and women's rights advocacy. A large number of people use social networking for similar purposes, but there is a rising trend of these platforms (which women are increasingly encouraged to utilise) being used to intensify incidences of violence against women in the form of emotional abuse, sometimes as a precursor to physical violence. This is really scary.

Because of this there must be an increased effort to inform women how to protect themselves and also benefit from utilising social media. Women need more knowledge about how to use the Internet safely, how to identify web-based violence and on national laws and policies protecting them from violence perpetrated over the Internet.

"Take Back The Tech!", is one example of this. A South African collaborative campaign, it takes place during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence (25 November to 10 December) and is a useful resource for women. The campaign is a call to everyone, especially women and girls, to take control of technology to end violence against women. Its website has a wealth of information and tips for women on how to be safer online and how to protect their personal information when using the Internet.

There is more to cyber violence than pornography, which seems to be the most talked about form of online violence against women. We need to actively engage women and civil society organisations on these other issues, such as emotional abuse, cyber-stalking and identity theft. The anonymity of the Internet provides protection from identification and retribution and makes it easier to mount a campaign of abuse against someone, even from the other side of the world. The Internet can be both a tool for empowering and for terrorising women. They need to be given the tools to help reinforce the former and prevent the latter.

- Petronella Mugoni is a freelance writer. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. It is republished here with the permission of Gender Links

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