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Cyberviolence: Bane To The Freedom Of Women

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“It was humiliating. I did not know what to do. I couldn’t go out for weeks, and finally, my parents made me switch schools because of my bad reputation.”

A woman in her late 20s dictates an ingenious story of sexual exploitation, suffering a mental breakdown, and much more.  

“I joined Orkut messenger at the age of 16. In those days, Orkut was big, and I received ample requests and made dozens of new friends. So naturally, I spoke to many of them. However, I got close to a guy over time, and we began talking regularly.” 

She narrated: “One day, he asked me to share my pictures. I shared some with him, but he didn’t like them. Then, he asked me to share more revealing pictures, and when I refused, he stopped talking to me. I was only 16 and did not understand what was happening, and eventually I missed him.”

“A few days later, he texted that he missed me too, and that I should trust him. So before I realised the consequences, I shared some pictures with him.”

“What happened after that was worse than a nightmare, as many of my classmates shared these pictures a few days later, and everyone turned their backs upon me. The pictures were circulated all over the school, and one of my teachers got to know. My parents were called, and I was punished. I went through a mental breakdown, and everyone looked down upon me.” 

Today, at the brink of motherhood, she shared her story to ignite awareness and caution among young girls and women.

“Nowadays, these things are rampant, women receive inappropriate pictures in their DMs, and they have to deal with it. But nothing has changed. The government still doesn’t seem to care.” She concluded.

This and many more such actions combined are known as Online abuse. The Women’s Media Centre defined online abuse as a variety of malicious actions, including sharing embarrassing information about a person, impersonation, doxing, stalking, and electronic surveillance to the nonconsensual use of photography and violent threats. 

Online harassment of women, sometimes known as Cybersexism or Cyber Misogyny, is specifically gendered abuse targeted at women and girls online. It includes sexism, racism, religious prejudice, homophobia, and transphobia. 

Moreover, the purpose of harassment differs with every incidence, but usually includes wanting to embarrass, humiliate, scare, threaten, silence, extort or, in some instances, encourage mob attacks or malevolent engagements. 

A research conducted by the World Health Organization depicts that one in three women will have experienced violence in her lifetime. The internet is rather a new and developing concept, however, one in ten women is said to have experienced cyber violence since the tender age of 15. 

Access to the internet is becoming a necessity for economic well-being and is increasingly viewed as a fundamental human right. Therefore, ensuring that this digital public space is a safe and empowering place for everyone, including women and girls is imperative. 

Digital Conundrum

Insufficient laws, inadequate governments, and profit-driven social media/tech companies have made people vulnerable by providing them the freedom of speech at the cost of their right to private life. The Global Lead in End Sexual Exploitation at Equality Now, Tsitsi Matekaire, said: “We have conducted many studies and found that women are unaware of the threats. They are unaware of the types of cyber violence or who to complain to.”

Online abuse is of many types, and women must be educated. Moreover, social media giants should be held accountable for their platforms. Finally, complaints should be redressed and taken seriously. An award-winning author and activist, Soraya Chemaly, who serves on the national board of the Women’s Media Center emphasised: “There is a dearth of information. I joined the WMC to found the Speech Project, established to create a base of information. However, there was very little information and no terminology, and our primary audience is media professionals, and one of the big problems in terms of public perception was media representation of online harassment.”

“The role of Women’s Media Centre..”, she said, was: “..basically was to provide information, resources, taxonomies of harm, public forum for discussion, and we bring together experts. So it’s more of a resource bank.” As per a survey conducted in the United Kingdom in 2022, the most common type of online abuse experienced by victims was cyberbullying, with 51 percent of respondents stating they had faced this type of harassment. Overall, 36 percent of respondents said they had been trolled, and a third reported being victims of cyberstalking. Additionally, almost a fifth of those asked reported having experienced doxing.

Chemaly added, “Essentially as a private issue that women had to deal with, Online Abuse and Cyberviolence were never understood as truly a “dimensional violence.” It was not listed as a civil right or threat. It was not listed as a threat to democracy.”

A report from the Guardian states that online violence against women journalists is one of the gravest threat to press freedom and has contributed to female reporters being murdered, according to researchers behind a new global report. Academics who interviewed over 1,000 female journalists in 15 countries found the vast majority of journalists who took part had suffered from online abuse and threats.

Soraya said: “So we determined in 2015 to try and raise public awareness and influence media’s understanding and framing of the problem, and for us, the starting point was the treatment of women in the public eye, particularly women politicians and journalists, because for years women politicians, activists, and journalists online had borne the brunt of the kind of harassment that was routinely ignored.”

She further added that she witnessed other women experiencing it, and many stopped what they were doing, such as not running for office, not writing about things they worked for, etc. This motivated Soraya to work with organisations toward the cause. Any organisation or person cannot address online abuse and cyber violence individually because it circumpasses the citizens of the world.

Speaking about Equality Now, Matekaire said: “Our organisation has a long history of working with victims of sexual exploitation in the physical space, sex trafficking, prostitution, etc. Increase in sexual exploitation online, discrimination against women, and using the law entry point to facilitate the change, So our role has been how we can advocate for governments to strengthen the legal framework at the national and international levels. We found worldwide that, although there are many laws looking at the violence in physical space, they were not made for digital space.”

Social Media and Women

“Mostly, I decline requests from unknown users. However, there was a guy who shared many mutual friends with me, so I accepted his request assuming that he was from my college. A few days later, he sent me a message, and it was an inappropriate image. I immediately replied, threatening to report him. However, that didn’t bother him, and he abused me in the comment section of all my pictures. Later, I reported his account and blocked him.” 

“However, it didn’t stop there, his account was not suspended, and he did it again, but this time with one of my friends.” Shared Esha, a student at Kingston University. As per the data available at Amnesty International, only 23 per cent of Facebook and 19 per cent of Twitter users rated the platforms’ response as inadequate in addressing online abuse or harassment.

However, 41 per cent and 43 per cent, respectively, considered it inadequate. In many instances, women have said that no action was taken, even after complaints were filed. Online violence and abuse of women are part of a broader problem of discrimination and violence against women offline and should be taken seriously. A landmark survey by Plan International revealed more than half (58 per cent) of women have been harassed or abused online. The largest ever global survey on online violence shows that one in five girls (19 per cent) have left or significantly reduced their use of a social media platform after being harassed, while another one in ten (12 per cent) have changed the way they express themselves.

Women in positions of power have witnessed unending abuse, trolling and morality policing online, which has made it difficult for women to survive on virtual platforms while voicing their opinions. Sharing her experience in online hate and trolling, Chemaly said: “I worked as an editor for several years, but then stopped writing and went into the business side of Media and Technology. However, when I began writing again as a feminist and activist in 2009 and 2010, it was all online, and the level of hate and harassment was immediate. So yes, I have personal experience of what that looks like.”

The gravest issue surrounding online abuse is anonymity and this doesn’t mean that the offender is a stranger. Mostly women are harassed by the people they know, such as peers, acquaintances, intimate partners, former intimate partners, employers and, in some countries, religious and political authorities. Many of these people do use anonymity to perpetrate abuse, but anonymity itself isn’t the problem. Anonymity is often a lifeline for people online, an essential dimension of privacy and freedom from violence.

There are many movements globally, such as the #Nameless Coalition, encouraging platforms to create more nuanced and flexible approaches to the problems presented by anti-anonymity policies. Tsitsi said: “Digital jurisdictions cross boundaries, and with technologies such as VPN, it has become difficult to trace the origin. Thus strict laws are necessary.”

The Aftermath

Today people spend most of their time online. Such experiences make it difficult for a woman to survive and cope with consistent threats to privacy. This not only alters her behaviour but also changes how she expresses herself. Online abuse of women is rampant in the UK; one in five women has suffered online abuse or harassment. Almost half of the women said the abuse or harassment they received was sexist or misogynistic, with a worrying 27 per cent saying it threatened sexual or physical assault.

Women have suffered offline consequences of this abuse, with 55 per cent saying that they experienced anxiety, stress, or panic attacks. In addition, many faced psychological other implications, such as loss of self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness in their ability to respond to the abuse.Young women are significantly affected, with one in three polled saying that they have experienced online abuse. Online abuse can have just as severe consequences as abuse experienced offline, with psychologically worrying implications. It may also affect women’s human rights to safety, freedom of expression, and participation in public life.

These results also show that women do not feel supported enough by social media companies, the government, or the police. All these institutions must do more to prevent and respond to all acts of violence and abuse against women online. Tsitsi described how victims of online abuse suffered: “Women are usually boycotted or have to face their family and society against them. They are conditioned to believe that it was their fault. However, it was not. The world should stop blaming the victims and work towards eradicating the evils that persist in the digital world.” “ They must also ensure that women can use social media platforms freely and without fear.” She added.

Way Forward 

Strict international laws, with the cooperation of media companies, have become essential. About this, Soraya adds: “Laws alone are never going to solve this problem. I am also very concerned about how laws are so subject to the racism of the state laws are important, but they are insufficient and easily distorted, and so, in general, how the law deals with violence in a patriarchal culture will always fail women. So we see that in terms of self defence against domestic violence or the prosecution rate for rapists. So we must start by understanding that the law is not justice for women. 

She further continued: “The second thing is that the efflorescence of hate, violence, and threat online is a reflection. It’s a mirror of the cultural norms in society, so the laws also reflect those norms. The real solution is complex and multidimensional, far exceeding the law, and the law is bound by jurisdiction. No jurisdiction can bind this problem. If you’re a woman in the US and being harassed by a man somewhere in Europe, your laws aren’t going to help you.”

Universal laws that can supervise social media behaviour are necessary. Moreover, women and children need to feel safe online, and for this, a united stance is pertinent.

Talking about the laws and government response, Tsitsi said: “What we can do is make sure that the government should implement laws against violence in digital space. These laws should be followed worldwide because the digital space does not know boundaries. We need international frameworks because online sexual exploitation is multi-jurisdictional, and you are no longer looking at crimes affecting one country.”

She continued: “Uniformity and cooperation among governments are prerequisites so that women can access justice. Furthermore, the digital ecosystem needs to be safe for women; thus, we call for Universal Digital Rights.”

It is imperative for the governments to bring about laws that make women and children feel safe on digital platforms. Issues such as anonymity should be taken more seriously. Although, some governments have introduced certain laws to contain cyberviolence, such as India, USA, and UK. However, this is not a one nation problem, but a threat without borders. It cannot be confined and so a more permanent solution to the problem is for all the nations to come together with a law that binds us as ONE!


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