The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2018 that took place in Accra, Ghana provided an opportunity for various stakeholders to probe how some social norms, including language, culture, and religion are fuelling and increasingly normalising gender-based violence and hate speech especially against women online.
As is often the case, when gender based violence conversations come up in any fora, the first admission is always that women and girls are the most affected group. This is largely due to the inequalities that exist in society where women are perceived and treated as inferior to men and confined to the role of “helper” while the men are automatically assumed as “leaders”
As dialogue and open conversations become normalised, more people express that men and boys are abused too, both physically and sexually. While it’s true that anyone, regardless of their gender can experience violence and abuse, it’s important to acknowledge that there’s an issue of proportionality. Further more, when women report that they are being abused, they are subjected to harrasment and victim blaming while being told to prove how they were abused while a man is treated differently by both society and the legal system because of patriarchal privileges. This has to change!
Women are often the majority when it comes to cases of domestic abuse, sexual violence, murder, rape, hate speech, revenge porn, catcalling and slut shaming among other things. In most cases, the perpetrators of crime and abuse towards women are often men they know, are close to or work with and worse still their families, colleagues and even law enforcement encourage them to settle out of court through mediation instead of pursuing prosecution.
Interestingly, addressing gender based violence always raises different opinions and reactions that are mostly based on people’s traditional, cultural and religious convictions. #FifAfrica18 brought this reality into perspective and was evidenced by the comments and questions that arose during the sessions in as far as the root causes of violence against women goes.
Deep sitted beliefs such as women are abused because of how they dress provocatively and how they talk back at authority (men) brings into focus the need to extend the conversation about human rights to establishments such as the church, traditional leadership and workplaces. It’s very important that dialogue about gender, take a human rights approach rather than a morality approach if we are to make any headway in reducing the number of women and girls falling victim to violent behaviour.
Because of the gaps that exist in policy and practice, many perpetrators of gender based violence get away with their crimes and in recent years, we have seen the inequalities that perptuate inhuman treatment of women in society creep into online spaces that women are using to express themselves and tell their stories.
Most people dismiss the fact that there is online abuse and say it is difficult to point it out and really determine that it is abuse or harrasment. This has necessitated the need to deepen understanding on the realities of being online for women and girls, how they are systematically subjected to abuse, harassment and threats as they navigate social networking sites and how online behaviour merely mirrors offline realities.
It has also highlighted the need to raise awareness and mobilise various stakeholders within the internet ecosystem for more effective advocacy, monitoring and countering of harmful narratives and attitudes towards women. The conversations at #FifAfrica18 were especially key in informing advocacy on gender-based violence across different contexts and suggesting new approaches to the existing challenges that female users face when they are online.
Women and girls who experience bullying and harrasment online often don’t know what to do and end up deactivating their accounts and going offline. This in turn, disrupts any efforts being made to promote a digital Africa and getting more women online so that they can have access to information and opportunities.
One solution for this is the need to identify and map terms and phrases that are used to abuse, denigrate or otherwise harass women and girls and make them key search words to easily flag abuse online. This would also influence policies and make it easier for women to report behaviour that goes against the community standards set by social networking sites and also report to the police.
Another solution is increase efforts to raise awareness about laws that exist against criminal behaviour both online and offline and what punishments various offenses carry so that people are aware that they can report perpetrators and actually have them prosecuted. This would go a long way in helping women and girls stay safe online while deterring would be offenders from engaging in abusive behaviour.
Social media and its ability to spread information far and wide in real time presents an opportunity for women to be the drivers of change in addressing the unequal gender power relations that stifle their voices online and challenging the existing biases and negative societal norms that normalise violence and abuse towards them
There are also a number of progressive international declarations have been developed and ratified to help advance human rights and most African countries are party to these. It’s very important for anyone who is keen on advancing human rights, to find out what international agreements their country has signed to and mobilise stakeholders to simplify, package and disseminate these documents widely so that people who may not necessarily make it to attend multistakeholder forums such as #FifAfrica18 can still be aware of the provisions and protections they have as users of the internet.
The Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa is hosted by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA). Since its inception in 2014, the Forum has been hosted in East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa.
It offers a platform for critical engagement of diverse stakeholders in identifying the most pressing internet rights-related issues and challenges that have to be addressed at national and regional levels. It also identifies opportunities for bringing the debate on the importance of human rights online at national, regional and global fora and aims to identify effective ways to engage with them.