Five years ago, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) carried out research showing that  73% of women had already been exposed to or had experienced some form of online violence. Sounding an alarm on cyber violence, the agency emphasised that, “threats of rape, death, and stalking put a premium on women’s emotional bandwidth, take-up time and financial resources including legal fees, online protection services, and missed wages.” It warned, “Cyber VAWG can have a profoundly chilling effect on free speech and advocacy.”

Young women are at a heightened risk of being exposed to every kind of cyber VAWG and those between 18-24 were uniquely likely to experience stalking and sexual harassment.  

“Women around the world report being bombarded by a culture of misogyny online, including aggressive — often sexualized — hate speech, direct threats of physical violence, stalking, harassment, the spread of false information for the purpose of defamation, and doxxing (the public sharing of private information), among other acts of violence,” says  Ingrid Brudvig, Gender Policy Manager, Web Foundation.  

While compromising photos have been used against people for as long as cameras have existed, over the last few years, Non-consensual Dissemination of Intimate Images’ (NCII) has become a particularly worryingly growing trend that threatens the voice and lives of many women on the continent.  “The non-consensual dissemination of intimate images is a new tool of disempowerment built on an old patriarchal production line,” said Sophie Maddocks, a teacher and researcher on digital media activism.

Perpetrators range from abusive partners and sex traffickers to hackers, scammers to everyday abusive people. There’s a legal and enforcement vacuum for most countries in the world and where the legal framework exists, the social norms that promote victim-blaming and shaming continue to be a challenge.

The justice infrastructure in many African countries has yet to catch up with the young population that is moving to online spaces in droves and increasingly susceptible to online abuse.

In one month in 2019, there were  525 million internet users in Africa, about 40 per cent of Africa’s population. Cyber laws are often hijacked and used to silence government critics, more than they’re broadened to protect many young people that are online and experiencing violence. For young women, the risk remains high. The unequal gender power and skewed norms offline are transferred online, making the internet a challenging place to navigate as a young woman. Even those offline are not out of the reach of violence online. 

Many young activists are pushing the boundaries of what rights ought to be fought for with the very tools and on the very platforms where this violence happens.  We can no longer dismiss the fact that the online lives are actual realities whose impact goes beyond that one screenshot shared.

With COVID-19 pandemic forcing many to turn to online spaces to socialise during the lockdowns and restrictions, the spaces that were earlier seen as an optional indulgence, have suddenly become a lifeline for millions to remain connected to families, friends and communities. And so the increased incidents of gender-based violence are not only limited to homes where many might be stuck for a while and where tensions are heightened in these economically stressful times. 

The internet where most of us are congregating is not just some jolly place. The increased reliance on online technologies to commune and connect increases the risk of online abuse like stalking, harassment, bullying and non-consensual exposure of intimate images. Now more than ever we must pay attention to violence online and it’s the gendered impact on young women and girls. 

Both advocacy networks and justice systems must be open to expanding interventions to the realm of the internet. Policy changes are necessary for this violence to be stemmed, to improve awareness for many to detect and report abusers, as well as offer real-time support for victims. 

Main illustration by Agandy Studios 

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Over the next weeks, African Feminism will publish a series on online violence against women majorly focused on Nonconsensual Distribution of Intimate Images (NCII)  (image-based abuse) as gendered violence and the impacts on women’s freedom of expression and the push for accountability in Nigeria, Malawi, Uganda. The series is edited by Rosebell Kagumire and Edna Ninsiima and supported by a grant from the Africa Digital Rights Fund (ADRF), an initiative of the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) to advance digital rights.

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Rosebell Kagumire

Rosebell Kagumire is a trained journalist, award-winning blogger, pan-African feminist and socio-political commentator. She has expertise in media, human rights, gender, peace and conflict issues. She received the Anna Guèye 2018 award for digital democracy, justice and equality by Africtivistes.