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 School on Internet Governance and the African Internet Governance Forum, I also attended a Gender and Internet Governance eXchange workshop in Durban that gave me a platform to reflect on the subject on 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.