If there is any person that has experienced the worst form of online harassment and torment, it is Ugandan international freelance fashion model Judith Heard.
She even contemplated committing suicide when her leaked nude selfies and videos were first published online without her consent six years ago.
Judith, a victim of revenge porn maintains that she was blackmailed for $3,000 (about Shs11 million) when someone stole her smart phone or laptop with her nude selfies and videos and threatened to publish them online.
When she declined to pay, her photos and videos were downloaded and leaked without her consent in 2013. She insists that she never shared them with anyone.
Judith says the first time it happened she wanted to commit suicide because of the shame, ridicule and pressure resulting from online harassment that she experienced.
Just when she thought that this revenge porn scandal was now in the past, the same nude photos circulated online again in May 2018 only that this time she was arrested under Uganda’s Anti-Pornography Act 2014.
Police opened up seven counts against her related to production of pornographic material and being a public nuisance. She was accused of producing pornographic pictures and videos of herself and posting them on social media contrary to the Act.
The strict Anti-Pornography Act prohibits production and circulation of pornographic materials including on messaging apps such as WhatsApp - and if convicted, she is likely to face a jail term of 10 years, a fine of Shs5 million ($1,348) or both.
Judith not only found herself under arrest and shame, but also attack in the media and online after the said pictures and videos were widely shared on social media.
She says it caused strife with family members and almost ended her marriage.
Although Heard maintains her innocence, she did not report the theft of her smart phone or laptop to the police saying she does not trust the Force – a decision that weakens her defence in court.
“Government has not done much to follow up and arrest the person who stole my phone or computer and exposed my nude photos on the Internet. Why should I be imprisoned for seven years? The government should be protecting and not prosecuting me. We should be protecting young women. I think it is a batch of people that keep doing this and this has to stop,” Judith said.
“I fight every single day online. I live a in country where there is a lot of violence against women. I have been a victim of cyber violence. You can imagine what it means when you open your social media accounts and all you see are your nude pictures,” she laments.
“I am worried of what my children read about me online whenever I drop them at school. My adopted son learnt of my predicament after reading it online at school. And he confronted me and I explained myself,” she adds.
Judith is married to Dr Heard and they have three children. She says her husband has been supportive in her ordeal. She does not mention if the pictures were taken before or after marrying Dr Heard.
Victims speak out
Judith shared her sad experience at a “Women’s Online Safety in Uganda” workshop organised by the Collaboration for International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) and Facebook at the Kampala Serena Hotel on August 7, 2019.
The objective of the workshop was to engage and build capacity in understanding gender-based cyber violence and the tools to challenge, combat, prevent and counter the vice.
Judith is one of three Ugandan women who have had their nude pictures or sex tapes shared online without their consent.
In what seemed like revenge porn, police officer Esther Akol, had a nude photo of her in uniform circulating online, but she said her ex-boyfriend had maliciously edited (photoshopped) the photo to appear as her.
“When you go on Facebook there are very many comments that you will never read all of them even with all the time you may have. Women have committed online harassment more than men. Women are bashing fellow women online and yet we should be supporting each other. Women should stand with us,” Judith observes.
“I ask more women to stand with us when we expose our nudity as fashion models. It takes me an hour to get out of a car in Kampala. It is because I think that people will look through my dress because of the nude pictures they have seen on the Internet,” Judith says.
The Ugandan curator and editor for AfricanFeminism.com, Ms Rosebell Kagumire observes that: “Even before we talk about online violence we should note that we live in violent society. We should always go back offline which will be reflected online. For example, if a girl is not permitted to inherit her dad’s property and it is left to the uncle to decide indicates to you what kind of society we live in Uganda,”
Ms Leah Eryenyu from Akina Mama wa Africa says: “To some degree we recognise what happens online. Wife beating is transferred online. Men have justifications for wife beating. Men appreciate violent vulgar language as a way of expressing their love for women. You may never recover from offline and online violence.”
Ms Clare Byarugaba from Chapter Four notes that we have an issue of poor or no implementation of policies. “As a country we are good at mainstreaming gender in our laws and policies but we are very poor at implementation. We need to have conversations on all types of violence. As a country we should be thoughtful on how we look at violence,” she says.
But Ms Sandra Kwikiriza from Her Internet observes that not everyone understands what online harassment means or consider it as a form of violence.
“If men don’t harass you in the morning with unsolicited messages and images then something is wrong. There is a disconnect between the victim and the one who leaks the nudes online. We are quick to blame the victim,” Ms Kwikiriza says.
To combat the issue, Ms Byarugaba suggests protection of victims as a priority. “We should be able to protect our sisters because they have gone through online harassment. We can move beyond blaming the victims and empathise with them. We don’t need training to be kind or empathetic all we need is to understand what they go through,” she says.
Mr Jimmy Haguma from Uganda Police notes that we have grown up in a violent society which sets the norms and violence in different forms.
“With the Internet today, you can abuse a person online even with an emoji. You don’t have to travel on bus to abuse your leaders wherever they are,” he says.
However, many activists argue that policies on cyber harassment are lacking.
“Our laws are not adequate to address sexual violence online. If someone is sending me unsolicited parts of his genitals that is sexual violence against me. The issue is that did I consent to you sending me parts of your body,” Eryenyu argues.
“We are still applying colonial laws that do not match the modem setting with the advancement of the Internet. Our laws demand that any case is proved beyond reasonable doubt which is sometimes difficult in court,” Haguma concurs.
But Ms Byarugaba suggests, to avoid any forms of cyber torment, as individuals we need to self-edit ourselves online. Apps like Uber have safety measures of how you can protect yourselves when using it, she says.
“The Internet has given us the opportunity for collective action. We should recognise the power of the Internet to fight sexual violence online. We should build communities and be able to respond to threats online,” Kagumire adds.
According to the head of public policy, East and Horn of Africa at Facebook, Ms Mercy Ndegwa, Facebook policies cover self-harm, coordinating harm, dangerous organisations, cruel and insurance humour, bullying or harassment, adult nudity and sexual activity, graphic violence and regulated goods, among others.
“For example, we do not allow hate speech on Facebook because it creates an environment of intimidation,” she says.
“In public we conduct ourselves with decorum and do the opposite online,” Ndegwa observes, adding that “We need to allow different voices online. Allowing for different voices is what Facebook is for. Removing the bad actors is Facebook’s challenge.”
A 2017 baseline study conducted by the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) showed that online harassment is one of the major challenges facing women in the Ghanaian online space. According to the study, online harassments usually manifest in the forms of non-consensual distribution of photos and videos, sexual harassment, cyber stalking, and hate and offensive comments.
Between 2015 and 2016, ICJ Kenya conducted a survey to gauge the extent and manifestations of Technology-assisted Violence Against Women (TAVAW) in Kenya and to analyse the legal protections and remedies available.
The survey identified the prevalent forms of TAVAW in Kenya as cyber-stalking, cyber-bullying, online harassment, trolling, hacking, surveillance, impersonation, denigration, malicious distribution, and in the case of children, grooming.
The sharing of embarrassing material on social networking accounts and the receipt of offensive communication were the most common types of incidents reported by respondents.
Discussions with law enforcement officials in the TAVAW survey confirmed that a majority of the complaints received were based on offensive communication, the sharing of photos, stalking, luring of women and girls, and threats. With regard to children, incidences of cyber-bullying, harassment, stalking, online grooming and blackmail were noted to be on the rise.
According to the policy brief titled “Ending Technology-Assisted Violence Against Women in Kenya” by ICJ Kenya and Hivos, 94.1 per cent of respondents felt that TAVAW should be criminalised and that clearer cyber laws with stronger penalties were required. Additionally, clarity on reporting procedures as well as greater awareness among law enforcement and the public was recommended by respondents.
The Ghanaian study also found that unreliable Internet service and the high cost of data services serve as barriers preventing women from exploiting the huge potential that Internet offers for self-empowerment and overall development.
The MFWA study found that the level of education greatly determined whether women had Internet access or not. Women who had tertiary education tended to have higher access and usage of internet services (60 per cent).
The MFWA study also discovered that age was an important determinant of Internet access and use. Younger women (respondents) between the ages 18-30 (53 per cent) were more likely to have access to the internet than older women. This was followed by women between 31-40 years (23 per cent) who also were likely to have access and utilised Internet services.
The most frequently cited reason for using the Internet among the MFWA respondents was to enable them stay connected with family, friends and acquaintances. Other reasons included entertainment, education, fashion and income generating activities respectively. Some reported using the Internet as part of performing their daily work routines.
While women’s right organisations interviewed in the study did not have specific interventions in place to safeguard the digital rights of women in Ghana, the government of Ghana also did not have clear-cut initiatives with specific targets in place to protect women’s rights online, the MFWA report indicated.
The ICJ Kenya survey found, among others, that while many platforms through which TAVAW occurs (for example, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, among others) have policy guidelines that regulate conduct and allow for reporting, there is still more that needs to be done.
In some platforms, reporting and complaints handling mechanisms remain weak. These accountability challenges are exacerbated by limited transparency with regards to the statistics of the number of complaints made through the platforms.
“We invest a lot in technology like artificial intelligence to bring down bad content. We have registered a 99 per cent success rate. We still use human intervention where machines can’t identify bad content or posts. But then we need notifications from the concerned communities in order to flag it in order to take it down. We work with civil societies in different countries for advice on bad content,” Ndegwa says.
She adds that reporting content is extremely very important to Facebook. “Anyone can report content. It empowers you to get the issues responded to online and taken down through the steps provided for on Facebook.”
“When we are dealing with this crime it is in cyberspace. We need the cooperation of data owners and registration of the identification of mobile phone users. People don’t want to be identified as they continue to commit cyber crime. Being safe online is very critical. If you are sharing online make sure that everybody is your friend. Even then criminals can hack into your account and steal your images,” Haguma says.
VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN
Abuse of human rights. Violence against women is one of the most pervasive human rights abuses in the world today.
According to UN Women, one in three women is likely to experience physical and sexual violence at some point in her lifetime, and 35 per cent of women worldwide have experienced either physical or sexual violence at some point in their lives.
Hivos and the Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya), say developments in technology have given rise to digital spaces and tools that facilitate replication of such violence online.
A report compiled by the European Institute for Gender Equality titled “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls” in June 2017, women are disproportionately the targets of certain forms of online harassment and cyberstalking. The institute defines online harassment as – but not limited to – unwanted, explicit online messages; hate speech, insults or threats; and inappropriate or offensive advances on social networks. The European Institute notes that the increasing reach of the Internet, the rapid spread of mobile information, and the widespread use of social media, has led to the emergence of cyber violence against women and girls (VAWG) as a growing global problem with potentially significant economic and societal consequences.
Research by the World Health Organisation shows that one in three women will have experienced a form of violence in their lifetime, and despite the relatively new and growing phenomenon of Internet connectivity, it is estimated that one in ten women have already experienced a form of cyber violence since the age of 15.
“Access to the Internet is fast becoming a necessity for economic well-being, and is increasingly viewed as a fundamental human right; therefore it is crucial to ensure that this digital public space is a safe and empowering place for everyone, including women and girls,” the European Institute says in its study.
No law. According to Kenyan Section of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ Kenya) survey, discussions with law enforcement officials revealed several challenges, most notably, that it was difficult to deal with acts that were not defined as offences in law.
It was also observed that the police did not keep statistics of complaints that are filed, making it difficult to establish trends. Lastly, resource constraints and a lack of knowledge and training of police, prosecution and judicial officers, on technology and cyber-crimes, presented serious challenges in investigating and collecting evidence in TAVAW cases.
In his article titled “Are your hands tied when it comes to cyber harassment?” the South African law student, Amanda Manyame, argues: “Harassment is difficult to prove legally as it is, to a large extent, subjective in nature. As a result, countless harassment cases and incidents are unresolved or unreported. The same is true, more so, for cyber harassment incidents because there is difficulty in establishing the identity of the perpetrator and/or a causal nexus between the alleged perpetrator and the harassment…”