Cyberspace is without a doubt one of the most fascinating, vibrant and rewarding spaces ever invented by human beings.
Thanks to the lack of top-down control, millions of people are able to create and share an unlimited amount of information, ideas, create bonds and make money without ever leaving their geographical boundaries. But, herein lies the problem. This ungoverned space gives individuals the kind of power denied to them in the real world.
The power to assume multiple identities and create different virtual lives can tempt the individual into a false sense of invincibility that can and has proven to be dangerous.
Although people have some discretion over what they share about their lives, they do not have control over what others do.
Former fashion model, Judith Heard says she has been a victim of cyber bullying and crime.
“It does not take much to break down a person. Most bullies are experienced in touching the individual’s weakest points. They use body shaming, they make up stories that have potential to damage your reputation and career while safely hiding behind fake accounts. Once something is out there, it is difficult to change people’s mindsets, it is a seed planted forever,” Heard shares.
Because of her past experience, Heard says she receives numerous messages from women desperately asking for her advice and sometimes intervention on their behalf. “You cannot understand how damaging cyber bullying is unless you have gone through it. Many girls lack confidence and if they post a picture and someone denigrates them basing on their outfit or their looks, it can cause lasting damage to them,” she shares.
The fashion model says at one point, she contemplated committing suicide when her intimate photos and videos were published online without her consent, six years ago. “Women are very delicate and sensitive by nature. Attacking them in such a public platform only aggravates their sensitivity and can be such a heartbreaking experience,” Heard reveals.
Heard, a victim of revenge porn maintains that she was blackmailed for $3,000 (about Shs11 million) when someone stole her smart mobile device with her personal pictures 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.
Heard’s photos were circulated again in May 2018; she was consequently arrested under Uganda’s Anti-Pornography Act 2014 and 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, the person can face a jail term of 10 years, a fine of Shs5 million ($1,348) or both.
She feels aggravated by the way the government handles such cases and especially how they handled hers.
“I don’t understand why the government chose to harass me instead of using the resources at their disposal to find out the person who shared my pictures. These pictures come from somewhere before they become viral; why don’t they trace that source? Or instead of waving the anti-pornography law at the victim why don’t they implement laws that prevent this? For instance if they set laws that punish anyone that shares a picture of naked women this would act as a deterrent to the so many cases we see,” Heard says.
According to Heard, many of the victims choose to delete their accounts or stop socializing to avoid the bullying.
“But I always tell women that those actions give their bully or bullies satisfaction and more power to go after others. Instead I encourage them to believe in their own strengths, their beauty or intelligence in spite of what the bullies say. It is very challenging trying to convince a woman that has been badly damaged by bullies that they are anything but what their detractors say,” she explains.
Regina Asinde, an activist notes that women are usually bullied as a way to disempower them. “Usually the attacks are sexist and this is to practically demean the women and make them seem like they are overstepping their boundaries,” she says.
Asinde reveals that being a feminist or a woman activist carries with it societal stigma and this is why such women are always targeted.
“Society is afraid of the ‘too much woman’ and doesn’t know how to engage with a strong intelligent woman. They fear and fail to constructively engage with this woman’s brains and so seek to disarm by harassing her,” she adds.
Poet, author and public speaker, Beverley Nambozo Nsengiyunva, says people cyber bully women because they have noticed how weak the laws are that protect women who file these complaints.
“These bullies take advantage of the flailing system meant to protect women when they make these claims. Bullies target women because in their misconstrued and vile minds, their thoughts have always led them to the reprehensible belief that women and girls are lesser beings than boys and men. This therefore gives the bullies a false sense of superiority. Sometimes women are bullied by other women who have been trapped into a patriarchal setup that disempowers the value of their fellow women,” she shares.
“Shattered self-esteem and self-worth can lead to destructive habits such as isolation, disruptive company, and occultism. Some women and girls become obtrusive, lashing out at people, unable to separate decent humans from actual bullies. Others can, most grievously, end up committing suicide as a last resort, to escape,” Nambozo expounds on the effects of cyber bullying.
What can women do to protect themselves from electronic attacks?
The internet is a dangerous tool because most people do not understand how it works. People are unaware how much footprint they are leaving behind with their various activities. This footprint in the wrong hands can turn into fodder.
Heard suggests mass sensitization so that women are aware of what they are doing in order to make better choices. Through her advocacy organisation Day One Global, Heard says she uses her own experience to teach women about the dangers and how to protect themselves.
“I tell women that our documented lives have an impact on our lives and our ability to control how we are perceived by others. And because the potential for someone to access, manipulate and share our online identities is high so I encourage women to be more careful about what they leave behind,” she shares.
Asinde says she has learned to ignore the attacks because it is usually not productive to try and engage such people. “Attempts to do so will leave one more vulnerable to the attacks. Where possible, especially via social media, I block the numbers,” she advises.
Nambozo urges women to always have the counsel of women of integrity and action, who will provide legal advice when you sense you are being bullied.
“Understand the frameworks under which various social media sites operate. Collect evidence of cyber bullying and submit it to authorities who act with integrity and are sincere about the protection of women. Personally, I spend a healthy amount of time in prayer and reading God’s word. The Word of God from Proverbs offers me legal, financial and personal advice that is timeless,” she shares.
In his research for Barefoot Lawyers, Tjabbe Bos observes that although the legal framework in Uganda for the fight against cybercrime appears to provide an adequate basis for law enforcement and judicial authorities to investigate and prosecute cybercrimes, the results of the cyber laws project have also allowed for the identification of a number of issues from a legal perspective in this area.
First, it may be questioned whether the legal framework in Uganda is sufficiently consistent to provide for the right mechanisms for the fight against cybercrime. Although the use of international model laws can usually be considered as beneficial, including for better international collaboration, it appears this may have had some detrimental effects on the consistency of the legal framework in Uganda.
In a previous interview, Clare Byarugaba from Chapter Four noted that there is 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,” she says.
But Sandra Kwikiriza from Her Internet observed that not everyone understands what online harassment means .
“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,” Kwikiriza says.
To combat the issue, Byarugaba suggests protection of victims as a priority.
Additional reporting from: unwantedwitness.org