Online violence: Encouraging women to harness technology

Emilly C. Maractho (PhD)

What you need to know:

  • Is traditional media expected to sort of ‘right the wrongs’ of others online? Are we doing enough given that we too are online, to prepare and protect the women who work for us from online violence? 

The Women@Web Network last week gave their partners, the DW Akademie and the German Development Corporation great reasons to feel proud. We gathered at the beautiful White Sands Hotel in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss their work over the last five years. Bringing to life those achievements were a wide range of organisations from East Africa . The event, held on September 12, was to look back on how far the organisations have come in raising awareness around online violence against women.

The Women@Web Network in the house included ABC Rwanda, The Launchpad Tanzania, Association of Media Women in Kenya, Her Empire in Uganda, KICTAnet in Kenya, Unwanted Witness in Uganda, Media Convergence in Tanzania and Siasa Place of Kenya. DW Akademie had ticked many boxes to end up with the right partners, great ideas while bringing passion for women online to bear. In five years, these organisations have raised the bar in discussing online violence against women and making online space safe.

Yet, there is always more work to do. Ms Pauline Okoth, an independent researcher and consultant, presented findings of the study examining media coverage of online violence against women in East Africa. Prominent in this and to speak for herself was Ms Sylvia Rwabwogo, a former Ugandan parliamentarian, also one of the cases in the study. Many Ugandans may remember the Rwabwogo court case of cyber harassment.

Listening to Ms Rwabwogo’s testimony and how mainstream media had trivialised her story, reducing it to a powerful politician against a ‘love-struck young man’ made me wonder how much traditional media can do to shape the narrative on online violence against women and its impact on women’s engagement with the web.

When Ms Rwabwogo learnt that I was associated with Daily Monitor, she said to me, “Many of those stories were in your paper”. I am often amused when people complement or complain about Daily Monitor, referring to it as ‘my paper’. But it also reminds me of the responsibilities we carry as we associate with the governance of things. I promised to sit with her, hear out her concerns and the expectations from a media outlet like ours. 

That discussion got me wondering further, how much a media outlet like ours can do about violent content online that is not produced by us, but could be subject of our reporting. Is traditional media expected to sort of ‘right the wrongs’ of others online? Are we doing enough given that we too are online, to prepare and protect the women who work for us from online violence? 

I am often engaged in training journalists to cultivate online safety. Through that, I have learnt a few things that we can collectively do to make it easier for women to use these spaces rather than withdraw from being online, and beyond better coverage by traditional media.

The first is that there is power in equipping women. From the work of the Women@Web as we saw, when everyone is doing something small in their spaces, these snowball into greater impact. 

The second is that this preparation is great for empowerment. Women need to feel empowered and confident to take advantage of the new tools that technology affords them in order to learn and protect themselves. 

Third, what I have seen as effective is engaging women in a variety of things that lead to critical decisions. Women in governance have a role to play. Are they engaging with these matters? 

There is more work to do to ensure women are not left behind when harnessing the benefits of technology. Rather than focus on the dark side, we can ensure that these technologies work for all by equipping, empowering and engaging a critical mass of women.

Ms Maractho (PhD) is the director of Africa Policy Centre and senior lecturer at Uganda Christian University.                       
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