Online violence against women: A silent vice we continue to ignore

Author, Gilbert Beyamba. PHOTO/FILE/COURTESY

What you need to know:

  • In this century, we now live in a virtual society and offline violence has extended to online, which makes it easier for people to commit violence without consequences. Covid-19 worsened it. 

Mention any vocal woman and girl rights advocate or female politician on Twitter in Uganda today, and I will list for you more than one online abuse that they have interfaced with severely.

In September 2020, The Daily Monitor reported how the sole woman presidential candidate in the elections, Ms Nancy Kalembe encountered online violence. 

Her divorce was weaponized against her, where an old video of her “failed” unsuccessful marriage was shared across different social media platforms in a bid to derail her campaign. Despite her having moved on and built an accomplished career, her divorce was weaponized against her. 

When Ms Agnes Nandutu who before joining politics was a celebrated TV personality and now current State Minister for Karamoja Affairs was contesting for political office, she received comments instructing her to get married since ‘‘single women are not deemed capable of leading.’’

Another relatable example is Jennifer Semakula Musisi, a Ugandan lawyer and public administrator who served as Kampala Capital City Authority’s (KCCA) first Executive Director. Her body was often sexualized by social media users and the media. Media houses amplified this sexualization by running stories on her work but shifting the focus to her body. For instance, an online blog ran a story about her October 16, 2018 resignation from KCAA with the title “Hips, Swag, Pomp and the side of Jennifer Musisi you will definitely miss”.

These, including the current internet sexualized memes about Afghan women refugees shared by Ugandan men, are just examples of an avalanche of online violence that women go through every day not just in Uganda. Women and girls face many forms of online harassment that openly goes unpunished. They continue to be regularly subject to online rape threats, online harassment, cyberstalking, blackmail, and more.

In this century, we now live in a virtual society and offline violence has extended to online, which makes it easier for people to commit violence without consequences. Covid-19 worsened it. 

I am not saying it is only females subjected to this vice but when women are the target, online harassment quickly descends into sexualized hate, body shaming, or threats. Online gender-based violence now becomes an overt expression of the deeply rooted gender inequalities in our society.

The impact of this on women online is that they tend to censor themselves online due to cyberbullying- they go quiet and do not participate in any online conversations even on matters and issues they advocate for. And that is what the abusers want.

There have been several cases where women have deleted their social media accounts and left different online platforms after being harassed. Let’s look at it this way. When a female journalist is forced to delete her social media account or gets self-censored, this means that the fundamental right to freedom of information and expression is under attack.

Online violence against women has very detrimental consequences that we continue to downplay. It results into trolling, physical, sexual, psychological, or economic harm, and erodes self-esteem.

We need to put in place systematic improvements in how technology companies address content moderation. Likewise, adoption and putting in place digital tools that enable women politicians to know their rights and handle cyber bullying, will also come in handy. Civil society organizations should also be able to increase research on online behaviors and online violence as well as outreach in order to de-stigmatize talking about violence.

Gilbert Beyamba is the head of programs at Pollicy
[email protected]