For a woman, surfing the internet in Africa can be stressful if not dangerous. While digital spaces may seem free and egalitarian, the reality is that the internet perpetuates systems of oppression and inequity.
In Africa, women and sexual minorities disproportionately experience harassment, unauthorized information disclosure and other forms of gender-based violence, and the lack of a robust database makes it difficult to determine the extent to which women are threatened online.
Now, a large-scale research study – the first of its kind – reveals how women living in African countries experience the internet.
More than 3,000 women between 18 and 65 years of age from Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa were interviewed about their “perceptions of digital security, and responses to gender-based violence from a legal perspective, law enforcement authorities and technology platforms, ”according to a press release.
A comprehensive report from the study titled “Other Realities, Other Internets” proposes to inform evidence-based policies to achieve digital equality, explained Neema Iyer, founder of Pollicy, the civic technology organization that led the project.
“We want to understand how online gender-based violence manifests itself in Africa, and how technology companies, generally located outside of Africa, respond to this violence,” Iyer said.
Gender-based violence online refers to searching people by their sexual or gender identity, or applying harmful gender norms that include behaviors such as harassment, surveillance, intimidation, sexual harassment, trafficking, defamation, cyber attack, hate speech and exploitation, and other controlling attitudes.
Pollicy, based in Kampala, Uganda, worked on this study in association with the Feminist Internet Research Network under the Association for Progressive Communication and thanks to funding from the Center for International Development Research.
A website called the “Survival Guide to Being a Woman on the Internet” includes a bot that guides visitors through an interactive story about the research findings.
The research found that 28% of the women interviewed had experienced some form of bullying online. About 41% of those surveyed believed that their gender was the main reason for the attacks.
“Online threats are generally organized trolling. I have even received death threats, ”said a Kenyan woman. “They come up with campaigns or labels, so they talk and talk all day. His insults are based on the fact that I am a woman, my anatomy, my family ”.
In some countries such as Ethiopia, 90% of those surveyed who experienced this type of violence did not know the identity of the person responsible or discovered that he was a stranger, and it was difficult to verify the main culprit.
Gender-based violence online has a devastating effect on mental health, generating depression, anxiety and fear, which haunts women to their homes, schools, jobs and other social spaces.
“Laws do not protect women.”
While 71% of online harassment incidents occurred on Facebook, the results showed that 95% of women were unaware of any laws that protect women from gender-based violence.
About 15% of women interviewed said they deleted or deactivated their accounts, while 12% stopped using a digital service after experiencing violence online.
“Women don't even report domestic violence because of the normative culture,” said an Ethiopian woman. “Imagine that you are going to report gender violence online. They will laugh at you and tell you to come back when there is a case of real violence, ”he continued.
The report asserts that “online violence against women is often trivialized with mild punishments from the authorities, in addition to blaming the victim” and confirms that most African countries “do not have specific legislation or strategies on gender violence. online. There is a lack of preventive measures to address this type of violence ”.
In partnership with Internews, Pollicy analyzed legislation on GBV in five countries and found that “GBV cases rarely make it to court,” which limits any serious analysis of current legal frameworks.
However, those five countries have ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), “which explicitly requires states to ensure that both men and women enjoy the same rights,” according to legal analysis.
The African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights, to which all five countries are signatories, also declares equal rights regardless of gender.
All five countries have also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). But Ethiopia, Kenya, and Uganda did not ratify the optional CEDAW protocol that allows their committees to process and hear complaints.
Towards a cyberfeminist future
The inherent whiteness and masculinity of the internet today perpetuates inequality and sustains patriarchal structures that oppress women and sexual minorities.
In contrast, cyberfeminism “offers a space for feminist thought to criticize, imagine or recreate a radically open internet,” according to the report.
Drawing on black feminist thought and feminist theory on technology, the report encourages the positioning of women as the “protagonists of the technology-dominated Afrofutures”.
Iyer says there is an urgent need to adapt digital security resources to local contexts and languages, as well as to introduce these concepts into school curricula.
Other recommendations include training law enforcement on how to address gender-based violence and providing assistance and advice to women who choose to report.
African countries must also adopt and properly implement data protection and privacy laws.
“When we think about our Afro-feminist future, we need to create an internet where both programmers and users understand the intersectionality of the experience lived by an African woman,” said Iyer.