Anonymity as agency: A case for women’s progress

Well into the next century, the prophetic words of physicist Nicola Tesla, given during an interview with Colliers magazine in 1926, ring true in many aspects of our daily lives. For women, the sphere of the domestic has expanded into the spheres of the scientific, political, governmental, cultural and public. Nevertheless, in paradoxical fashion, as society becomes more and more immersed in virtual realities, access to online platforms appear to become much more difficult to navigate for many women. The African Internet Revolution has come while patriarchal cultural norms, economic disparities, social marginalization, and fear are far from handing the cyber world over to women’s progress. 

In the case of women’s online liberation, numbers speak louder than words:
– 55% of women between the ages of 15 to 49 years have experienced domestic violence in comparison to 26% of men.
– 28% of women, compared to 9% of men, have been the victims of sexual violence.
– 18.4% increase in domestic violence cases has been reported by The Police Crime Report (2013).
– 45% of female Internet users, in Kampala, have experienced some form of online harassment versus 8% of men.
– -190% represents the gender gap in Internet use among users in Kampala. 

When translated, these numbers (specific to Uganda) construct a reality where offline abuse and online abuse affect close to one in two women and one in two female Internet users, respectively. While capacity building and access are under construction for the majority of the population, women live in fear of accessing yet another space where the potential for public shaming, stalking, verbally abusing and harassing is more than realistic. 

Anti- Gender Based Violence (GBV) Civil Society Organization advocates on the ground are fighting for more funding for shelters for GBV and domestic violence victims, access to GBV-prevention information, accountability for number of GBV victims, etc. In attempted solidarity, the Ugandan Government has launched a National Gender Based Violence policy (2016), a National Action Plan on Elimination of Gender Based Violence (2016-2021), a Multimedia Strategy Against Gender Based Violence and is planning a revision of the National Gender Policy (2007) this upcoming year. However, none of these actions recognize the potential for a growing national 7.5 million oppressive online network that hinders women’s capacity for progress. 

While the Ugandan Government has de facto recognized gender based violence (GBV) as ‘[affecting] more women and girls than men and boys,’ it is yet to recognize that the offline abusive husband has now been enabled by online technologies such as spyware to translate the terror into a virtual reality.

Anonymity is the key.

Sara Baker, a consultant for the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), writes in a powerful article entitled ‘Why Online Anonymity is Critical for Women’ in which she emphasizes that ‘without privacy, we cannot have autonomy, and on the internet, autonomy is a key mechanism for achieving autonomy.’ Autonomy is progress. It is the ability to make a conscious decision to strive away from statistics that show 52% of women to be less likely than men to express controversial views online. Autonomy is the agency to continue political debates within a democratic cyber framework. It is the choice to speak up against higher injustice without being charged with cyber harassment and offensive communication when your agency as a woman has been questioned by an encumbering patriarchy. Autonomy is the discovery of agency. It gives agency to autonomy and progress. 

The African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms (2016) recognizes the need for states to implement ‘processes and mechanisms that enable the full, active and equal participation of women and girls in decision making about how the Internet is shaped and governed, should be developed and strengthened.’ The declaration promotes tools to protect anonymity such as encryption ‘as the basic standard for the protection of the rights to freedom of expression and privacy online.’ In parallel, nation-wide activism by Unwanted Witness, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), CIPESA and many others, loudly asserts the need for acknowledging the vulnerability of women online by safeguarding their agency in the revision of legislation such as the Data Protection and Privacy Bill (2016). 

As shown through recent and anticipated Government action, Uganda is undergoing a current of changes addressing the political, cultural and economic gender imbalances. However, eradicating GBV will never be achieved unless there is a recognition of the ease with which GBV transfers from the offline to the online realms. Politics of the Internet need to be democratized. This will only be possible if women are granted the space and agency to begin fulfilling Tesla’s prophesy through their anonymous voices. 

By Darina Blaszczyk
McGill University

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