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While online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV) has become a norm in this 21st century where the internet is a part of our fate, its toll on the mental health of women who are victims is immeasurable. Many studies have provided facts on the impact of the general Gender-Based Violence on women however little has been documented about the impact OGBV has on the mental health of women.

Even though both men and women are potential victims of OGBV, research shows that women are more susceptible to the act than men and are more likely to face ill effects ensuing from OGBV. This may also be associated with the societal and cultural norms that usually victimize women more than men given the influence patriarchy has on society in our day-to-day lives. This, therefore, implies that the violation of women online is just a reflection of the rate at which women are often violated offline.     

Despite the efforts that have been undertaken by the government (through its laws and policies) and feminist organizations to increase women's participation in social, economic, and political spheres through the internet platforms, the rate at which OGBV prevails has crushed these efforts thus increasing the gender digital divide. This has not only affected their freedom of expression online but has also prevented them from championing different societal causes and accessing services online.  

In Uganda today, a number of women have been harassed and prejudiced through the use of technology which is an attack on their personal and professional growth. This is commonly done through Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, and sometimes email. According to Mutebi & Wagabaza, 2019, online violence against women and girls entails cyberstalking, unsolicited sexual advances, sharing degrading images, false accusations, defamation, and slander. Supplementary to that, Non-consensual intimate images (NCII) commonly known as “revenge porn” is another form employed by perpetrators of OGBV.

Women that have succumbed to any kind of OGBV are most likely to undergo emotional damage that often times threatens their mental health. The impact of OGBV ranges from mild to extreme effects, these may include low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. This is in accordance with the research conducted by Policy in 2020 that informed that out of the 720 Ugandan respondents that were interviewed, 32.8% reported having been victims of Online Gender-Based Violence. The report further highlighted that the experience impacted their mental health and this manifested through anxiety, depression, fear, and a sense of powerlessness. The report further indicated that 75% of the women interviewed reported having suffered from mental stress and anxiety as a result of the violence they had experienced online. The unforeseen outbreak of the COVID-19 also acted as a steering wheel for technology-related violence against women simply because the lockdown increased people’s access to the internet as they had a lot of downtimes.   

 A survey conducted by Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) between 30th May and 4th June 2020 among 50 young tech users from urban, peri-urban, and rural areas of Uganda indicated that 24% of the respondents had experienced OGBV. The report also conveyed that while some victims confronted the harasser, there is a category of women that kept such incidents to themselves which could lead to self-censorship, psychological or emotional effects.

While it’s easy for some victims to move on, it’s never the same for someone that has experienced different forms of OGBV such as “revenge porn’’. It always takes a lot of resilience, social support, and rehabilitation for the victim to recover from the emotional damage. An assessment of women’s safety in the digital space highlighted that OGBV has the potential to harm the mental health of the victims and in some instances lead to suicidal thoughts.   For instance, after Judith Heard's nudes leaked without her consent, she could hardly leave the house in fear of being killed or stoned by the people that were throwing hate words and insults at her.  She was attacked and ridiculed on social media. This fear resulted in depression and later transited to suicidal thoughts which would have led to her death if not supported.

In addition, the victims are subjected to guilt and shame towards their families and friends which automatically affects their self-esteem. This does not only destroy the victim’s social life or career path but further affects their ability to cope up with normal stresses of life and also reduces their productivity. A case in point, in 2014 Desire Luzinda one of Uganda’s pop stars went into hiding after her ex-boyfriend posted nude photos on social media after a failed relationship. It was emotionally draining for her because she felt a lot of guilt and found it hard to explain herself to her mother and daughter and at the same time felt a lot of pressure from her fans that value ethics and morality. As a rising pop star, growing a fan base is one thing, and maintaining it is another. Although the nudes were leaked without her consent, this left a big toll on her self-esteem especially on musical stages because a number of her fans bashed her online for using her nudes to seek popularity and also earn money. This automatically affected her productivity in pushing her music ahead as she spent time worrying about what the public perceived of her.

As the perpetrators of OGBV hide behind fake accounts and personas, the mental health of victims is left in shutters as they are tormented, ridiculed, and judged on the online spaces. This inevitably affects their wellbeing especially the way they act, feel and also limits their ability to make choices. Therefore, legislators, policymakers, and all stakeholders including but not limited to internet service providers should create a safe, inclusive, and fairground on the internet platforms to ensure that both men and women freely enjoy their freedom of expression and access to information. They should guarantee that no one enjoys their digital human rights of freedom of expression at the expense of another person’s human rights. Instead of criticizing and penalizing the victims, safe spaces should be created by human rights advocates, private and government institutions to rehabilitate the victims to enable the spaces to become more resilient, reclaim their position in society, and rediscover their purpose in life to enable them to heal mentally.

The mounting number of victims that have experienced technology-related violence against women (tech-related VAW) has rendered ICT as a gendered issue, this form of violence creates a hostile online environment that disheartens women and girls from fully embracing ICT as a tool for sustainable development due to fear of their safety. In order to eliminate OGBV, Uganda should also embrace the five principles recommended by the Due Diligence Project which looked at state compliance to eliminate OGBV in five areas which included; prevention, protection, prosecution, punishment, and provision of redress and reparation.  The project does not only halt OGBV from occurring but it further accounts for preventing reoccurrence of further violence gives room for investigation and instituting proceedings against the perpetrators give an obligation to impose sanctions/negative consequences on perpetrators provide for compensation of the victims and removing the content that has been uploaded to destroy someone’s image.

Conclusively, while it's of great importance to compensate the victims of OGBV and punish perpetrators, it’s also imperative to rehabilitate victims to protect them from extreme effects of endangered mental health like depression, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts which may result in death.

Written by Maria Gorret Nampiima,

Program Associate, Information Sharing and Networking

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