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Exploring the Patterns of Online Violence against Women and Girls; its Impacts and Online Protection Mechanisms.

Introduction
In today’s digital age, the internet has become an integral part of our lives, offering numerous opportunities for connection, expression, and empowerment. However, alongside its benefits, the online world is also plagued by various forms of violence and abuse, specifically targeting women and girls. Online gender-based violence (OGBV) refers to any harmful act committed against an individual based on their gender, utilizing digital platforms to perpetrate violence, harassment, or discrimination. This blog aims to shed light on the patterns of OGBV, its far-reaching impacts, and the importance of online protection mechanisms. 

Understanding the Patterns of OGBV
Online violence against women and girls involves a wide range of behaviors including but not limited to cyberstalking, non-consensual sharing of intimate images (NCII) commonly known as ‘revenge pornography’, online harassment, doxxing, and hate speech among others. These acts target individuals based on their gender and all this is made possible by the anonymity and ease that comes with the internet. These types of violence are rooted in gender inequality and power imbalances, as perpetrators seek to silence, intimidate and control women and girls. Such acts can occur across social media platforms, messaging apps, online gaming communities or any other online spaces where individuals interact.

In a Twitter Space organized by Women Of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) on the 13th April 2023 with support from Internews under the FemTech Project, different stakeholders convened  such as survivors of OGBV, academia, law enforcers, Civil Society Organisations(CSOs), and women human rights defenders. The Twitter space moderated by Phillip Ayazinka from Policy, comprised a panel: Gole Andrew from Encrypt Uganda, Brenda Namata from Uganda Media Women’s Association, Quinta Yuochi from Association for Socially Vulnerable (ASOV),  Aidah Bukubuza from AYDIA Gender and Technology Initiative and Esther Nyapendi from Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) who shared information from their perspectives about the various patterns of online violence against women and girls, its impacts and ways of combating online abuse, threats and harassment that happens online.

The status of online gender-based violence is increasingly becoming a threat to individuals, especially women and girls which violates their rights such as privacy, freedom of speech and access to information among others. This violation tends to psychologically torture victims of OGBV leading to feelings of shame, guilt, fear, anxiety, depression and self-censorship from the online spaces among others.

Impacts of OGBV on Women’s and Girls’ Digital Rights
Online violence tends to have diverse effects on individuals in various ways; The most common effect is trauma which usually results in social isolation. It may oppress survivors from social interactions, both online and offline. This kind of isolation creates a sense of powerlessness among the women and girls.

According to Quinta, online violence also leads to psychological distress such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The constant fear and humiliation faced by victims affect their self-esteem and overall well-being. 

Online GBV isolates women and reaffirms patriarchal norms that tend to silence them and limit their freedoms. This in turn extends gender inequality into all spaces, leaving women with few places to turn to for support, virtually.

A lot of women are joining closed communities or leaving social media rather than engaging in public spaces because of the fear of attracting violence. According to a study by the World Web Foundation, Africa has the widest gender gap in internet connectivity with a continental average of almost 50%, women actively leaving the online world, that divide could get even worse.

What should be done?
To tackle this issue, it is important to put in place and understand mechanisms available for combating online violence against women and girls. Therefore, various strategies and initiatives ought to be put in place to empower women and girls while creating a safe and more inclusive digital space.

Technology companies ought to take the lead in combating online violence. This is because they possess tools, platforms and resources to create safer digital spaces, especially for marginalized and structurally silenced groups. Collaboration between civil society organizations and technology companies improves content moderation and develops algorithms that proactively identify and remove abusive content. 

“ There is a need for technology companies to modify their networks through ensuring that users use two-step verification, secure social media accounts and safe browsing,” Gole Andrew notes.

There is also a need to raise awareness about online violence, its impact and its consequences. By educating women, girls and society at large, we can foster a culture of digital literacy and responsible online behavior. This can be done by engaging schools, community organisations and online platforms to amplify this issue and promote a collective understanding of online violence. 

“ Civil society organizations should provide protection services, training and empowerment of resource persons,” Quinta explained.

Strong legal frameworks are also essential for addressing online violence against women and girls. Governments must update and enforce laws and regulations that criminalize cyber harassment, hate speech and revenge porn. Laws such as the Amended Computer Misuse Act of 2022 and the Anti-pornography Act of 2014 must be emphasized.

Governments and civil society organizations should establish online platforms, helplines and chat services that are mainly dedicated to providing emotional assistance, legal guidance and assisting survivors. However, these systems must be designed with the aspect of privacy ensuring that survivors can seek help without fear of being exposed.

Ending online violence against women and girls requires engaging men and boys as allies. Encouraging open discussions about harmful masculinity, gender equality, and responsible online behavior can help change attitudes and behaviors. This will help in promoting a culture that rejects online violence and supports survivors. Therefore, addressing online violence against women and girls requires an approach that combines legal measures, technology, education and cultural change.

“By working together, we can strive towards a digital space that upholds the rights and safety of women so that they can participate fully and equally in the digital space,” says Brenda Namata

To counter the patterns and impacts of OGBV, the implementation of effective online protection mechanisms is essential. These mechanisms involve multiple stakeholders, including individuals, civil society organizations, technology companies, and governments. Some key strategies and actions include: Technology companies should actively engage in combating OGBV by developing user-friendly reporting mechanisms, implementing more strict content moderation policies and utilizing advanced algorithms to identify and remove abusive content promptly. And lastly, online platforms should foster inclusive and respectful communities by promoting positive online behavior, promoting bystander intervention and encouraging users to report abusive content.

Conclusion
Online violence against women and girls is a pervasive issue that demands our attention and collective action. By exploring the patterns of OGBV, understanding its impacts, and implementing robust online protection mechanisms, we can strive to create a safer and more inclusive digital environment. It is our shared responsibility to challenge and dismantle the structures that perpetuate OGBV, ensuring that women and girls can exercise their rights and fully participate in the online world without fear or discrimination.

Compiled by;

Nyapendi Esther, | Assistant, Technical Support Officer

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