Online Gender-Based Violence: How can we tackle the harm on victims/survivors in Uganda?

The line between online and offline Gender-Based Violence is so thin to the extent that the negative impact is most likely to cause similar trends of harm to the victims of such abuse.

It is an undisputed fact that the Internet and any other forms of technology aid people to realize their online rights such as the access to information although these very resources have been exploited by various perpetrators to harm or threaten women and girls. According to the World Health Organisation, at least 35% of women and girls worldwide have faced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. However, it is worth noting that violence against women seems to have taken a shift from an offline to an online form.  In fact, the United Nations (U.N.) in a study about online gender-based violence against women highlights that 95% of aggressive behavior, harassment, abusive language, and denigrating images in online spaces from partners or former male partners.

Over the years, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) has been creating awareness about the harmful, intimating, and deterrent nature of technology related violence on women rights online   and building capacity of women and young girls, policymakers, and law enforcement officers to reduce the rate of technology-related violence experienced by women which affect their fundamental internet rights and freedoms of expression.

On many occasions, WOUGNET has been privileged to run diverse campaigns and several initiatives with support from Take Back the Tech, Association for Progressive Communications (APC). Due to the increasing use of tech highly caused by COVID-19 pandemic, the organization under the All Women Count – Take Back The Tech (AWC-TBTT) project supported Women of Uganda Network to empower women and young girls through smart media technology to identify, develop and amplify the mechanism for tackling online gender-based violence in Uganda. As a result of its support, WOUGNET created feminist audios, animated videos, and images to enable communities to respond to the online gender-based violence. Additionally, WOUGNET created awareness and popularized simple action behaviors to prevent online GBV in Uganda.

It is upon these revelations that Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) found it pertinent to schedule the Virtual Conference on Online Gender-Based Violence in Uganda on the 28th October, 2020.  The conference was to provide a platform for victims or survivors to share their experiences and also for Women’s Rights Defenders in the digital age to deliberate on strategies and measures that can be adopted to eliminate this form of injustice. The two hours’ conference had diverse panelist championing the women’s rights offline and online including Twasiima Patricia Bigirwa, the Feminist Lawyer and Women’s Economic Justice Lead with Akina Mama Wa Afrika; Jimmy Haguma, the Chief Security Officer at the Uganda Communications Commission (UCC); Lindsey Kukunda, the Founder of Not Your Body, and Dr. Bridget Harris, the Senior Researcher in the School of Justice, Digital Media Research Centre, and Centre for Justice at the Queensland University of Technology. The session was moderated by Sandra Aceng, the Program Manager, Information Sharing and Networking at WOUGNET.

Online gender-based violence is deeply rooted because most societies in Uganda and the world are still patriarchally dominated in their setup. Lindsey Kukunda in a tweet argued that “The internet is a mirror of how society grooms boys and men to view women as inferior, and highlights the tendencies to abuse and violate rights and safety of women.” Perpetrators of online violence against women as explained by Dr. Bridget Harris may fall into different three major categories; Firstly, those that are known to the victim for example intimate partners, those that people may know especially from social media or dating site suggestions and finally those that are unknown to the victims. She further reiterates that it is a common trend in Australia and the rest of the world for online violence women to be orchestrated by people they have a social connection with.   

Often times as explained by Patricia Bigirwa, victims, or even perpetrators have not been sensitized and are therefore not aware of what forms of Online Gender-Based Violence manifest itself. This perhaps partly accounts for a number of these harassment cases. Furthermore, Dr. Bridget Harris mentioned some of the forms of online Gender Based on Violence such as stalking, impersonation, doxing, non-consensual distribution of intimate images, manipulating bank accounts online, impersonation, phishing, and abusive communication. Lindsey Kukunda shared her experience with abusive communication when she called out a bar for being racist when its workers barred her from checking in. Her action attracted hostility and abusive comments over the radio where certain individuals claimed she even had an inferiority complex. She was however grateful for the fact that the Bar now has a “No racism allowed here” poster which is a clear indication of how important it is to stand and speak up against all sorts of violence. 

It was evident from the discussions that the furtherance of online harassment against women and girls has been greatly hinged on the inefficiencies in Uganda’s legal system. In this regard, Jimmy Haguma referred the participants to the Computer Misuse Act of 2011 which was essentially passed by the Uganda Parliament to curb cyber harassment. Under this act, a perpetrator cannot be held accountable for his/her actions at the first instance but must have rather harassed the victim/s repeatedly. This is a loophole in the law as many perpetrators are set free while victims live on with both physical and psychological effects emanating from this kind of violence. Also, the Anti-Pornography Act of 2014 which criminalizes the non-consensual distribution of intimate images seems to focus more on penalizing the victims instead of the perpetrators that share them. Patricia Twasiima argues that “Where victims would have turned to the law to protect them, it instead persecutes them.”

When asked whether the law has failed to work for women because they do not know much about it, Patricia argued that “The law doesn’t work for women not because they do not know the law. The Law does not work for because it was designed not to.” The nature of most of our laws clearly calls for either amendment by parliament or rather nullification of such provisions which are Unconstitutional. Lindsey Kukunda adds that “This abuse is unchecked, unmonitored by the Government or Police & victims/survivors of ‘revenge porn’ are instead, prosecuted.” This only breeds a cyberspace where women unlike men do not freely express themselves online on the basis that they have been or could be harassed.

The media has equally been criticized for the insensitive manner in which it reports on matters concerning Online Gender Based Violence. Often times, the media will openly criticize and focus on shaming victims of online harassment who are majorly women instead of the perpetrators. A clear example of this practice by media houses can be seen from an article titled “Sheebah’s Naked Pictures Flop” published on 27th February 2015 by the Red Pepper Newspaper where the writer shamelessly stated that “The poor quality of the nudes is to blame for them being stuck on people’s phones since they cannot induce any boners in men.” This is an indication that online Gender-based violence against women and girls in society is a creature of Patriarchy.

It is important to note online violence against women may have adverse effects on the wellbeing, security, and safety of victims as highlighted by Dr. Bridget Harris. Considering and assessing the impact of online violence enables all stakeholders like Parliament, the Judiciary, Social Media Sites, and Civil Society Organisations to come up with effective measures to end this dangerous vice. If not stopped, online violence against women may translate into physical, sexual, emotional, psychological, and financial distress as hinted at by Dr. Harris. Such effects should influence what kind of sanctions the law and the Judges place upon perpetrators as a means of ensuring that victims attain justice. 

As a way forward, Patricia Twasiima suggested that Judges and Uganda Police officials ought to be given training on Online Gender-Based Violence. As the Custodians of Justice, it is only important that Judicial officers and law enforcers are well acquainted with knowledge or skills to use while investigating and making judgments in reported cases of online violence against women. Lindsey further recommended that women should have different passwords for all their accounts on digital platforms. This improves the account security of women while using the internet since having the same passwords may grant the perpetrator access to most or all the victims’ accounts. Additionally, the law needs to be amended so as to give victims and survivors justice while the perpetrator is sanctioned accordingly. Last but not least, journalists should be trained and sensitized on how to report cases of online gender-based violence without causing more trauma to the victims. 

WOUGNET firmly contends and reemphasizes that as an organization, it will always be on top of its agenda to ensure that it stands at the forefront of the campaign to achieve gender-sensitive legal, cultural and structural reforms as a means to address online gender-based violence and promote women’s rights online.

Written by: 

Iribagiza David – Communications Intern


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