Online Gender-Based Violence: A silent flesh-eating cancer in Tanzania

Online Gender-Based Violence: A silent flesh-eating cancer in Tanzania

“My phone’s vibration awakened me”, says Amida Twaha, a 20 years old beauty model. “It was the beginning of the day I will never forget and one of the darkest periods of my life”. About three years ago, Twaha was involved in a scandal that rocked the headlines: she discovered videos of her naked, shared on the internet. She says the video was leaked by one of her closest friends as an act of revenge over Twaha’s winning the Miss MUST (Mbeya University of Science and Technology) Beauty Competition in 2019. Although it is difficult to say, as there are no official statistics in Tanzania, she is just one of many women who suffer cyber abuse in Tanzania. 

According to Plan International, girls and women who use social media are routinely subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyber stalking, and other distressing forms of abuse. “Some of the people I was contesting with were plainly saying that I didn’t deserve to win the competition, and they used this to throw dirt on me,” says Twaha. Most women do not denounce being bullied, harassed, or slandered online because of shame or lack of legal information, according to the Ministry of Community Development, Women, Gender and Special Group in Tanzania. But Twaha decided to go ahead and inform about it.

In Tanzania, 77% of women (versus 86% of men) own a mobile phone, and only 17% of women have mobile internet access (35% of men), according to the 2019 Mobile Gender Gap Report. The problem with cyberbullying affecting women is that many quit using platforms and mobile technology, further isolating them.  The 2020 report on online freedom by Plan International shows that online gender-based violence (also known as OGBV) accounts for more than 19 percent of women to reduce or stop using social networks and 12 percent of them changing how they present their opinions online. This is what happened to Twaha too. “I quit using Instagram for a while, and it took me a while to get back to normal. I talked to my family and I decided to let bygones be bygones. I am strong, I know that about me. In fact, I decided to contest for Miss Tanzania, and got to the top 20” says Twaha.

What is online gender-based violence?

Twaha’s case is an example of OGBV. It happens on the digital platforms we use daily, such as WhatsApp, Instagram, or Twitter. It is often done repeatedly to shame or intimidate the targeted. It can involve sending the victim’s personal information, such as videos and pictures, or misleading information to silence them, taking away their confidence to express themselves, destroying their reputation, and disrupting their abilities to get opportunities. According to the United Nations Report on how Online Gender-Based Violence affects human rights (2016), seven out of ten youths in the world have experienced this kind of violence as they were using the internet. The report further clarifies that one out of three victims of the OGBV has attempted suicide to get out of the aftermath.

Who is most affected?

Anyone can be a victim of online gender-based violence; however, several reports indicate that women fall victim to OGBV more often than men. For example, in an article published in 2019 by Better Policies for Better Lives, OECD reports that women are affected twice as much as men, one of the reasons being a lack of knowledge on how to use digital devices properly and safely (in this case, mobile phones) and internet. However, lack of knowledge is not the only factor. For example, M. Zaenul Muttaqin and Ninik Tri Ambarwati say in a scientific study of Instagram in Indonesia that cyberbullying is part of “women’s oppression.” Women get cyberbullied frequently because of their facial and physical appearance. This study indicates that the act of cyberbullying cannot be separated from the strong perspective of the dominant discourse about the ideal body of a woman (a form of sexual objectification). Women often get online threats of sexual violence because of their political or social activity. Other studies connect cyberbullying with misogyny or dislike of, contempt for, ingrained prejudice against, or hatred of women, intimidation, and silencing.

Are there laws against OGBV in Tanzania?

Some acknowledge that the increase in OGBV in Tanzania is connected to a lack of digital awareness, improper implementation of safety in digital use, lack of effective regulation, and limited knowledge about which regulation applies to cybercrimes. Research co-conducted by four civil society organizations in Tanzania, including Media Convergency and Tanzania Media ‘Women’s Association (TAMWA) in 2021, indicates that there are not enough statistics on the OGBV cases, and there is no law that specifically addresses OGBV – it is currently addressed by the Cybercrime Act of 2015, which basically covers all the crimes in the digital space. Before the establishment of the Cybercrime Act, the Constitution of the United Republic of Tanzania (1977) has incorporated the bill of rights in Articles 12 – 29. This part of the Constitution has provided that “every person is entitled to recognition and respect for his dignity”. The constitution further provides for equality before the law of all people without discrimination and they are entitled protection. Chapter 20 of the Penal Code served to stand against all acts that violate women’s dignity, including online.

How bad are the consequences?

Technological avoidance because of cyberbullying directly impacts the extent to which women express themselves online and how their opinions reflect in public dialogues in the digital world. In ‘Twaha’s case, she did not stop using social media forever. She opened another Instagram account and now uses it to run a digital campaign known as “Stop Cyberbullying, Start Cyberloving.” In addition to widening the gender digital gap, research has shown that OGBV is a threat against peaceful, sustainable and gender equal societies, perpetuating discrimination and reinforcing an oppressive, misogynist and patriarchal system. Digital violence against women hence remains one major challenge to peace in the digital age. 

What should be done?

As OGBV becomes common online, digital stakeholders insist that education is the key to putting a lid on this djinn. “We are working closely with media, especially female journalists. We sit and talk about these issues. We realize that OGBV is a neglected subject in the media. We train them on better ways to address the topic in the media. We are also working with university students, who fall victim to taking and recording personal pictures and videos”, says Asha Abinallah, the Chief Executive Officer of Media Convergency, an NGO that works to ensure safe cyberspace in Tanzania. Abinallah also insists on the importance of involving lawmakers in the fight against OGBV to create and improve the laws that will ensure access to safe cyberspace. Neema Olle Ndemno, a lawyer and Digital Rights Advocate in Tanzania believes in timely acting on online gender-based violence, preventing the effects of causing further damages,and having a friendly legal system to help the victims. “We need to review our legal system to incorporate the new form of OGBV. Let our legal system be friendly enough to ensure justice is accessible promptly. Let us seriously execute the laws which we have with regards to OGBV”, insists Olle Ndemno. The Head of the Gender and Children Desk in Njombe, Police Assistant Inspector Wilfred Willa says the best way to fight OGBV is to come forward and speak publicly about it so that the perpetrators can be made responsible for their actions. “If you are a victim and stay quiet, it will influence the others to keep doing it. We can be part of the solution now by exposing such things and be ready to stand for our rights”, says Assistant Inspector Willa. Assistant Inspector Willa says he believes that many cases go unreported, citing fear and lack of education as the reasons for the victims not to report the incidents. 

What can you do?

Anyone, especially women, can fall prey to online gender-based violence at any time. Staying silent and secluded once you fall victim may worsen the situation.If you are being cyberbullied, you can:

  1. Do not respond. “Responding to cyberbullying isn’t productive. Don’t try to initiate a meaningful or constructive dialogue with cyberbullies, as the mere act of engaging them in a conversation will invite more activity from them”, says HealthHub.
  2. Keep the evidence: Take a screenshot of the post or screen-record the content to save it as a piece of evidence if it will be needed later. 
  3. Get help: Contact someone you trust for help, be it a teacher, a friend, or family, to seek mental support. 
  4. Go high-tech: Denounce the account posting cyberbullying content to the social platform to stop further spreading of the harassing or harmful content. “Reporting bullies to the website administrator may get them kicked off the site. The National Crime Prevention Council (of the US) highlights that on Facebook and YouTube, some of the most popular sites for cyberbullying activity, you can report cyberbullying incidents to the ‘sites’ safety centers,” says
  5. Report it: If it endangers you physically, seek help from the nearest Police station or any other first aid service.

Imani Henrick is a Digital Rights Advocate and journalist, currently working with Kings FM Radio in Njombe, Tanzania as Station Manager. She is a Founder of Digital Rights focused Podcast (Dig It With Imani the Podcast). You can follow her work here.