Why the 16 days of activism against GBV should focus on Online Violence

While speaking to a peer last week about online spaces, she had this to say “I am no longer interested in online
activities because I get threatened especially on twitter and I now feel so insecure”. It was not the first time
I was hearing such remarks especially from female colleagues. Once again I had been reminded about the realities of gender-based violence, but in different spaces; Online. The power dimensions online mirror the existing power structures in the real world where Power online, can represent power structures offline in patriarchal societies.

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Over the years, the focus of gender-based violence has been offline and has responded to offline problems. However, with the rise in use and application of ICTs, there is a case for a paradigm shift in addressing violence globally as we gradually progress to fully- fledged digitized societies. Now with the annual 16 days of Activism against gender based violence first approaching (25th Nov-15th Dec), the agenda has to widen to include solutions to online forms of violence against both women and men which come in different forms like; cyber-stalking, Cyber-bullying, online shaming, revenge pornography, blackmail, impersonation among many others. Online violence is a continuation of violence that affects dis-empowered groups offline mostly girls and women.

This year’s theme for the 16 days of activism against gender based violence “From Peace in the Home to Peace in the World: Make Education Safe for Al!” resonates with SDG 4, target (7) on access to quality and equitable Education for all; but with special focus on creating a culture of peace and non-violence which to me calls for the need for informal trainings on basic use and application of technologies, privacy, intellectual property rights and online security for many ignorant users of Internet services.

For an already marginalized group of people with the least access to affordable Internet and lower levels of education, online violence is making the voices of many women less heard as many opt to leave these spaces. Gender
discrimination in cyberspace is a reflection of society and as such Legislation against online harassment should be adapted with the government redefining this harassment. You cannot talk about Internet freedom without women in the conversation. Lots of online abuses directed towards women are rubbished or taken for satire, rumor & jokes. It’s critical to know when and where the line should be drawn? While it’s true that we are entitled to freedom of speech, it is not real if the freedom comes at the cost of women’s right to safety.

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A woman with a strong opinion online is bullied and seen as someone who can be asked to shut up or forced to leave the spaces. Not usually the case for men online. De-humanising language against women helps legitimise violence against them. In Uganda, we have seen female celebrities abused and later on blamed. “We have created an abusive society and gone ahead to normalize, regularize, and routinize online abuse; yet law enforcement in cyberspaces is still new to our country. We cannot continue having law enforcers utter things like “Online abuse is not real, that is virtual and cannot cause you any harm”.

For as long as girls and women are forced off the cyberspaces as a result of fear, we shall continue to miss out on important voices in society. Online violence is real, do not be a perpetrator and learn to speak out when attacked.