Since 2020, there has been growing talk of technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TGBV) in mainstream media. While feminist researchers had been studying TGBV for years, the increase in TGBV cases in 2020 put their work in focus. The coronavirus pandemic brought with it restrictions on physical gatherings and a massive shift to the use of online spaces for work and social interaction. One unintended consequence of this shift was that TGBV rates increased worldwide.
TGBV can be defined as action by one or more people that harms others based on their sexual or gender identity or by enforcing harmful gender norms. This action can be carried out using the internet, mobile technology and/or, as Futures Cities Canada recently found, smart home devices. TGBV is an umbrella term and includes acts such as cyberbullying, cyberstalking, doxxing, image-based abuse, dogpiling, body-shaming, hate speech, surveillance, impersonation (fake accounts created to defame, discredit and ruin women’s reputations) and gendered disinformation.
TGBV is a continuum of offline violence inflicted on women and gender-diverse persons into online spaces. In her book Haters and Harassment, Bailey Poland writes that “online harassment and abuse are intended to reinforce existing patterns of power and dominance over people who have historically been disenfranchised or oppressed”. This corresponds with different statistics showing how marginalised people are disproportionately affected by TGBV. It is important to note that while everyone experiences online abuse and harassment, violations on women and LGBTQIA+ people are gendered. This means that these attacks are a result of gender norms, and the consequences are more severe for them.
Globally, TGBV rates are increasingly worrying. For instance:
In 2020, Plan International surveyed more than 14,000 girls worldwide and found that more than half of the respondents had experienced abuse and harassment in online spaces.
TGBV is intersectional. Amnesty International found that while every 30 seconds a woman received a toxic tweet, black women were 84 per cent more likely to be the recipients. In addition, women of colour were 34 per cent more likely to receive abusive tweets.
A 2016 IPU survey of 55 women legislators worldwide found that 81.8 per cent of them had experienced TGBV, including high incidences of humiliating fake sexual images having been circulated. Another survey of women parliamentarians from all over the world found that 41.8 per cent of the respondents had seen extremely humiliating or sexually charged images of them spread through social media, including photomontages showing them nude.
On the African continent, TGBV rates are rising along with increase in internet usage.
In 2021, Pollicy found that, while both men and women in politics experienced online abuse, women were more likely to experience body-shaming and sexual violence. Insults and attacks on women were gendered and often based on their deviations from social norms.
In 2020, Pollicy surveyed 3,306 women in five African countries and found that 51.6 per cent of the respondents had either experienced or witnessed accounts of online violence, and as a result were concerned about their digital security.
In Zimbabwe, a study by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) found that from 2013 to April 2018, 60 per cent of abusive and violent online discourse around political actors was directed at women in politics, despite women constituting only a third of the National Assembly.
In 2018, in Malawi, there was an incident where the personal phone numbers of more than 200 women were shared in a WhatsApp group for men. This list was titled “the easiest young women/girls to sleep with or to have a good time”.
In Nigeria, LGBTQIA+ people experience a form of TGBV called “kito”. To be “kitoed” means to be catfished and lured by someone pretending to be gay for the purposes of shaming, outing, blackmailing, robbing and even beating the queer person. It often involves non-consensual sharing of intimate images (NCII) and is done through dating apps such as Grindr and Tinder or social-media platforms like Instagram.
In 2015, the World Wide Web Foundation reported that, in a survey of 86 countries, 74 per cent of their legal systems were not appropriately responding to TGBV. Since then, the African Union (AU) has adopted the Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection, 29 countries have passed cybersecurity legislation and four others are at the drafting stage. Yet, despite this progress, most of the laws enacted do not mention women or TGBV, despite the fact that these attacks create safety concerns for survivors and involve invasions of privacy, and bring about considerable financial losses.
First, while 17 African countries have laws on cyber harassment and cyberbullying, there is a gap in addressing gendered forms of cyber harassment. Women experience more severe forms of cyber harassment, which often includes death threats, sexual harassment in forms like body-shaming, unwanted sexual advances, unsolicited sexual images, rape threats and cyberstalking. In many cases these forms of harassment are conducted by people they know, such as ex-domestic partners, hence increasing their safety concerns. While the existence of laws against cybercrime is a great start, there is a need for laws that acknowledge the gendered nature of cyberattacks against women and LGBTQIA+ people in online spaces.
Another key issue is that most existing laws fail to address is networked harassment, as they do not explicitly mention and define it as a form of cyber harassment. This is a form of online harassment that involves coordinated and organised attacks against particular individuals or issues. Examples of networked attacks include paid influencer campaigns, or less detectable tactics such as “brigading”. Brigading can be defined as “all coordinated abusive engagement behaviour online including retweets, comments, quote retweets, email campaigns etc.”. While these methods have been used on the political scene, they are also being deployed against women in both public and private life. In Kenya, Telegram has been used to create large groups for coordinated attacks against feminist women who are outspoken on social media, and high-profile women such as journalists, bloggers and politicians. In these groups, online attacks are coordinated against often unsuspecting victims. These sites have also become fora for networked doxxing, gendered disinformation and the circulation of intimate images of often unsuspecting women. In Namibia, First Lady Monica Geingos was the victim of coordinated disinformation and troll campaigns by anonymous accounts on WhatsApp. She sued the perpetrators for defamation. Most countries, however, have not yet included this form of harassment in their laws. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter have also mostly taken action on networked activities in African countries when it was political, and only after it was flagged by researchers. This was the case with ruling-party-led election disinformation campaigns in Uganda.
Misinformation, disinformation and media manipulation have been points of concern for African governments. As a response, since 2016, African governments have nearly doubled laws and regulations related to false information. These laws have mostly been used to target opposition figures, and restrict the freedom of speech of journalists, politicians and human rights defenders. As the purpose of these regulations have been to control online speech and limit criticism and not necessarily to curtail these online harms, they have been counterproductive. They have also been a missed opportunity at addressing “gendered disinformation”. This is a form of disinformation that “uses false or misleading gender- and sex-based narratives against women, which ultimately pushes women out from public spaces”. Such campaigns rely on gender- and sex-based narratives because of how powerful they can be in patriarchal societies where women are expected to conform to societal norms. A (true or false) story about a female politician cheating on her husband can cost her votes, as it tarnishes her image of how wives should be. Manipulated media in the form of fake nudes has been one of the most extensive forms of gendered disinformation. According to Sensify, as of March 2021, 90 per cent of the 85,000 deepfakes in circulation were pornographic, with some being doctored pornographic footage featuring women. While policymakers have emphasised the possibilities of the deployment of manipulated media like deepfakes in political hate speech, the fact that they are being used disproportionately to humiliate, coerce, control and extort women has been largely ignored. In 2017 in Rwanda, a few days after a female candidate announced her intent to run for the presidency, fake nude images of her were shared on social media. After her campaign was disqualified from the presidential race, she announced that she wanted to start a youth movement, and once again, fake nude images of her were spread all over the internet. These images ultimately ruined her campaign as she was seen as immoral and a threat to the country’s conservative morals. It is important to note that even if she wanted to take action, Rwanda’s cybercrime law, which prohibits sharing of false information that may make a person lose their credibility, only addresses “rumours”, and not doctored images. This reflects the problem that laws do not cover all forms of TGBV or are simply ambiguous.
When African governments give attention to image-based abuse, it is often from a punitive angle. Countries such as Tanzania, Lesotho and Botswana criminalise the broadcasting or distribution of pornography, often referred to as “obscene” or “immoral” material. Under these laws, pornography is so loosely defined that images that fall within the scope of NCII are excluded from the enforcement of the law. Victims of NCII become the first offenders because they are seen as distributors of pornography, especially in cases where the pictures were initially taken with their consent. Even victims whose intimate images are taken without their consent are not spared under anti-pornography laws. For instance, NCII is a tactic employed by sex traffickers and rapists, who take pictures of their victims to prevent them from seeking justice. Domestic partners, too, use it as a form of control to prevent partners from exiting relationships, reporting abuse or obtaining custody of children. Yet in countries such as Uganda, victims whose pictures were taken non-consensually were charged or threatened with charges. Despite the lack of regulatory support for most NCII victims across the continent, South Africa and Zimbabwe are making strides in passing survivor-centred legislation on image-based abuse. In an amendment of its 2019 cybercrime act, South Africa seeks to explicitly outlaw the non-consensual distribution of another person’s private sexual photograph or film with the intention of causing that individual harm. It also compels internet service providers to provide the Film and Publications Board or the South African Police with the details about the identity of the perpetrator. Zimbabwe, too, criminalises the sharing of an intimate image of an identifiable person without the consent of the person concerned causing them humiliation or embarrassment.
When laws do not address TGBV, survivors resort to non-TGBV-specific laws such as data protection, defamation and copyright laws. While this offers some form of retribution, convictions under different types of law do not acknowledge or address the intended and ongoing harm of TGBV. For instance, seeking justice under defamation laws reduces it to a reputational issue and does not address the impact of the violence inflicted.
Additionally, a legal environment that pushes survivors to turn to non-TGBV laws makes it hard for survivors to get justice. It increases the need for intermediaries to help survivors interpret and find loopholes in laws. This is out of reach for many people as it is expensive, and there is still a shortage of NGOs that can support survivors by taking TGBV perpetrators to court.
The lack of laws to address severe forms of TGBV emboldens perpetrators and leaves survivors vulnerable and unable to challenge the harms they are facing. Perpetrators weaponise legal gaps and take opportunities to retraumatise survivors. These legal gaps also feed into the entire criminal justice system. As online harms are hardly addressed in laws, police, too, do not know how to handle TGBV. In 2020, Pollicy surveyed 3,306 women in five African countries found that only 14.6 per cent of TGBV survivors would consider seeking help from local authorities such as the police. This low number was attributed to the fact that the police are not trained on handling online harms-related issues, much less from a gendered perspective. In some cases, the police themselves are perpetrators. Police have been known to strip sex workers and take non-consensual photographs, then circulate them on the internet as a form of public shaming.
While all women lose out from the lack of TGBV-specific laws, vulnerable women such as LGBTQIA+ women and sex workers experience the most harm. Marginalised women experience the most harm on the internet, but also find it hard to get help because in a lot of cases, they are already criminalised. The combination of a hostile society and legal system only serves to push such victims more to the margins.
Ultimately, there is power in acknowledging that the unifying characteristic in these online harms is gender. These acts are gendered, meaning that they are targeted at people who deviate from gender norms, and are meant to keep them out of online spaces. As a result, gender should be the most important factor considered when structuring regulation against TGBV. It is too easy for these acts to be conflated with other forms of online harms, but when they are viewed through a prism of gender-based harm, policymakers can structure better-targeted and more effective regulation.
This body of work focuses on policy reforms that governments can make to address growing concerns about TGBV. This is because, first and foremost, TGBV is a form of discrimination and a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms. While African governments have made strides on passing laws promoting online safety, they have focused on children’s safety and largely ignored the plight of women and LGBTQIA+ people in online spaces. As a result, survivors exist in countries with legal gaps, and find it difficult to get justice when they are violated.
In addition, while social-media platforms can come up with policies and community guidelines on TGBV, ultimately their stance is led by corporate interests and missions. As social-media platforms are seen as intermediaries and not liable for content posted on their sites, there is no onus on them to take stringent measures against TGBV. Some, like Meta, bow down to public pressure and introduce measures to keep different categories of people safe, while others, like Telegram, take most forms of moderation as an attack on freedom of speech. Platforms also prioritise moderation in western markets because of factors such as profit and pressure from governments. For instance, it has been reported that Facebook sorted countries into tiers, deciding which countries would get attention from threat-detection and online-safety teams, and which ones would remain unattended. There is also a clear prioritisation of election-related issues, while TGBV remains under-resourced. Ultimately, this system marginalises survivors of TGBV in African countries who cannot get adequate support from platforms because of poor and inadequate moderation and resource allocation.
Currently, stakeholders in the tech space are clamouring to find solutions for online harms and it is time for African governments to do the same. In the task of responding to the TGBV crisis, it is vital that policymakers use the following principles as guiding values in their work:
Below is a ten-point strategy for how TGBV can be curbed through actions steeped in these five principles.
1. National Legislation Against TGBV
As demonstrated above, it may not be enough to categorise TGBV violations under cybercrime, media, copyright and data-protection laws. Policymakers need to take into account that these violations are not just a technological issue, but are acts of violence and human-rights violations against women and gender-diverse people. As a result, there is a need for all African countries to develop comprehensive criminal and civil laws against severe forms of TGBV, as a way to offer restitution and justice to victims and survivors. One country that policymakers can draw best practice from is Australia, which passed the Online Safety Act in 2021. This is a suite of regulations that addresses NCII and online harassment, among other issues. It is important for African countries to define and develop their own laws because TGBV violations can have multiple meanings, intentions and contexts. Alternatively, African policymakers can work to improve the existing suite of laws that are being used to handle TGBV. A first step to this would be to expand on definitions covered in cybersecurity laws as a way of eliminating ambiguity that is shrouded in many existing laws.
When developing these regulations, legislators should take into account that without education campaigns, survivors may misinterpret and misunderstand laws, and shun the legal system altogether. For instance, due to misinformation, South African women are self-censoring on matters of rape and sexual assault out of fear of being sued for defamation under South Africa’s Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA). While the internet has been central to the gains South African women have made around sexual violence, the adoption of POPIA seems to have brought some confusion. On platforms like TikTok, women can be seen dissuading each other from naming their abusers publicly, as they could be sued for defamation. This trend is a drawback as social media has emboldened African women to name abusers under campaigns like #MenAreTrash and #MeToo and to warn other women to prevent similar assault. It also points to the need for public education on regulation and legal procedures.
2. Sex-Positive and Survivor-Centred TGBV Laws
A key weakness identified in cybercrime laws is that they do not prioritise the rights and autonomy of survivors. NCII victims, sex workers and gender and sexual minorities all lack adequate protection under the law, and experience revictimisation when they report acts of TGBV. Sex-negativity is baked into the law and legal institutions also exacerbate their revictimisation. For TGBV regulation to be impactful to victims/survivors, it has to be survivor-centred. This means that such laws should seek to empower the survivor by prioritising their rights, needs and wishes. In such a system, sex workers, NCII, LGBTQIA+ persons and so on would get extra protection and care throughout the legal process, as there is an understanding that such victims are the most vulnerable. Anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti–sex work laws would also be repealed; instead, institutional support should be offered to these members of society. In addition, TGBV would not be treated as a cybercrime offence, but as a gender-based offence. In most legal systems, victims of GBV get extra safeguards, and this should not be different when GBV is experienced in online spaces. Some ways this could be done include providing helpdesks where trained professionals can take in TGBV reports and counsel victims, providing anonymity to survivors during court proceedings, and offering restraining orders for both digital and physical contact by perpetrators.
3. Women Legislators Leading the Fight Against TGBV
As victims of TGBV, female legislators are best positioned to lead the push for the regulation of TGBV. While the onus should not be placed on them to do this, their experiences in online spaces can serve as evidence to win over legislators on the need to address this challenge. Some African women in politics are already doing this. Monica Geingos, the First Lady of Namibia, has been very vocal about her experience with TGBV, which she refers to as “the golden thread of misogyny”. This testimony have resonated with many African women who had felt alone in their experiences with TGBV. In Tanzania, Member of Parliament Neema Lugangira has formed a coalition of 21 legislators who are working to address TGBV directed at Tanzanian and African women in politics. Lugangira has also been tasked with establishing the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG) and is keen to collaborate with other African legislators on internet safety.
4. Educational Campaigns on Online Safety and Digital Norms
Laws alone are not enough to address TGBV, as it is a spectrum: some less severe forms such as body-shaming and name-calling technically cannot be criminalised. Yet there needs to be a huge cultural shift that will enable people to understand that online spaces are just an extension of offline spaces. Therefore, acts that are unacceptable in real life are also unacceptable in digital spaces. With that in mind, government-led education campaigns on digital norms can help bring standards of conduct in digital spaces closer in line with standards of behaviour in offline spaces. Ghana and Kenya, for example, already run month-long campaigns on cybersecurity and cyber safety. These campaigns present a great opportunity for introducing education around TGBV to the general public.
5. Collaboration Between Policymakers and NGOs
Currently, work around TGBV on the continent is dominated by NGOs and informal initiatives and movements. Such organisations are providing monetary and psychosocial support to survivors, conducting awareness campaigns on TGBV, and advocating for survivors within legal systems. Some, like Access Now, are even providing digital-security support for survivors, and giving them tools and techniques to protect themselves online. These initiatives need more financial and structural support, and governments have an opportunity to provide this. Policymakers also have the chance to collaborate with them to provide testimonies and research findings that aid them in developing impactful TGBV regulation. NGOs can also train policymakers on digital security, so that they make more informed policies. In Uganda, Pollicy is doing this through their Vote Women programme, which offers digital-security training to Ugandan and Tanzanian legislators.
6. Collaboration Between Policymakers and Platforms
Platforms and policymakers are seen as parties that are always on opposite sides of conversations around platform and technology regulation. Policymakers are portrayed by platforms as digitally inept and slow to innovate. On the other hand, African legislators view platforms as enablers of online harms, hence the abundance of (hypocritical) platform blanket bans on the continent. Yet collaboration between these parties can bring so many gains to the fight against TGBV. First, big-tech companies already have advanced technologies that are effective against forms of TGBV. Facebook uses AI and hashing technology to detect and prevent recirculation of intimate images. Bumble, an online dating platform, has blurring technology embedded in its messaging platform that detects and blurs nude images. Such technologies are beneficial for public interest, and partnerships between states and platforms could enable their sharing in a safe and open manner. Local companies that want to include social interactions on their platforms but may not have the access to such technology can benefit from such open technology-sharing initiatives. In such a partnership, platforms can also provide regular training to legislators on disruptive technologies and their possible effects on different facets of society. In the past we have seen legislators mocked for not understanding digital technology and terminologies. Yet technology is evolving at a rapid speed, and legislators can benefit from regular training from the companies leading the disruption.
Second, platforms can lead in lobbying for anti-TGBV laws. Despite clashing with policymakers, big-tech companies still wield power and influence that they can use in the fight against TGBV. In a case where a platform notices a trend of a type of TGBV, they can reach out to local policymakers and provide an argument that a national law is needed. Bumble has managed to advocate for the state of Texas to introduce a law against cyberflashing (the unsolicited sending of images or video footage of genitals), for example, and is hoping to do the same in the United Kingdom.
Lastly, collaboration between governments and platforms could be beneficial for survivors in terms of better support services. Existing relationships could mean that platforms are held accountable in hiring more moderators who understand local contexts and providing faster responses to victims’ content-takedown requests.
7. Digital Rights Are Women’s Rights
Current approaches to the regulation of digital spaces have had disproportionate effects on African women. For example, as African governments have focused on maximising revenue from digital marketplaces through internet taxes, the gender digital divide has widened. In addition, while government-ordered internet shutdowns and social-media blanket bans have affected everyone, women and vulnerable people such as persons with disabilities have experienced disproportionate effects.
Ultimately, this current approach to regulating digital spaces has been blind to the plight of women, with concerns about the gendered effects of current digital laws being largely ignored by policymakers. As a result, there is a need to conduct gender-based impact assessments of the current digital laws. African women also need to be placed at the centre of talks on digital development on the continent, as their impact is important and central to the continent’s growth.
8. A New Protocol for Women’s Rights in Digital Spaces
In 2003, the African Union adopted the Maputo Protocol, also known as the “Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa”. This protocol places a moral obligation on African Union member states to promote equal opportunities for men and women to play meaningful roles in society. It was developed as a resistance against the marginalisation of women in human-rights discussions.
Currently, women are sidelined in technology and tech-policy spaces, and cybercrime and data-protection laws across the continent barely acknowledge women’s digital realities. Conventions such as the African Union Convention on Cyber Security and Personal Data Protection focus on the safety of technical systems and touch on child exploitation, but fail to address gender-based online harms.
As a response, African countries need to come together to develop a special protocol on the safety of women in online spaces. As in the Maputo Protocol, this would spell out how African women are experiencing discrimination in online spaces, list out gendered online harms, and outline the rights of African women in relation to technology. While countries are not forced to ratify or enforce protocols, having a special protocol is an important step, as activists and civil society can use it to push for local legislation. Policymakers can also rely on a protocol as guidance or a model law for developing local criminal and civil laws against TGBV. In cases where TGBV cases span borders, such a protocol would be relevant as it would be a single credible framework that all countries can rely on for uniformity.
9. Funding of African Safety Tech Industry
In countries like the UK, safety tech is being acknowledged as a new frontier to tackle online harms. Safety Tech is defined as “technology or solutions to facilitate safer online experiences, and to protect users from harmful content, contact or conduct”. This sector is still in its nascent stages, and is a great innovation opportunity for young Africans. African governments need to direct funding into this sector and encourage African innovators to develop safety-tech tools suited for African audiences and contexts. As a lot of the developments in the space are currently directed at children’s online safety, there is also a unique opportunity for Africans to develop tools to keep women safe online. A timely investment in this sector could also see African countries producing groundbreaking safety technologies that can serve people globally.
10. Futureproofing the Internet Through E-Safety Commissions
One of the biggest pushbacks on ideas around regulation of digital spaces in Africa has to do with the precedent that oppressive governments have set in co-opting these laws. Yet online safety is an issue that needs many approaches, including a regulatory one. One way that this approach could be protected from co-optation would be the incorporation of independent national e-safety commissions in African countries as custodians of internet safety.
Currently, social-media platforms and internet service providers are being targeted by governments for their role in promoting freedom of speech. A national policy approach to TGBV means that technology companies could maintain their roles as intermediaries. As intermediaries, platforms are not held responsible for harmful posts made on their platforms but are still required to foster safer spaces. While social-media companies need to do more to protect users on their platforms, ultimately, the bigger responsibility remains with governments to provide institutional support for people whose rights are violated in digital spaces.
Globally, one in five women are leaving social-media platforms after being harassed and targeted. This is alarming, not only because of the psychosocial effects of TGBV on women, but also because of the massive digital exclusion TGBV is driving. The use of online spaces is growing exponentially across the globe, and African policymakers should throw their weight behind online safety, especially for women. Through the programme of national laws, regional conventions and protocols, educational campaigns, and collaborative efforts between states, NGOs and platforms outlined above, policymakers can provide a strong net to protect women from TGBV. These efforts may not be the silver bullet to end gender-based online harms, but they can be coordinated to ensure African women are protected from harm and can enjoy the full benefits of an open, global internet.
Lead Image: Getty Images
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