4 May 2016

Africa: As Internet Access Expands in Africa, so does Cyber Harassment

Photo: Syracuse University
(file photo)
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As internet access increases across Africa, it is giving our citizens new development opportunities and freedom of expression. But there's a dark side to this transformation. Trolling, hacking, spamming and online harassment are wreaking havoc on the psyches of our women and girls, effectively silencing us.

The Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says online violence has subverted the original positive promise of the Internet's freedoms and in too many circumstances has made it 'a chilling space that permits anonymous cruelty and facilitates harmful acts towards women and girls.

I know exactly what she's talking about. On Sunday June 15th 2003, I was raped. My world stopped. For years I suffered in silence and as a result developed a mental health condition that I still struggle with. Eventually, I decided not to be held captive by the assault and to tell my story so that other victims wouldn't feel as alone as I did. I began sharing my story via my blog and social media networks. As a result, I was named a finalist in Google Africa's Competition (2014) that seeks to recognize young Africans using the internet to create positive impact on the continent

All of this led to mainstream media attention and one day, after an early morning interview on a local TV station, my world almost stopped again. I went online and found 514 negative comments on the station's Facebook page. Horrifying comments that claimed I smiled while talking about the ordeal that cost me my mental health because I enjoyed being raped; comments that asked how toxic the sperm was that it made me go mad; comments from both men and women that made me feel like I was going through the sexual assault again, this time publicly, at the hands of over 500 people. I spent part of my day crying and almost wrote to Google Africa asking to be dropped from the competition.

Cyber bullying is of course not limited to African countries. But while internationally cyber bullying has generated discussion of solutions, in Africa it's not seen as an issue. Its victims find little support   as they do in America and other Western countries. On a continent where the internet has the potential to provide new livelihoods for women, the problem can cut off development opportunities for those who most desperately need them.

African countries are only just beginning to develop cyber-crime laws and the police lack the knowledge, skills or training in how to deal with these attacks or how to handle the victims sensitively.  As with physical violence, many online violence victims opt to suffer in silence.  Some might claim that the problem of physical violence against women in Africa is so great that we must put all our resources towards preventing it. But as a victim of both, I know that the muffling effect of online harassment is too strong to ignore. By silencing half our population, we lose too much.

But there has been progress and we are at a potential turning point. At a recent International Women's Day event hosted by the African Development Bank to discuss this issue, a panelist representing the Kenya Police advised victims of cyber violence to file reports at their nearest station. The Kenyan police aim to set up more gender desks. I know as a victim of both online and physical violence, how hard it is to report a rape at a police station even when armed with evidence. How much more difficult will it be to get justice for an online attack when your evidence is 140 anonymous characters?

The African Development Bank event saw the birth of a partnership between the bank, the Kenya police and Facebook to train police on how to make online spaces safe.  This is a welcome first step but there is dire need for more prevention work around on-line violence which should include sensitization of citizens, justice for victims and psychological support.  In my case, no action was taken against the 514 women and men who attacked me. All the TV station did was remove the Facebook post.  After much reflection and with the backing of my family and friends, I decided not to quit the competition but rather used those comments as fuel for my mental health advocacy. I went on to win the Google Africa Competition and used my award money to start Kenya's first free mental health support line, which served over 11,000 people in its first year of operation.

Not everyone is as lucky as I was, and as we wait for our governments to take more robust action to support the victims, everyone who uses the internet should pledge to make it a safe space for all.  We must all be mindful of what we say, like, or retweet and report to the social media outlets (and the police) those who promote these acts of violence.

Sitawa Wafula is a mental health crusader particularly interested in the social and preventative aspects of mental health in Africa. She uses her personal journey as a rape survivor living with a dual diagnosis of epilepsy and bipolar to provide people in Africa with the necessary mental health information and support. She is a 2016 Aspen New Voices Fellow.

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