The Internet, once viewed as a utopia for equality, enabling people to access knowledge, conduct business and connect with others has turned out to also be a dangerous place for women, as social media has become a new way to carry out old patterns of oppression and violence against women.
The Ugandan civic-technology research firm Pollicy, this week released a report revealing that one third of Ugandan women have experienced gender-based harassment online.
The survey gathered responses from 3,306 women across Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Senegal and South Africa.
Facebook was the primary place where online gender-based violence (OGBV) took place, accounting for 72.9 per cent of incidents, followed by WhatsApp (38.1 per cent).
'Online gender-based violence' is carried out mainly through mobile technology and includes stalking, bullying, sexual harassment, defamation, hate speech and exploitation, or any other online abuse or controlling behaviour based on sexual identity or gender.
Uganda has in the past years seen female public figures have their social media accounts hacked and their nudes leaked online.
The most common type of online gender-based violence experienced in Uganda, according to the report by Pollicy, is sexual harassment, which accounts for 42 per cent of the survey's respondents, followed by offensive name calling (24 per cent) and stalking (17 per cent).
Sixty-six per cent of the women that Pollicy interviewed reported blocking perpetrators as a means of responding to online violence, while 14.5 per cent of women actually deactivated their social media accounts to escape the abuse. Only 12.4 per cent of the women who had suffered from online violence reported the incident to the website or online platform.
Women who have experienced such online violence have also reported about its impact on their mental health, including, but not limited to suffering from depression, anxiety, fear, and an overall sense of powerlessness.
Seventy five per cent of the survey's respondents reported feeling stress and anxiety due to their experiences with online violence.
It has been said that women in Africa are now facing two pandemics, as gender-based violence is on the rise during Covid-19 lockdown.
A recent Kenya Health Information survey reported that thousands of girls under the age of 19 "were impregnated" in a single county over the lockdown; meanwhile, two women were reportedly killed by their partners in a single day early this month in Kampala.
Online violence can also be very damaging to women, who are more likely to be repeat victims and experience more severe abuse online than men.
Pollicy reports that victims suffered worse mental health, damage to their reputation, problems with family and friends and problems at their workplace as a consequence of online abuse.
A UN Women report titled 'Cyberviolence against Women and Girls: A World-wide wake-up call,' claimed that women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online. Yet when it happens, it is not clear what protection or support victims can get from the legal system or society.
The general public tends to downplay violence against women online and the authorities do not always take action against perpetrators, and the situation is often made worse by victim blaming.
There have been high profile cases of women in Uganda who had their information shared without their consent, but then it was the woman who was punished by the law.
One such victim in Uganda, [artiste] Desire Luzinda, made a public apology after an incident in 2014 when her nudes were leaked and she was charged with exhibition of pornographic material, contrary to Section 13 of the Anti-Pornography Act. Such examples could discourage victims from seeking justice and empower perpetrators to conduct abuse online with impunity.
Most countries across the continent of Africa do not have specific legislation or strategies against online gender-based violence. Even in terms of data capture, for example, the Uganda Demographic and Household Survey (UDHS) of 2016 reported that 22 per cent of women experience domestic violence, but it did not record if that gender-based violence was online.
A significant proportion (29.2 per cent) of respondents to Pollicy's survey did not know where to turn for information on online safety and security. Thirteen per cent (13.4 per cent) said that they would research the information on Google and another 14.6 per cent said they might go to local authorities such as the police.
For those who reported that they would turn to the local authorities such as the police for further information on how to stay safe online, the situation is further compounded by the fact that most local authorities are not trained on tackling these issues, much less from a gender-sensitive perspective.
Neema Iyer, the founder of Pollicy, said "the main aim of the study is to inform evidence-based policy to push for digital equality."
She went on to propose that digital security resources be adapted to local contexts and languages, and be mainstreamed into Uganda's educational curriculum.
Other recommendations from Pollicy include training law enforcement personnel on a gender-sensitive digital safety so they are better able to address complaints of online gender-based violence and provide timely technical assistance, counseling, and support to women who do choose to report.
Pollicy also encouraged the adoption of data protection and privacy laws, as well as ensuring that commissions and mechanisms are in place to implement the data protection laws that exist.