We must make online spaces safer for women

I recently attended the annual graduation ceremony at Garissa University College. The graduating students’ excitement was palpable. My own thrill hit the roof when it turned out that the top graduands were all female.

These young women had approached their studies with utter determination and were now reaping the rewards of hard work. But as I congratulated them, it occurred to me that even if they find jobs, society would tie their academic and professional success to men. 

We live in a society that does not fully appreciate women, even when their achievements tower above the rest. Women who ascend the professional ladder, score first-class honours or win international fellowships make it because they were ‘helped’ by a man somewhere.

Last year, research by the Peterson Institute for International Economics revealed that firms with women in managerial positions made more money. Can you, therefore, envision how a blameless woman president would sort out our ailing economy? It is in our country’s best interest to ensure the successful ascension of women on the corporate and government ladders. We should also cultivate positive masculinity in the boy child so that he can nurture the gains of women.

Successful women tend to come under attack. Online attacks are the latest weapon unleashed on them. Recently, a ‘manufactured’ sexual photograph of a young woman from Garissa County who has declared her interest in vying for the Woman Rep seat went viral on social media. A few months ago, a fake sex tape of a popular Woman Rep was shared on social media.

The above incidents occurred in the wake of Kenya joining South Africa, Nigeria and Tanzania in enacting a cyber law to combat increased reports of online bullying of women .Emerging online crime is threatening previously safe and secure spaces, reducing women’s ability to use the Internet for empowerment or development. There is a need to highlight this because, previously, violence against women meant rape or battery, but now violence is occurring online.

In May 2018, President Uhuru Kenyatta signed into law the Computer Misuse and Cybercrimes Act, 2018, which outlaws abuse of people on social media. While the growth of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and the subsequent rapid growth in use of the social media have been seen as positive for the country, this development has had its downsides. In some cases, it has brought nightmares for women who, in the majority, are victims of cyber bullying.

It is in response to this growing social problem that the National Assembly has enacted, revised or is working on legislation to target technology-related violence, including cyber espionage, revenge pornography and false information.

With many cultures placing a lot of emphasis on female chastity, cyber bullying – which is now seen as growing form of gender-based violence – has been identified as a serious threat to women, including their potential to become leaders.

The sharp rise in technology-related violence against women and its normalisation has made the use of the Internet a gendered issue. Social networks, including Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter, are the most common places for online bullying.

A baseline report by Kenya ICT Action Network (Kictanet) on the challenges faced by Kenyan women on the Internet indicates that online harassment hinders women’s full participation. The report lists non-consensual distribution of intimate images, sexual harassment, stalking, hate and offensive comments as the most prominent violations.

Sexist comments

Women’s online sexual harassment, surveillance, unauthorised use and manipulation of personal information, including leaked images and videos, are a prominent feature of the Kenyan cyberspace. In 2016, a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) indicated that online societies judge women politicians more harshly than they do male politicians. The study noted that on social media, women politicians were at the receiving end of sexist comments, with their appearance and marital status often being the subject of discussion in gauging their ‘fitness’ for public office.

These prejudices hinder women’s participation in public discourses and processes as they cower, self-censor and, in some instances, totally withdraw. To properly combat cyber crime in Kenya, the government needs to recognise technology based violence as an issue of national importance. There is also a need to unify the disparate voices working on these issues and lobby together.

There is need to make Internet Service Providers and intermediaries responsible and proactively pull down content, as they do with child pornography. There is also need to educate women and girls on how to protect themselves online, and to create awareness of the types of threats women face online.

Ms Siyad is a human rights crusader based in Garissa County. [email protected]