Vanessa Chettle picked her boss’ call nonchalantly. However, work wasn’t the cause of the early morning call. “She told me that there was something trending online about me and advised that I check it up,” says Vanessa.
After clicking on the link, Vanessa, a 19-year-old college student in Westlands, sank back into her sit when she read: “Loose lady on a mission to send men to their graves.” A series of pictures from her Facebook wall conspicuously accompanied the claims on a blog page.
“I began crying. It hit me so hard and for a whole day, I was depressed about it. I kept asking myself what I had done to deserve such attack on my character and personality,” she narrates the ordeal.
In the next few days, like wild fire, her story trended on social media outlets where online netizens were extremely generous with comments.
“I had to switch off my phone. Calls and messages were streaming in non-stop,” she continues. “My inbox was flooding with X-rated requests like: ‘Hi, how much do you charge per hour?”
Hurting and in search for justice, she reported the case at Kileleshwa Police station. However, no one from the police has reached her with any news of arrest or on the progress of the investigations to date.
“All I was told is that the owner of the blog lives in the United States, and I will have to wait until he is back before anything effective is done,” Vanessa says.
Women like Vanessa seem to attract the brunt of online bullying.
Radio personality Lynda Nyangweso faced a barrage of vitriol online last year, with many of her attackers citing that she had a beautiful voice that did not match her looks and body size. And who can forget Mirfat Musa of the infamous ‘I don’t do fries’ phrase on Tujuane dating show?
A survey conducted in the United States confirms how women are the majority targeted online. In 2006, researchers from the University of Maryland set up fake online accounts and dispatched them into chat rooms. The team noticed that accounts with feminine user names incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages a day compared to just 3.7 for masculine names — a whopping difference of 92.8 in percentages.
How safe are women from online bullies?
When Eve Woman reached Grace Kaindi, one of the two deputies to Inspector General of Police, she advised us to talk to the director of Criminal Investigations Department, saying: “I am sorry. Cyber crime is handled by the Directorate of Criminal Investigation, which is independent from the Kenya Police.”
Efforts to reach the CID boss and his officers were futile as all our calls were ignored by the time of going to press.
Teresa Omondi, the deputy executive director of Fida Kenya, says it is preposterous that the police have no mechanism of handling cyber bullying. She states: “The police’s job is to enforce law and order – it sounds unsatisfactory for them to direct complainants to the CID.”
According to Teresa, the police have computer experts who shouldn’t find it hard to track perpetrators of online abuse.
“If I wrote something bad about the president, won’t the police track me down?” Teresa asks rhetorically.
As the Internet becomes central to human experiences, women will find it hard to live and freely express who they are online. Lack of proper mechanisms to deal with online bullying has put some at a precarious position where they can be trawled as well as abused.
Within two weeks after the show she was cast in aired, Mirfat faced a blitzkrieg of online cannonballs. She lost friends. Only a few were fine to be seen with her in public.
Having been brought up a Muslim, Mirfat had the obligation of being a good girl for the sake of her family. She received stern advice to keep off ‘weird’ behaviours and uphold her integrity as a woman.
“It is not Islamic for a woman to appear on a dating show like Tujuane,” she says. “I got calls from family members abroad who wanted me to pull down everything that was trending online.”
Mirfat left the country for one month “to clear my head and conduct other businesses.”
When she came back, there still were some residual embers of negative comments directed to her. She still hears derogatory whispers about her whenever she attends public events.
For Vanessa, her self-esteem plummeted. Her family was not amused either by the whole spectre. Her sisters pointed fingers at her: “They blamed me for being a party lover; for going out a lot. I wanted to vanish. I thought of dropping off school for some time.”
Her boss later ordered that she takes time off duty for a while. To pacify dissenting voices, Vanessa was forced to take an HIV test and post the results on YouTube to dispel the story’s claims.
Anne Mbugua, a lawyer at Musyimi Advocates, says the law protects every Kenyan from abuse online.
She says: “Human dignity is one of the values mentioned in the Constitution. Cyber bullying goes against this. The Kenya Information Communication Act of 2012, criminalises publishing of obscene information about a person.”
Lynda, like Teresa, finds it hard to believe that the police aren’t able to bring to book cyber criminals.
She says, “No woman should ever be told how she should be beautiful. This madness should be controlled. Why cyber bullying is not being pursued is truly beyond me.”
Though largely Western, the vice is entrenching in the virtual environment that is Kenya’s world wide web. Lack of trust for the justice system has led to apathy from those who have experienced online abuse.
Mirfat recounts how she recovered. “I wanted to report it but I was not very sure if the Kenyan justice system would objectively conclude on the case,” she says.
Despite the sad state of affairs, Teresa advises women to report and seek recourse on cyber bullying.
She stresses that even though the law is (in many ways) skewed against women, each case of cyber bullying calls for prosecution of those behind it.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Evewoman.co.ke