By Victor Adar
As the world celebrated women’s day in October, it emerged that despite all the efforts made to protect women and girls, we still have a long way to go. A survey on online violence by Plan International indicates that one in five girls (19%) have left or significantly reduced use of a social media platform after being harassed, while another one in 10 (12%) have changed the way they express themselves just to stay safe.
The report, titled “Free to be online? Girls’ and young women’s experiences of online harassment”, is based on a survey of 14,000 girls aged 15 to 25 years in 22 countries that include Benin, Brazil, India and Kenya. It found that girls who use social media in high and low income countries are generally subjected to explicit messages, pornographic photos as well as cyber stalking among other forms of abuse, and reporting tools have remained in effective.
It was carried out as part of “Girls Get Equal”, Plan International’s global campaign for a world where girls and young women have the power to be leaders and shape the world around them.
“Although Internet access varies between and within countries, and not all girls are online yet, we do know that more will be online in the future. It is therefore paramount that online safety is prioritised. We must be cognisant of the fact that online abuse disempowers girls and young women by shutting them out of a space which plays a huge part in young people’s lives to advocate for their rights and share their opinions,” says Kate Maina-Vorley, Plan International – Kenya country director.
Despite the increasing cases of online harassment, Ms Maina believes the country has legislation in place and reporting mechanisms on how to report cases including ways in which girls and young women can identify and preserve evidence. But the bulk of online users seem to be in the dark about this information. This is particularly worrying at a time when social media is a significant part of young people’s lives and is widely used for activism, entertainment, to learn and to keep in touch with friends and family. Three-quarters (74 percent) of those surveyed said they post frequently or very frequently, while interviews suggest that COVID-19 has made being online even more important.
As part of the campaign, girls around the world wrote an open letter to Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter calling on them to create stronger and more effective ways to report abuse and harassment. 23-year-old Sarah from Nairobi’s Huruma estate used to be trolled and body shamed because of the weight gain. She can vividly remember a number of people talking about use of contraceptives, yet that was not the case.
“I just added weight naturally, maybe from resting after the pressure that comes with school. The experience was very humiliating for me. But I kept going and I now have over 500 subscribers on my channel,” says the YouTube content creator, adding that social media companies ought to try and come up with advanced settings and more strict measures on how to handle harassment.
“Currently the options that I use to avoid experiencing harassment is to block anyone who speaks to me inappropriately online and I also try to ensure that I only accept friend requests from people with whom we have mutual friends,” she explains.
Describing her experience as a young girl, a lady from Sudan, now 20, says: “I used to get a lot of messages from boys asking me to send nudes or blackmailing me about a picture that I posted that they’re going share it or edit it in a bad way and share it with everyone if I don’t do this or that.
Meanwhile, the ministry of ICT is also promoting the fight against online abuse by making sure that there are specific laws while ensuring that people who come face to face with it can access justice.
“With the Communications Authority, we initiated a program and this is in partnership with the International Telecommunications Union where we are specifically looking at how to educate, empower and then protect our young girls online because there has been an increase in the number of predators, fake news… and all manner of things that are going on online, and especially the harassment. I don’t have specific statistics but we have seen them increase,” says Joe Mucheru, Kenya’s cabinet secretary for ICT.
Accordingly, the government and other stakeholders must develop and implement initiatives that support awareness creation on digital citizenship, information on available helplines for victims as well as collecting and publishing data on online gender-based violence. (