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Digital Rights Campaigner Calls For “Joint Effort” As Online Harassment Pushes Women Off Internet

“Discriminatory gendered practices are shaped by social, economic, cultural, and political structures in the physical world and are similarly reproduced online across digital platforms,” the research paper reads in part.

If East Africans ever sought answers on the critical role played by unlimited access to technology in human development, the COVID-19 pandemic provided it, at least going by statistics posted by telecoms.

Kenya’s Safaricom for example registered a 70% surge in data usage by April 2020, a few days after restrictions were imposed as a containment measure against the virus.

However, a digital rights campaigner says online gender-based violence proliferated in the period, pushing many women from digital space. The internet has been viewed as a new space for women,  traditionally marginalized, to collaboratively convene and push for the betterment of their communities.

Online gender-based violence is undermining regional efforts to narrow the gender digital divide, according to Pollicy.

“Internet usage for women is very low in the region compared to men … and the key reason as to why women are not engaging so much online is online harassment,” notes Bonita Nyamwire, Pollicy’s  research lead told journalists during a media engagement in Kampala.

Journalists share their experience on online gender based violence during a Pollicy media workshop in Kampala. Courtesy Photo

The organization says this was confirmed through a survey done in Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Senegal and South Africa in 2019.

“Discriminatory gendered practices are shaped by social, economic, cultural, and political structures in the physical world and are similarly reproduced online across digital platforms,” the research paper reads in part.

For Uganda’s case, the survey showed that the most common type of online gender-based violence experienced in Uganda is sexual harassment, accounting for 42% of respondents, followed by offensive name calling (24%) and stalking (17%).

In the just concluded 2021 general elections for example, “women candidates experienced more trolling, sexual violence and body shaming compared to their male counterparts”, a thing which pushed most users from digital engagement.

“Uganda, too, has experienced rising rates of online harassment targeting both women in public life as well as everyday users,” Pollicy says, adding further those discriminatory impulses based on misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia are being normalized, defended, and valued in the space.

The World Wide Web Foundation, in a 2021 survey indicated that only 19% of Ugandan women are online, compared to the 27% of Men, explaining further that Uganda by far has the largest gender gap in internet access among the countries included in the survey of women’s online experiences.

The absence of Ugandan women online means their voices are silent because of the gender disparities that are deeply rooted in our social structure.

Pollicy’s Programs Director Phillip Ayazika noted that the organization is engaging all stakeholders in order to get women voices online as a key gender equality goal on top of ensuring that issues that affect women in Uganda get very well represented online.

“We needed to bring them to board to help them understand the context of digital security and why it matters. If our lives are moving online, then its important for us to put in place measures to ensure that people are safe online,” Ayazika says.

For the past decade, internet connectivity has been praised for its potential to close the gender gap in Africa. Ayazika notes that instead of becoming an equalizer, the same constraints that bind women in physical spaces are appearing in digital spaces.

Uganda, like almost all countries across the continent does not have specific legislation or strategies against online gender-based violence. Even in terms of data capture, Pollicy says the Uganda Demographic and Household Survey 2016 (UDHS) reported that 22% of women experience domestic violence, but no data on online gender-based violence was reported.

“There is a major gap in data on the prevalence of all types of online violence against women and girls in low and middle-income countries. Furthermore, where this evidence is available, the data is not gender-disaggregated or does not take into account the intersectional impact on class, women with disabilities, refugee situations or traditionally marginalized areas,” Nyamwira explains.

At a time the region is struggling to achieve internet penetration, its unimaginable to see that the internet is consistently becoming an  embodiment of old systems of oppression and violence.

Ayazika says “we need to go a long way in making sure that  we are creating safe online spaces is free to interact online and make their lives better.”