The dream of an Internet that helps African women gain prominence and fight against inequality is fading as women gain ground. trolls, threats and a huge range of forms of violence online. “Technology has opened spaces for women to speak openly where they could not before. So, the more we try to enter this space, the more violence we receive from some men, ”warned one of the South African participants in a research on gender violence on the Internet in Africa. This study, titled Alternative realities, alternative Internet. African Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet, reveals that almost one in three interviewees (28.2%) “reported having experienced some form of violence online” and that “these incidents manifested as sexual harassment (36%) or as unwanted sexual proposals, such as insults ( 33.2%) and as harassment (26.7%) either through repeated contacts or doxxing”(The publication of private or personal information to harass, intimidate or offend).
More than three thousand Internet users from five African countries, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa, have participated in this research that aimed to develop an X-ray of the female experience in the digital environment. The researchers have encountered a harsh reality: the patterns of gender violence and discrimination in everyday life that were being exorcised from the Internet are increasingly present and make the digital world increasingly hostile to women. The result is that African users censor themselves or abandon some of the Internet spaces and hopes of building more egalitarian scenarios are frustrated in which those same women could unfold their potential.
In addition to the number of users who have experienced violence, this hostility in the network conditions the way in which they use it or, rather, stop using it. The report recalls that the digital gender gap is greater in African countries. The difference of 12% between men and women who use the Internet worldwide, widens to 32.9% in the countries of the global south. The climate of harassment and violence does not help to overcome it. “While some women respond to online violence by blocking perpetrators, others choose to completely abandon online spaces (and offline spaces). Some who would have been new users decide not to access the Internet out of fear “, warns the study
The figures are even more obvious. 66% of the African users interviewed admitted having blocked the perpetrators of some form of violence; but 14.5% confessed to having deleted or deactivated any of their accounts and 12.2% to having stopped using a digital service after experiences of violence. “This is not just another form of self-censorship and restrictions on women’s freedom of expression, but the complete erasure of their digital identities and presence. A single negative experience, or repeated adverse interactions, in online spaces can seriously affect their participation in digital platforms and their total withdrawal, ”the report warns.
Neema iyer is one of those responsible for the investigation, along with Pretty Nyamwire Y Sandra Nabulega. Directs Pollicy, the Ugandan organization that has been in charge of the study supported by the Feminist Internet Research Network project, the Association for Progressive Communications, the International Development Research Center and the Canadian cooperation. Iyer, who is an expert researcher in technology and gender, laments the losses that this violence on-line provokes: “The most important impact of this violence is the loss of the vibrant voices of diverse women of different origins due to self-censorship and fear. There is a very real gender digital divide and the contributions that women could make to create a more inclusive, more participatory and more beautiful Internet are negatively affected because the oppressions of offline spaces are being reproduced in digital spaces.
The patterns of gender violence and discrimination in daily life that were being exorcised from the Internet are increasingly present
That is the main wake-up call, the Internet was called to be an empowering tool for African women and runs the risk of becoming another environment of discrimination. “Our society is deeply marked by a cultural and religious perspective that displaces and discriminates against women. This is what we see in the spaces on-line. We have seen the reaction that feminist movements face in the digital environment. There is no constructive criticism. It is about embarrassing the woman, tarnishing her image and criticizing her body. Despite the fact that the movement is growing and defending itself, generating solidarity, it is sometimes very tiring, ”said one of the participants in the research from Ethiopia.
In some cases, even the digital environment has given new tools to those who discriminate and attack them. The investigation recalls some of those forms of violence that sometimes go unnoticed: harassment, hacking to obtain sensitive or personal information, impersonation, surveillance, unauthorized distribution of personal content … And oddly enough, the report writers remember that in some countries victims of the theft of personal images have been charged distribution of pornography, when such content has been disseminated in what is known as revenge porn.
Precisely, people with a more public profile are especially exposed to this violence, which often appears as a way of silencing those who are preeminent. “When journalists publish or write stories that are uncomfortable, they are harassed and insulted. They receive insults below the waist, which is obviously sexual harassment. To humiliate a woman, they attack there. For journalists and politicians it is terrible. In many cases they choose not to participate in social media. At least in Kenya. Including me, that is why I chose to leave Facebook ”, confessed a participant from the East African country.
Parallel to the surveys, the research has done a comprehensive study of the legislation in the five countries that shows that the laws are not defending women. The regulations approved to control online content do not incorporate a gender perspective, much less have they been concerned with being a tool to fight against this form of violence. Indeed, the report highlights the example from Uganda where “lack of clarity effectively makes the law a device to suppress dissenting voices and an instrument of censorship rather than a mechanism to protect women.”
The challenge is to confront patriarchal systems that allow discrimination and domination based on gender
Beyond the need for digital platforms to exercise their responsibility in a more decisive way or for the laws to be really designed to deal with gender-based violence, the promoters of the research shed light on a problem that evidences the need to rethink the Internet. “This moment,” the report concludes, “presents an opportunity to rethink the entire Internet rather than trying to fix broken systems. For many women across Africa, social media is the Internet. And, maybe social media has been a failed experiment. With this in mind, we can continue to think critically about how we can co-create an Internet that celebrates, encourages and provides safe spaces for a broad spectrum of identities. “
In light of the results of her research, Neema Iyer recalls that the challenge is “to confront patriarchal systems that allow discrimination and domination based on gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.” This technologist launches a direct appeal: “We need to dismantle these systems to create a level playing field where all people can flourish and show their potential, and in turn, create digital spaces where hatred and injustice are not the norm.” He acknowledges that the bet is ambitious, but appeals to fundamental values such as “basic respect, empathy and care for others.” “We have to bring digital spaces to classrooms and other teaching institutions (which the covid-19 has already accelerated) and start teaching empathy, inclusion and ethical behaviors at an early age,” he says.