Gender based violence in the digital space

Saturday November 30 2019

Young women busy browsing. Digital citizenship

Young women busy browsing. Digital citizenship should be about harnessing the internet in broader civic life and driving social progres. PHOTO | FILE 

By Tsitsi Matope and Janet Otieno-Prosper @JanetOtieno

On Monday, Tanzania and the rest of the world embarked on the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an international campaign to challenge violence against women and girls.

The campaign runs every year from November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to December, 10 Human Rights Day.

As most people concentrate on physical or sexual forms of violence, we should not forget the increased prevalence of online violence against women and the lack of effective measures to prevent and contain it.

It is up to the government and the Internet intermediaries to step in and protect women as information and communications technology is no longer the privilege of a few members of society but a place for all.

The Sustainable Development Goals recognize that “gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but a necessary foundation for a peaceful, prosperous and sustainable world. Providing women and girls with equal access to education, health care, decent work, and representation in political and economic decision-making processes will fuel sustainable economies and benefit societies and humanity at large”. According to a report by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on ways to bridge the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective, violence against women, offline and online, must be acknowledged as a manifestation of ystemic marginalization of women throughout society.

OHCHR report points out that ICT should promote women empowerment and this can be successful if violence against women in the digital and online platforms is eliminated.


The new forms of violence taking place on the digital space are posing new challenges to the fight to end violence against women and children, calling on the government and partners to strengthen strategies that can protect and ensure responsible behavior by all digital citizens.

Speaking on the sidelines of a three-day seminar where 30 Members of Parliament were sensitized on the need to accelerate the implementation of the National Plan of Action to end Violence against Women and Children (NPA-VAWC) the Director for Gender, Mr Julius Mbilinyi explained the need for actions under the National Plan of Action to protect users from criminals targeting internet users.

“We have the Cybercrimes Act, which criminalizes offenses related to computer systems and Information Communication Technologies (ICTs), and we are looking at how through the NPA, we can strengthen our strategies to protect women and children from falling victim to these online crimes,” Mr Mbilinyi said.

He further explained the importance of educating people to manage information they post online to safeguard themselves from perpetrators who target unsuspecting users.

“In some cases, some people might unintentionally expose themselves to malicious attacks by sharing publicly information that is private and on the other hand, we also have online prowlers who are perpetrating crimes and manipulating the system so as not to get caught. Through communication technologies, it has become easy to bully opponents for example and to drag private matters into the public space to settle scores or with malicious intent, which is against the Cybercrimes Act of Tanzania,” he said.

Tanzania enacted the Cybercrimes Act in 2015, which provides for investigation, collection, and use of electronic evidence and prosecution of suspects. Cybercrime activities include data espionage; publication of pornography; publication of false, deceptive, misleading or inaccurate information; production and dissemination of racist and xenophobic material; fraud; cyberbullying; initiating transmission of or re-transmission of unsolicited messages; and violation of intellectual property rights.

Mr Mbilinyi explained the new twist to the term ‘public-space’: “Which we should now understand in a much broader sense to include online activities and interactions that may be public in nature. We are exploring violence in a comprehensive way, to make sure that it is understood as happening not only in traditional or conventional way but also on the digital environment. It is important for all people to note that in both scenarios, measures can be taken to prosecute offenders.”

He said the three-day seminar presented opportunities to discuss with legislators, issues related to online violence against women and children. This, he further explained, will ensure that the members of parliament can lobby for strengthened approaches against online crimes and provide widespread education at the grassroots level.

“When we talk of violence changing the way we used to define and understand it, this also demand reviewing the way we have been operating to be a step ahead of the perpetrators of cybercrimes. Our laws and policies should also be responsive to these emerging challenges to ensure that we are able to reduce violence by 50 percent by 2022.”

Also speaking at the seminar, a lecturer in Psychology and Education at the Dar Es Salaam University College of Education , Dr Hezron Zacharia Onditi said in Tanzania, there are 43 million (72 percent) mobile subscribers; 23 million (38 percent) internet users; 4.90 million active social media users (8.2 percent) and 4.40 million (7.3 percent) mobile social media users.

But Importantly, some participants raised issues around how the ICTs have flipped the way people now live and interact. Many adolescents, for example, now spent more time surfing the internet and using social media with limited supervision from parents and guardians. There were concerns over less interactions by families as seen in some households where members can be in the same room, but all glued to their mobile phones.

Other participants called such a new culture, a ticking time bomb and fertile ground for increased exposure to undesirable content and other related online challenges.

Dr. Onditi cited some risks including reports of cyberbullying, child trafficking through some internet sites, online child sexual exploitation, sexual harassment and defamation of character.

According to Dr. Onditi’s research in Dar es Salaam and Mwanza, which he conducted between 2015-2017, the number of children between the age of 14 and 18 who own mobile phones and are connected to social media sites is on the increase.

An estimated 47 percent of children between 14-18 own mobile phones; 45 percent are connected to social media network sites; 76 percent use mobile phones at home; 86 percent are connected to internet devices and nearly 40 percent of students who own mobile phones especially girls hide them from their parents.

While 79 percent of children who own mobile phones use them to make calls, 75 percent use them for academic information, 52 percent socialize on social media while 63 percent watch videos and images.

“Despite the advantages, the use of mobile phones and internet technologies has been linked with a host of negative outcomes including cyberbullying and online child sexual exploitation. In a nutshell, violence against children and women has extended to the digital platforms,” Dr Onditi said.

To help the contemporary generation of children (digital citizens) tap all opportunities that come with modern technologies, Dr Onditi explained the need to strike a balance between children’s rights to empowerment in the digital environment with their right to be protected from violence, exploitation and abuse.

“Our goal should be to build a generation of confident and competent digital citizens. However, digital literacy should not just be about knowing how to use ICTs in a practical sense but should also encompass navigating the internet safely, competently and responsibly,” he said.

He said digital citizenship should be about harnessing the internet in broader civic life and driving social progress, as well as using ICTs to access information and voice opinion responsibly without breaking the laws of the country; and to seize opportunities in areas such as healthcare, education and employment.