The Internet has without a doubt, revolutionized human activity. It changed the way we think, work, and interact with one another. And while this has come with a plethora of opportunities, it has certainly been a double-edged sword.
The advent of social media managed to shrink vast geographical boundaries, bringing us closer to those who are quite literally, poles apart. However, an unintended consequence of this growth is the host of unwelcome interactions this portal has invited.
The society we live in today is becoming increasingly virtual, blurring the lines between public and private spaces. Strangers now have access to your life at the click of a button, shielded by a veil of anonymity and sitting at the comfort of their homes.
As is the case with most crimes, the sections of society that are the most vulnerable to cybercrimes tend to be women and children. Today, some of the most common forms of cybercrimes include:
• Cyber harassment
• Identity theft
• Revenge porn
• Violation of privacy
This certainly isn’t a new issue. However, the COVID-19 pandemic that took the world by storm led to a massive increase in time spent online. Thus, continual efforts to raise awareness and sensitization to the perils of the internet are the need of the hour.
Last year, Plan International conducted the largest ever global online survey. The research was gathered through conversations with more than 14,000 girls across 31 countries, all of whom had similar recounts of cyber harassment and discrimination to share.
According to the study, one in five girls (19%) have left or significantly reduced usage of social media platforms after being harassed, while another one in ten (22%) have felt pressurized to change the way they express themselves online. The most common type of cyber-attack is in the form of abusive language, reported by 59% of girls who have been harassed, followed by purposeful embarrassment (41%), body shaming, and threats of sexual violence.
More than a third (37%) of women from an ethnic minority who have suffered from abuse said that they are targeted because of their ethnicity or race, while over half (56%) of those who identify with the LGBTQI+ community stated that they were harassed because of their gender or sexual orientation.
Additionally, girls as young as 8 years old were reported to have experienced online harassment. Children are extremely vulnerable, and predators often take advantage of their naiveté to groom and manipulate them.
In regards of these cybercrimes, a query may arrive questioning the fact that why women and girls are mostly victimized by cyber violence than men as a whole. In a real world perspective, we all can observe that women are mainly targeted for every sort of abuse, harassment and violence in large percentages if compared to the other gender. Hence, cybercrime analysts and experts alert us not to think of cyber violence as a dissimilar aspect from the crimes substantially aimed at the female gender in real life. As perceived form the discrimination inflicted on women offline, they are also the prime target group for trolling, online harassment and other forms of cybercrimes.
Cyber violence is outlined to be much more terrorizing and destructive for an individual. The after effects may come in various forms of dismantling ways, deforming the mental state and holding the sufferer in an invisible captivity. Many victims commit suicide for being unable to tolerate the insult and guilt surging inside themselves because of such heinous events. According to Bangladesh National Woman Lawyers Association, there are at least 11 suicide attempts in an average among the women of Bangladesh who had to face cyber harassment and threats. This rate is higher in other countries around the world along with the cybercrime rates.
Consequently, Facebook, which has amassed billions of users was reportedly the platform where online harassment is most prevalent. 39% of the reported incidents happened on Facebook.
Francheska Navarro, an 18-year-old student from the Philippines, echoes the same experiences of online harassment on Facebook. For her, cyberspace remains unsafe territory for women.
Being a victim of cyberbullying and harassment, Francheska believes that the Internet is a dangerous space, not only for women, but for all people.
“Anything can happen in cyberspace and most victims [of online abuse and harassment] don’t end up well. I think we should educate people on the workings of cyberspace. There should [be] guidelines put in place such as an appropriate age for access on online platforms in order to make the Web a safer space for us all,” Francheska shared.
Francheska’s experience is far from an isolated incident. Unfortunately, a consequence of this prolonged harassment is that several women resort to self-censorship. Platforms that should be empowering women with the freedom of expression end up driving them away.
Championing Women’s Rights Online
Recognizing these injustices against women, UST [University of Santo Tomas] Hiraya, a university-based organization in the Philippines, is committed to integrate gender and development perspectives and provide a safe space for discussing various issues experienced by women in the institution.
Like Francheska, Christine Paras, the current Internal Relations Public Officer of UST Hiraya, feels apprehensive about expressing her voice on social media platforms.
“It’s like my voice, as a woman, is not diversified enough. I don’t get to share my profound truth online because there has been ongoing mob censorship, especially on Twitter,” Christine said.
Joining UST Hiraya made her realize that women are silenced on these platforms.
“These [incidents] have existed for eons, a patriarchal society silences its women. But, unlike me, no one had helped them realize that they matter; their voice matters, their rights matter, even if the social conventions say otherwise,” she added.
To achieve UST Hiraya’s ultimate goal of ending gender-based discrimination and violence, it has put social media platforms to good use to raise their convictions in line with their advocacies.
Although it was established exclusively for the university’s community, they publish infographics on certain issues and initiate online public discussions called Kinaadman (knowledge or wisdom) on their social media accounts to champion their advocacies and reach people outside the institution— as these are matters that concern us all.
UST Hiraya also has an online helpdesk to heed the pleas of those silently enduring their battles. Thomasians [UST students] who have experienced abuse or harassment can relay their grievances through this helpdesk; all of which are treated with confidentiality. They also have connections with other organizations to refer cases that are out of their hands.
But even with these initiatives, the organization admits that they can only do so much.
“There might be times that our efforts are not enough. But the critical part of creating safe spaces for women is to listen to their story”. UST Hiraya said.
UST Hiraya emphasized the importance of receptiveness and open-mindedness in spite of personal differences, to make cyberspace a safer space for everyone, especially for women.
“We should practice empathy and receptiveness as we encounter our fellow women, LGBTQIA+ community, or [people from] different races/ethnicities. In diversifying everyone’s opinions, we could create safe spaces and develop a diversified discussion online,” they noted.
‘Cyber SaverCampaign’: Creating An Army of Cyber Savers
Sharing the heavyconcerns related to cybercrimes targeted at women, Chalkboard, a digitalcontent creator platform from Bangladesh has initiated a noteworthy attempt todo something impactful for ensuring online safety, with women and children in focus primarily.
As stated by FardinFarhan Khan, Executive, Communications at Chalkboard, “Online safety for women has become quite a concerning issue in thelast few years. Be it a minor or an adult surfing the internet, cyber violenceagainst women has become a matter of growing concern as more people have access to the internet. The most common practices of cybercrimes we see against women in Bangladesh are harassment and abuse of sexual nature, blackmailing, threats, cyber defamation and privacy invasion.”
The team’s work is focused on educating peopleabout cybercrimes, preventing it and ensuring online safety for everyone,particularly women.
“We have been observing the types of cybercrimespeople face while consuming different kinds of media. And so we wanted todo something about it, something that would bring a change and put an end to people’s suffering on the internet. This is what incentivized us to start a campaign that would work to create awareness about cybercrime and simultaneously working to battle it as much as possible. Thus, the Cyber Saver Campaign came into being.”
When asked about how and why they are committedto this severe issue, Fardin explained how preventive measures are crucial tofight cybercrimes and how Chalkboard is executing the campaign operations with that viewpoint.
“At Chalkboard, we believe that people’smindset and warped mentality are what compel them to harass people on socialmedia. That is why we believe in addressing the issue by preventing it from happening, rather than pondering over it after the damage has been done.”
‘Cyber Saver’ has a team dedicated toeducating students of class 6 to class 12 about cybercrimes, as they are thegroup that gets exposed to social media platforms the most, especially at a young age.
“To educate the children properly about digitaletiquettes, the team creates articulated content with informative videos,relevant articles, digital comics and infographics that will cater to developing a healthy mindset in these young people. These contents help the children understand the heinous treatment women on social media receive on a daily basis,” he added.
The team also tries to help anyone who reachesout to them with issues they are facing on social media by referring them toofficial cyber help desks.
So far, their ‘Cyber Saver Campaign’ was crownedas the winner of the Digital Khichuri Challenge 2021 by UNDP, and theyaim to reach all 64 districts of Bangladesh with this campaign and establish asafe digital space accessible to everyone in the next five years.
It’s Time To Bring Changes That Matter
The emotional pressure a victim of cyber violence feels is a burden so puzzling and petrifying that is unimaginable to carry on the shoulders without falling down. Such crimes affect not only the individual but also a family and a society together.
This pandemic has been playing the role of a catalyst for further increasing this phenomenon.
The notable rise of cybercrimes has been identified by Interpol and the security officials of UK and USA. The number of crimes happening online from January 2020 to May 2020 is nearly the same amount as the number for the entire year of 2019. (Source: Report by the FBI).
It will be foolish to say that the current state of affairs in the cyber world is not alarming. We all can agree on the fact that the long term effects of such violence leave the victim shattered in every possible way and also damage the morale of a society.
It’s high time the governments and the upper security bodies all across the world enforce accurate laws and policies strictly to set exemplary instances for the criminals still out there continuing their treacherous cyber felonies. It’s saddening that many countries don’t yet recognize offensive cyber activity as a criminal act. This situation must change because it is the matter of safety for both the individual and a society.
As sensible nations, it is one of the most serious responsibilities of every country to ensure the highest security for the citizens in online space and the protection of their available information on the internet.
To enforce our safety online, we must be careful enough in the way we behave and carry ourselves on social media platforms and open sites. Self-consciousness is the most significant trait in preventing a person from falling in the trap of cyber criminals and their shrewdness. Women are more prone to such crimes and treacheries than men, as we said earlier. It’s a harsh truth that we can’t ignore.
It is okay to be carefree in the way we voice our opinions online, however, awareness about what personal information we should share with others on these sites will preserve the righteousness and dignity of us in the society we live. Certain boundaries need to be maintained on what we do online. Otherwise our carelessness will reverse back with heavy blows and that can happen in the most unexpected situations, from the most unexpected acquaintances.
Nevertheless, strict laws and self-awareness may not be enough to mitigate the hazards of cyber violence, especially at the current rate these crimes are spiking almost everywhere. Collaborative actions always go a long way in initiating effective movements against social injustices and discriminations. So, if the prominent social media giants and the authoritative branches of the governments come as one to create more feasible solutions, mass awareness will be generated as the existing situation will be widely acknowledged by people of all ages, from every background.
The larger the scale of these initiatives is, the more will be the knowledge of people about the inconceivable cruelty of cyber world.
Victims of cybercrimes should also be cared more deeply. Immediate backup support needs to be provided to the sufferers and help seekers from relevant governmental organizations and NGOs working for cyber safety. Stories of these uninvited tragedies have to be spread so that others can be saved from such unfortunate occurrences. Social media platforms can thus be used as a mighty tool to cut off these platforms’ own negative sides.
Together, we believe that creating a safer cyber space will not be impossible. Silence has never won against the wrong. To be safer online, the only solution is to resist the façade which is causing the harm.
Once the actual fight against cybercrime begins, justice, equality and peace will follow one by one.
From being diversified to being unified, a change is sure to arrive.