How online mobilization and advocacy can progress the narrative on GBV

Phumza Dyani – Founder: Pan African Network for Investment and Development (PANfID) World Business Angels Forum (WBAF) – International Partner

PHUMZA DYANI – The research on gender based violence (GBV) and domestic violence has increased at staggering volumes over the past few decades. Although knowledge of the problem and its scope have deepened, the issue remains a major health and social problem afflicting women and children. According to the World Health Organisation, gender-based violence (GBV) affects 1 in 3 women globally, mostly perpetrated by intimate partners. GBV impacts women’s health and well-being, causing unintended pregnancies, mental health problems, sexually transmitted infections and HIV, among other health conditions and death.

In South Africa, this problem is stripping society of its soul as lately, it is becoming a usual phenomenon to wake up to news of another woman killed or having gone through sexual violation. Numerous Campaigns like the ‘Am i Next’ campaigns have illustrated the deeply ingrained fear of how women are feeling unsafe both in the hands of their partners at homes and everywhere they go.

In Africa, deep seated beliefs such as women are abused because of how they dress provocatively have been challenged as the prevalence of these attacks has even spread to innocent children. The abuse of power on the vulnerable is appalling and brings into focus the need to extend the conversation about human rights to establishments such as the church, traditional leadership and workplaces. It’s very important that dialogue about gender, take a human rights approach rather than a morality approach if we are to make any headway in reducing the number of women and girls falling victim to GBV. Due to the gaps that exist in policy and practice, many perpetrators of gender based violence (GBV) get away with their crimes and in recent years, we have seen the inequalities that perpetuate inhuman treatment of women in society creep into online spaces that women are using to express themselves and tell their stories. This has led to women feeling more vulnerable.

Online behaviours mirror the social fibre and it is then not a surprise that the same behaviour of luring victims via facebook, abuse and harassment is displayed. This makes it particularly key to deepen understanding on the realities of being online for women and girls, how they are systematically subjected to abuse, harassment and threats as they navigate social networking sites and how online behaviour merely mirrors offline realities. As more and more women are becoming active online, there is a need to raise awareness and mobilise various stakeholders within the internet ecosystem for more effective advocacy, monitoring and countering of harmful narratives and attitudes towards women.

The conversations spearheaded by Movements like #FifAfrica18 are especially key in informing advocacy on GBV across different contexts and suggesting new approaches to the existing challenges that female users face when they are online. Equally, organisations like Internet Governance Forum  are platforms that facilitate a common understanding of how to maximize Internet opportunities, address risks and challenges that arise as well as to defend their rights online. There are also a number of progressive international declarations that have been developed and ratified to help advance human rights and most African countries are party to these. As part of the Advocacy work, It is key to identify international agreements countries have signed and mobilise stakeholders to simplify, package and disseminate these documents widely and what better way to use than the internet itself. Participation in these Forums is key for African women in order to garner support at the right levels where Policy changes can be driven. It is also important for leveraging work already done in other countries as well as receive support. It is also important to consider that the online world is global and regulating online information requires international cooperation to be effective. Human trafficking, as one of the gross human rights violation affecting both men, women and children, is amongst the complex crimes which tend to involve a complex web of stakeholder across the globe. To curb it, cooperation is imperative and implementing standard solutions that are interoperable. Given the Internet as a global public good requires global governance, cooperation and coordination, effective governance works well by the level of engagement at the national level.

The lack of information makes women and girls who experience bullying and harassment online often not able to know what to do and end up deactivating their accounts and going offline. This in turn, disrupts any efforts being made to promote a digital Africa and getting more women online so that they can have access to information and opportunities. The need to capacitate women in cybersecurity needs to be emphasized, while identifying that the digital gender gap remains significantly wide. Women need to also vocally advocate for technologies that would help improve their safety. The advancement of AI in solutions such as  human tracing indicates capabilities for many solutions that can be developed in aid of profiling as well as providing critical information for prosecution. Advances such as facial recognition provide capabilities for profiling perpetrators in order to help raise alerts for safety. Registries of Offenders need to be digitised and pictures made public (and assimilated to AI solutions) for the protection of many.

Secondly, there is a need to identify and map terms and phrases that are used to abuse, denigrate or otherwise harass women and girls and make them key search words to easily flag abuse online. This would also influence policies and make it easier for women to report behaviour that goes against the community standards set by social networking sites and also report to the police. There is also a need to  increase efforts in raising awareness about Laws that exist against criminal behaviour both online and offline. Women need to engage more and understand the laws that affect them in order to influence them. This would go a long way in helping women and girls stay safe online while deterring would be offenders from engaging in abusive behaviour.

A number of technological solutions exist, although still not adequate. Most of these have features for raising alerts as well as prompt for assistance to Gender Based Violence (GBV) incidents. More than ever, there is a need for greater collaboration across these platforms in order to create robust solutions that curb or at least raise the safety alerts, as well as provide substantial evidence and information to GBV investigations. Oftentimes, women are not aware of these solutions. We need to work more on sharing these resources in order to help women. Secondly, women have a collective base that can galvanise resources through crowdfunding in order to accelerate the improvement of these resources. Thirdly, in Technology forums where women participate, women need to raise their voices and lobby for prioritisation of technological advances for this. The pertinent issue of more women being around the table in decision making positions in Technology cannot be overemphasised, it is instrumental in progressing solutions that address women’s issues.

Social media and its ability to spread information far and wide in real time presents an opportunity for women to be the drivers of change in addressing the unequal gender power relations that stifle their voices online and challenging the existing biases and negative societal norms that normalise violence and abuse towards them.

The Internet and social media have become powerful channels for learning about public policy issues as well as supporting important causes. Digital tools have become essential for a variety of groups with digital media technologies being a powerful tool for coordinating action. Digital tools are changing the way membership in organizations is defined, and how money is raised and how goals are conceived. The Internet can lower the traditional barriers to collective action. Gender based violence has no colour and digital tools can galvanise action across colour barriers whilst ensuring that critical progress is being made.

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