Tech-Facilitated Gender Based Violence-A Growing Challenge

By: Fatima Batool

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While Information & Communication Technology (ICT) is undeniably a reason to bring about countless blessings in human life, it has compelled societies to confront some serious challenges and ever evolving risks. Digital and Social media, despite providing own space to millions of users with utmost freedom of speech, have emerged to be increasingly intrusive by disrupting rights and giving rise to alarming trends worldwide.

People have misused their available online spaces to inflict violence and to curtail freedoms of others, whereas women have always been an easy target and frequent victim of online bullying and harassment.

According to a UN report published in 2015, 3 out of every 4 women face some kind of cyber violence globally. Countries having insufficient legislation and weak judicial procedures are comparatively more affected with terrible online trends escalating rapidly in recent years.

Disregarding fundamental social and ethical norms, women are traced and located viciously on the basis of their gender to inflict online violence. This form of gender-based violence (GBV), commonly labeled as Technology-facilitated GBV (TFGBV) that includes behaviors such as doxxing, stalking, cyber bullying, online sexual harassment, defamation, hate speech, online impersonation, exploitation and gender trolling. Such activities are generally carried out with the help of mobiles and computers to disseminate personal information with a malicious intent.

Seriously hampering the safety and well-being of millions of women, girls and communities, TFGBV has emerged as a global challenge bearing far-reaching consequences and awfully snubbing the inclusivity or gender equality.

Consequences of TFGBV, often deemed to be intangible, can be culminated into increased suicide tendencies after emotional distress leading to self-censorship and isolation. This very form of violence undesirably muzzles powerful voices of women in public life like those working in political sphere, human rights defenders, activists, journalists or opinion leaders.
It’s a bitter truth that in male chauvinist societies like Pakistan, uneducated users of social and digital media have snatched the privacy of every other individual.

An unprecedented surge witnessed in cyber-crimes reported during COVID-19 lockdowns when there was a shift towards online working. High ratio of complaints of non-consensual use of images, defamation, threats, and doctored images shared online with sexist, misogynistic and sexualized gendered attacks created a chaos that demanded some sort of serious policy move. In a recent survey conducted by UNESCO, it has been found that 73 percent of women journalists globally experienced online violence in the course of their work. Many cases of trolling of renowned Pakistani female journalists like Asma Sherazi, Ghareeda Farooqi, Mehar Bukhari surfaced when malicious online campaigns were run against them openly threatening with physical violence and abuse in the hands of supporters of political parties.

While digging into these horrible behavioral trends in society, we find deficient digital communication sense; absence of relevant laws and insufficient state machinery as major reasons behind.

Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, 2016 (PECA) -the single law with a motive to curb cybercrimes- has blatantly failed so far to protect female victims who filed complaints in Cyber Crime Wing (CCW) of Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) working under this very law.

PECA has been widely criticized for lacking in accountability, transparency and carrying many problematic provisions used to silence and torment opponent voices.

On the other side, CCW is usually featured with old ways of investigation, overburdened, understaffed and far flung offices having no actual or actionable data available where few incidents of data breach on its part led to exacerbating the agony of female complainants.

Another hindrance in curbing TFGBV in Pakistan is the foreign social media companies that cannot be held accountable under land laws for users’ content.

These companies do not have physical offices in the country and are not subject to Pakistani laws. They have their own community guidelines and have wide discretion in accepting court orders from other jurisdictions, such as Pakistan. The fact that Pakistan does not have any kind of mutual agreements or treaties with the countries where these companies are actually located making data sharing, content removal and blockage extremely difficult or impossible.

Though the acknowledgment of online violence under PECA, 2016 is an important step towards a viable solution of online offences, still we have a long way to go for attaining inclusive online spaces for women.

In a scenario where there is a huge digital gender gap and women are less likely to have access to their own digital resources, these detrimental behavioral trends of GBV further mar their social presence and curb their fundamental rights turning them into a secondary citizens.

Rigorous research and data collection is no doubt an urgent requirement for actionable insights into concrete policy and programming on TFGBV and to increase understanding about the drivers of violence.

Moreover, women’s organizations working at any level in the country should keep professing for its prevention and elimination in all public and private sector entities with a special focus on fake news and disinformation.

Last but not least, transforming harmful social and gender norms that proliferate and manifest in online spaces has become a desperate obligation at the present time. Government’s top focus should be developing social media rules along with educating masses on proper policy and ethical guidelines. Adopting an apropos policy on operative support technology and digital development to ensure individual safety and privacy by designs must be held in priority.

State being the mother, needs to address the issue of TFGBV on exceptional basis unless it burns so many families and causes irreparable loss to our society.

The writer is a civil servant based in Islamabad. She has specialization in Management Sciences and writes about social and administrative issues. She can be reached at fatimahbatul@gmail.com

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