Time to make online spaces safe for women, young girls

Contrary to its multifaceted significance, the advancement of technology and its appearance in different forms has its own side effects. These days, it is common to see many people use various sorts of technology to ease their daily activities and provide effective services; of course in a responsible manner. On the other hand, others make use of the internet to easily manipulate the rights of individual citizens, mainly women and girls.

As personal and public lives are increasingly lived on the internet and social media, a new frontier in the fight against gender-based violence has emerged. While the internet can be used as a platform that provides a space for awareness raising, community building and political mobilization, nowadays, for some entities, it has become a favorable hotbed where misleading information is disseminated and gender based violence and discrimination facilitated.

These days, men and women face different forms of online abuse in Ethiopia. While men are often abused for their opinions or political views, women are frequently abused based on gender stereotypes, including their appearances, marital status, suspected relations and other similar personal matters. Unlike for men, abuse targeting women is gendered and misogynistic, implying their inferiority to men. Women face many challenges in the digital realm from limited access and awareness to lack of safety.

Recently, at the event held here in Addis Ababa, Center for Information Resilience (CIR), a UK based nonprofit organization, had presented its research findings conducted targeting on the advancement of technology and how Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) is impacting the lives of women and girls.

According to UNFPA, TFGBV is an act of violence perpetrated by one or more individuals that is committed and amplified in part or fully by the use of information and communication technologies or digital media, against a person on the basis of their gender. Such sort of abuse is often overlooked, with gendered hate speech often slipping under the radar and becoming so endemic.

Adyam Solomon is a Researcher and Project Coordinator in CIR. According to her, Technology Facilitated Gender Based Violence is a widespread trend and a thing that has become a normal practice in Ethiopia. “Online abuse can leave Ethiopian women silenced and can even erode their self-confidence and lead them to withdraw from online to public spaces.

The event that was co-hosted by CIR the Ethiopian human right defenders Center, a local network of civil rights groups, aimed to bring together people who aspire to work and to strengthen efforts thereby lessen the challenges of women and girls in Ethiopia and to protect them from any harm, both online and offline. In light of this, the event has brought people together to imitate action, prevent, combat and respond to activities that impact the lives of women and young girls, including on technology facilitated gender based violence, by seeking accountability and improving policy, she added.

Kalkidan Tesfaye is currently serving as a Program Coordinator for Ethiopian Human Rights Defenders (HRDs) Center. Platforms like TikTok and Facebook have become breeding grounds for various forms of abuse, blackmailing (especially girls) prone to revenge as well as Gender Based Violence, misinformation, disinformation and hate speeches. Unfortunately, censorship imposed by both the society and government are creating more challenges.

“I firmly believe that we must continue to mobilize efforts to safeguard the rights of citizens to digital access, so as to ensure the safety and security of citizens. Acknowledging that women are the main prey to online GBV, Ethiopian Human Rights Defender (HRDs) is working committedly by designing its own working system and creating mechanisms that can protect them, Kalkidan said.

Whether they like it or not, the day to day activity of people and their ways of life are linked with social media. Ethiopia with a population of 120 million could not separate from the internet world. Unless society has taken immediate action, the new form of Gender Based Violence will continue to invade the rights of women and girls.

“With the ever increasing internet access across Ethiopia, now it is time to make online spaces safe for women and young girls” Together we can create a safer and more inclusive digital space for all,” said Adyam.

Natural Language Processing Researcher with CIR Nuhu Ibrahim also said combating technology facilitated gender based violence is an essential part of protecting the rights of and girls and promoting their safe and meaningful participation in all forms of public life. “Through this research, CIR hopes to make a positive contribution to the evidence-based TFGBV outcomes in Ethiopia,” she added.

At the event, various research works and studies were presented by scholars. The findings of the research work indicate that while both men and women in Ethiopia are subjected to online abuse and hate speech on social media platforms, there are differences in the nature, purpose and impact as most of them are gender based abuse.

According to the research findings, to make the situation worse, the risks associated with being a female are also compounded by targeting other protected characteristics, such as ethnicity or religion. The research also indicated that women and girls are more likely to receive abuse that includes gendered stereotypes, mockery or irony as well as more demeaning language or speech implying female inferiority.

The research suggested that this pervasive gendered hate speech is often considered as less harmful by many people. However, it is threatening and has long-term societal impacts on women and young girls by reducing their participation in public life.

To this end, the research emphasizes the importance of creating safe online environments to empower women’s engagement in online and offline public spaces by countering gender based stereotypes and discrimination, promoting the representation of women and girls in public roles, and improving education on the identification and impact of online abuse, including hate speech.

Interviewees also stated that gendered online abuse can damage professional reputations, cause psychological harm and impact personal and family relationships.



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