OPINION: More must be done to protect women and girls from cyber bullying

Governments and social media companies have been challenged to do more than lip service to fight increased cyber-bullying cases and ensure that online spaces are safe for women and girls.

In a survey carried out by Plan International Kenya, 58% of women and girls indicated that they had been harassed or abused online.

These attacks are common on Facebook where the survey indicates 39% have suffered harassment.

On Instagram, respondents recorded who reported online harassment were 23%, WhatsApp 14%, Snapchat 10%, Twitter 9% and TikTok 6%.

14,000 girls and young women girls aged between 15 to 25 years from 22 countries took part n the study.

This survey has also made it clear that girls tend to be bullied more than boys.

The COVID-19 pandemic drove the world to working and learning online.

This therefore means that this is a space that now needs much more attention, surveillance and regularisation than ever.

Recently, Citizen TV Kenya aired a program on Facebook dubbed “Disruptions” which was moderated by the station’s Special Projects Editor Wahiga Mwaura and Stephanie Oraro, a Plan International Kenya Ambassador.

The discussion was held in commemoration of the International Day of the Girl Child whose theme this year was ‘My Voice, Our Equal Future.’

Avril, a Kenya-based singer and song writer, shared an experience where someone impersonated her by hacking into her online accounts and asking the public for money.

She explained her frustration that even though she had gone to court, nothing could be done about the culprit.

According to Avril, the Magistrate said the case lacked sufficient information to have the perpetrator reprimanded.

The irony is that no matter her efforts, more pseudo accounts keep coming up. She said it has also taken Facebook a long time to verify her page.

According to Ms. Kate Maina-Vorley, the Country Director of Plan International Kenya: ‘‘Offline abuse has now been taken online.”

She noted that one in five of the girls who took part in the Plan International survey intimated that they or a friend had stopped interacting online because of cyber-bullying.

Ms. Maina-Vorley added that one of the worst impacts of cyber bullying is when women remain online but have to self-censor themselves.

In this regard, 44% of the girls said they need social media companies hosting social media platforms to do more to ensure their safety and privacy.

Azziad, a young Kenyan artist, said that shortly after her video went viral on TikTok, she experienced an avalanche of bullies online.

This was not the first time she had gone viral; she had earlier videos that went viral in India and United Arab Emirates.

The thing that shocked her, she said, was not how fast she went viral but the number of trolls that came her way.

Asked if she reported to the police, Azziad’s response was that of utter frustration; “How was l going to report 200 people?”

However, Azziad noted that she has developed a strategy to deal with online bullies and other young girls and women can emulate.

She said she does not respond to the bullies because according to her it is like fanning a fire.

“Always have people around you who you can talk to when it happens,” she said.

“Be yourself and post what you need to post,” she added.

“When you get bullied online, it doesn’t mean you did something bad. It simply means there are people who will always be negative no matter what you do,” Azziad said.

Lynda Nyangweso, a radio personality revealed that the most embarrassing thing for her was to see her parents go online to defend her after she experienced cyber bullying by being body shamed.

According to her, social media companies should make it easy for users to report abuse and even faster to have accounts brought down when they violate codes of ethics.

Additionally, she asked them to work out a system where there is control on how many people jump into a conversation that is negative.

The game changer in stopping bullying is when everyone takes responsibility.

In a petition that is being circulated globally, Plan International is asking people to sign up so that online platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter can create stronger and more effective ways to report abuse and harassment.

In October this year, Plan International will be meeting up with leaders from Facebook and Instagram to discuss their petition.

The Association of Media Women in Kenya, AMWIK, has in the recent past done several reports on cyber bullying especially against women journalists and leaders.

According to AMWIK, cyber bullying gets worse during elections and it is often geared towards women leaders.

With the 2022 general elections coming up, it is highly possible that the cyber space will get even more vicious.

It is commendable to say that the government through various offices has several avenues of reporting cyber-bullying and online crime.

The downside of these avenues is that there has not been a lot of awareness created about them.

Caroline Murianki, acting manager in charge of Research and Consumer Education from the Communications Authority of Kenya, said reports can be made to the Commission’s Computer Incident Response Team by calling 0703042700 or 0730172700.

Another office to report incidents of cyber harassment is the Anti human trafficking and Child Protection Unit in South C, DCI Academy whose email is info@dcicpu.co.ke.

Psycho-social support is also available on toll-free line 116.

The AMWIK report observed that most of the women leaders and journalists when bullied online tend to leave the space altogether which is a great loss to the critical voices of women and girls online.

Cyber-bullying is especially tough for women compared to men because women when threatened are faced by extensive possibilities of physical attacks tied to this bullying and are often threatened alongside their families as well. This harassment weighs on them more psychologically.

Maria Wanza is Communications Consultant, actress, member of Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) and the African Women’s Development and Communications Network (FEMNET)