Online violence: beyond just an act

As of July 2017, the internet penetration rate in Nepal is more than 61% as opposed to 9% in 2011, which is a massive growth and still growing. We are told, and we believe, that with internet technology in our hands the world can be a better place1, thus all the running around to assure access to internet technology for all. Globally, nearly 25 percent2 fewer women than men have access to the internet and this is visible more in the low and middle-income countries. A report3 by Intel based on the research shows women believe that the internet will empower them and make them feel equal along with other economic and social opportunities.

Internet has been instrumental in bringing about social change. We as activists use it to express our opinions and voice our causes in our own ways, either for body positivity4 through an Instagram page or to ask for justice on Twitter. The call out of perpetrators of sexual violence by #MeToo movement5 is the best example that almost everyone can understand. Internet has redefined the meaning of activism and has made it inclusive of even those who aren't able to or cannot come to 'the street'.

While the internet brings us opportunities and it feels like a space equal for all to practice our activism and meet like-minded folks, mostly for marginalized communities, we have also heard/ seen/ experienced abuse happen here. Women and girls are having to bear most of the brunt6, they face various forms7 of online violence resulting in many leaving the space either temporarily or permanently. Many have already been working and talking8 against such abuse for many years in different parts of the world, however, the patriarchy in the virtual spaces seems to have quite a strong hold as in the 'real' world.

In an informal interview with a representative of the cybercrime unit at Nepal Metropolitian police, Kathmandu in Nepal, we found out that more than 95% of the online violence cases registered are against women. While there are some national laws that protect women from violence and abuse online, and some new regulations including Information Technology Act and Individual Privacy Bill on their way, the way these laws and regulations are formulated and written deserves its own report on criticism, if you look it through the lens of human rights and women's right to bodily autonomy.

Anyway, moving beyond the laws and policy framework, because countries like Nepal have got tons of it without proper implementation, and focusing on how state authorities and people in Nepal are looking into this new ghost of online violence against women (and queer people). Despite decades of trying to explain to people that patriarchy and systemic inequality are the main reasons for any form of violence, the message still needs to be pushed through. Especially when it comes to online violence, there is a wider belief that the growing use of technology is the reason and internet is 'unsafe' for children, young adults and women.

this results in laws like the banning of mobile phones for young women in North India

Thus in the name of protection, this kind of perception further results in conservative social norms and laws like the banning of mobile phone9 for young women in North India by local authorities and internet censorship10 in the name of nation's security or 'to protect' the younger ones from 'harmful content'11. While we know when sexual content in the internet is seen as 'harmful content' it restricts access to important information related to one's sexual health and exploring one's sexuality, especially for the communities where sex and sexuality isn't or couldn't be spoken about openly.

Since the last few years, people in Nepal are blaming the internet for bringing 'beekritii' (malpractices) among the young generation. For many people in Nepal, internet is limited to social media like Facebook and YouTube and messaging apps like Viber and Imo which are mostly used for communication between family and friends and for entertainment. They think the internet is making young girls and boys meet online and romanticize the idea of marriage and thus are marrying early12, despite the will of parents. They also have concern that young girls and boys are learning about sex 'way too early' Some studies have shown parental concern over internet being perceived as dangerous and in a city in Nepal, mothers came to the street13 to ask local administrators to control misuse of Facebook.

when the internet is seen as the reason for violence, focus shifts to controlling the acts instead of digging deeper into the reason behind them

Thus, when the internet is seen as reason for violence, the focus will then shift to controlling the acts instead of digging deeper into the reason behind them. The very fact that violence doesn't exist in isolation and is embedded in our social, political, cultural and family systems and deep rooted through patriarchal values within these systems, whether it be violence that executes online or in the offline world. When the emphasis is placed on the act itself, it dilutes the way the issue is looked into and thus weakens the support mechanism that is to be formed. There is also a risk of formulation and implementation of restrictive laws and policies as we have seen in the case of North India mentioned above. The logic used here is similar to the illogical statement some people use to blame short skirts for sexual violence, perpetuating victim blaming.

When we ourselves ask for 'protection' from state mechanisms, we are asking them to curtail our right to information and right to freedom of expression. Focusing on police protection, legal and justice system and censorship of internet to counter online violence would be like putting a bandaid on an injury that requires a surgery. We therefore need to move beyond controlling the users of internet, and make them responsible.

We need to question if platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and others are the problem or the users who perpetrate such violence? We need to ask if only the state should imply laws and regulations to control the violence online which usually is sanctioned through restrictive policies? And we as consumers of the internet, do we want these platforms be accountable to counter this violence as well? Shouldn't we instead be talking about right to privacy of oneself and others, and how consent is the key in any relationship instead of waiting for a crime to happen to punish the perpetrators?


Shubha Kayastha is a feminist and sexual rights activist. She is co-founder of Body & Data that works in the intersection of gender, sexuality and technology in Nepal. She also works as a freelance researcher and trainer in Nepal and in the Asia-Pacific region mostly around women's health and rights.






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