Shifting the Burden: Online Violence Against Women

By Evelyn Lirri |

Across Africa, the use of Information and Communications Technology (ICT) by women and girls remains low. Yet amidst the low access to digital tools, women, particularly those in public and political spaces, such as human rights defenders (HRDs), bloggers, and journalists, continue to be the primary target of various forms of online violence such as cyberstalking, sexual harassment, trolling, body shaming and blackmail.

 According to a 2021 global survey by UNESCO, nearly three-quarters of female journalists have experienced online harassment in the course of their work, forcing many to self-censor. Furthermore, a 2020 report by UN Women found that women in politics and the media were more likely to be victims of technology-based violence as a consequence of their work and public profiles.

Over the years, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has documented and pursued interventions aimed at addressing the significant obstacles hindering an increase in women’s participation not only in online spaces but also in the political sphere. A concerning and recurring trend is that, oftentimes, responses to violence against women have prioritised an individual’s responsibility for self-protection rather than systematic or policy actions. 

 At the Forum on Internet Freedom in Africa 2023 (FIFAfrica23), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), Pollicy, Africtivites, the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Internews and the Solidarity Centre shared lessons learned from their work implementing multi-stakeholder interventions to address online violence against women. During a panel discussion, it was noted that applying multi-stakeholder interventions that include governments, civil society, technology platforms and media was critical in promoting safe and meaningful participation of women in online spaces. Internews and WOUGNET highlighted the work they have been jointly engaged in through the FemTech project in various African countries, aimed at empowering women human rights defenders to safely participate in digital spaces while promoting equitable access to technology. Through trainings of women human rights defenders, CSOs, policy makers and law enforcers, the project is raining awareness on how women are often impacted by cyber crimes legislations. 

In Senegal, AfricTivistes, a network organisation made up of journalists, bloggers and HRDs, has spearheaded public advocacy campaigns on responsible use of the internet. The organisation has conducted gender-inclusive training and capacity-building workshops for journalists, bloggers, public officials and political leaders on how to respond to cyber violence. Aisha Dabo, a Programme Coordinator at AfricTivistes, noted that since 2017, over 700 people in 15 African countries have been reached with these trainings. The organisation also conducts media monitoring of online violence on social media platforms. 

Sarah Moulton, NDI’s Deputy Director for Democracy and Technology, highlighted the negative impact that online violence continues to have on women who are actively engaged in politics and political spaces. In Uganda, for instance, a joint report by Pollicy and NDI documented cases of gender-based online violence during the 2021 general elections and found that women and men politicians experienced online violence differently, with women candidates likely to be trolled and body shamed while men were more likely to experience hate speech. This echoed research by CIPESA which analysed the gender dynamics of politics in online spaces in Uganda, including campaigns for presidential, parliamentary, mayoral, and other local government seats during the same elections. The CIPESA research also explored the legal landscape and in similarity to Pollicy and NDI found that although Uganda has enacted a number of laws aimed at improving digital access and rights such as the Computer Misuse Act 2011, the Anti Pornography Act 2014, the Excise Duty (Amendment) Act 2018, most do not address the gender dynamics of the internet such as targeted online gender-based violence, affordability, and the lack of digital skills among women.  

Like Africvistes, NDI has engaged in a number of campaigns to document these various forms of violence and make recommendations to address the problem. In 2022, it released a  list of interventions that could be adopted globally by technology platforms, governments, civil society and the media to mitigate the impact of online violence against women in politics and hold perpetrators to account.  

“Often, the expectation is that the individual is responsible for addressing the issue or for advocating on behalf of themselves. It really needs to involve a lot of actors,” said Moulton. 

On its part, the Solidarity Centre has been spearheading a global campaign to end gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. With the advent of Covid-19, a growing number of women shifted online for employment opportunities, access to services and education, among others. It was highlighted that female platform workers, including influencers, content creators and women who run online retail businesses, continue to face various violations such as sexual harassment and cyberbullying. 

Panelists called on governments to ratify the International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention No. 190 on violence and harassment in the world of work. This global treaty recognises the impact of domestic violence in the workplace, and how women are often disproportionately affected.  Currently, the convention has been ratified by 32 countries globally, of which only eight are African.

Journalists attending FIFAfrica23 also shared their encounters with online violence and called for regular digital literacy skills to stay safe online. Alongside the need for enhanced digital literacy, participants also noted the lack of effective reporting mechanisms for cases. Ultimately, it was noted that efforts that shift the burden of blame from victims of online violence against women in Africa need to be more actively pursued, alongside more actionable, collaborative and systematic interventions by governments, law enforcement, and platforms.

Online Event: Combating Online Violence Against Women and Girls Towards a Digital Equal World (March 8, 2022)

Online Event |

Sustainable Development Goal five aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. Target 5B calls for enhancing the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology, to promote the empowerment of women. However, women in eastern Africa face various challenges that undermine their use of digital technologies, with these challenges tending to mirror the impediments that they face in the offline world, such as in access to education and economic opportunities, or participation in civic processes. There is also a wide gender digital divide in the region. For instance, in Uganda men are 43% more likely to be online than women. In Kenya, a study found that in the slums of the capital Nairobi, only 20% of women were connected to the internet, compared to 57% of men.

Despite a large gender disparity in digital access, more women face various forms of online violence than their male counterparts. The absence of laws designed to specifically address the various forms of digital violence (such as “revenge pornography”, trolling, and threats) and the lack of sufficient in-country reporting mechanisms, exacerbate these being forced to go offline or resorting to self-censorship. Research by CIPESA has found that cyberstalking, online sexual harassment, blackmail through non-consensual sharing of personal information, promotes and normalises violence against women and girls who use the internet in Uganda.

However, these digital threats and attacks remain difficult to quantify due to several inhibitions including the culture of silence and the absence of structured reporting mechanisms. Nonetheless, there have been various documented cases of online harassment and abuse. In a study conducted in Kenya, more than one in five women reported having experienced online harassment. Meanwhile, redress mechanisms were insufficient, as the national legal framework safeguarding security online is broad, “and does not pay special attention to women and girls.”

The true extent of online violence against women (OVAW) remains unknown, partly due to cultural inhibitions, lack of data and lower levels of internet access among women. However, as more women go online, the cases are increasing, yet there are insufficient safeguards to enable victims to protect and enhance their personal security, including the absence of laws prohibiting online violence against women. Moreover, such cases continue to go unreported, leaving victims with limited legal recourse or resources to seek justice. Further, many women are uninformed of their rights online and are not aware of the tools available to secure themselves online.

According to a 2020 UN Women report, women in politics and the media are at higher risk of online and ICT-facilitated violence due to their public personas.  Indeed, research related to Uganda’s 2021 elections found that men and women politicians experienced online violence differently: women, especially candidates in elections, were more likely to experience trolling, sexual remarks, and body shaming, while men were more likely to experience hate speech and satirical comments. This mirrored Previous findings in the region that also found that women who are more prominent online and in society appeared to be targeted more, with the women who advocated for gender equality, feminism, and sexual minority rights facing heightened levels of  OVAW. This undermines the ability of women to embrace and meaningfully use digital technologies.

The UN Women report also cites evidence  suggesting  that  women  with  multiple identities (such as the LBTQI community, ethnic minority, indigenous) are often targeted online through  discrimination and hate speech, which often forces them to  self-censor  and  withdraw  from  debates and online discussions. Similarly, the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, has stated that some  groups  of  women,  including human  rights  defenders,  women  in  politics, journalists, bloggers, women belonging to ethnic minorities, indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, and women with disabilities are particularly targeted by ICT-facilitated violence.

The extent to which cyber harassment affects women in marginalised communities in the region is not well known. However, interviews conducted in 2019 as part of digital literacy and security training for refugee rights defenders, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, South Sudan and Sudan, who are living in Uganda, showed that three in four of the respondents had experienced some form of cyber harassment including abuse, stalking, unwarranted sexual advances and hacking of social media accounts. The perpetrators included anonymous individuals, security agents in their home countries, known friends and ex-partners. These online affronts against the women refugees run in parallel to gender-based violence in refugee camps, at border crossings and resettlement communities. Urban refugees in the country face heightened gender-based violence risks due to unmet multiple and complex social, economic and medical needs as well as intersecting oppressions based on race, ethnicity, nationality, language, sexual orientation and gender identity.

On the occasion to mark the International Women’s Day, 2022 the Collaboration in International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) has organised a webinar to foster multi-stakeholder dialogue on OVAW towards promoting women’s ability to meaningfully participate in the information society, democratic and decision making processes. The webinar will also serve as an opportunity to promote engagement between platforms operator Meta, user communities and stakeholders, and to collect feedback and strategize on how to mitigate harm online.


  • Nashilongo Gervasius, Researcher
  • Suzan Elsayed, Meta (Facebook)
  • Hon. Neema Lugangira, Member of Parliament Representing NGOs – Tanzania National Assembly
  • Hon. Sarah Opendi, Chairperson Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA)
  • Justice David Batema, High Court of Uganda

Join the Conversation

  • Date: Tuesday March 8, 2022
  • Time: 15:00 – 16:45 East African Time EAT
  • Where: Online via Zoom. Register here