"What Must Change?" For More Gender Equality Online

Storify |
This International Women’s Month, we reflect on what presently shapes women’s participation in the online arena. On International Women’s Day, 8 March, we hosted Akina Mama Wa Afrika, Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET), Connecting Voices of Citizens (CVC) and the Ask Your Government (Uganda) online portal in an online Twitter chat during which we asked “What must change?” to enable a more inclusive online community which recognises gender equity.
See some highlights from the chat here

What Should be on the 2016 Agenda for Internet Freedom in Africa?

By Juliet Nanfuka |
Towards the end of 2015, the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) under the OpenNet Africa initiative convened some of Africa’s leading thought leaders to discuss the various facets of internet freedom in Africa.
The Forum on Internet Freedom in East Africa is one of very few gatherings that assemble an African audience within the continent to discuss matters related to upholding internet freedom. The Forum brought together 200 participants from 18 countries – triple the number of those who attended the inaugural 2014 forum, which hosted 85 participants from six countries. The event drew up a set of actionable recommendations that will inform onward engagements on advancing internet freedom in Africa by CIPESA and its partners, and hopefully for other actors in this space.
Over the course of two days, several issues were discussed, including how to address online violence against women (VAW), whose magnitude and manifestation is not clearly known, as most cases in Africa go unreported.
Another key highlight was the increase in freedom of expression violations for critical media and bloggers especially during periods of electioneering. One way to address this could be through the use of counter speech and transparency in combating hate speech, misinformation and false claims. The media’s role in advancing internet freedom in Africa – both as a vulnerable group but also as infomediaries –  was highlighted.
Africa has registered a rise in abuses and attacks on internet freedom, including a proliferation of laws, legal and extralegal affronts, as well as limited judicial oversight over surveillance and interception of communications. Discussions on the balance between national security and its perpetual clash with freedom of expression, access to information and the right to privacy reflected the need to address gaps in existing laws that do not adequately protect citizens from mass surveillance and privacy infringements.
Meanwhile, the appreciation of digital safety tools and practices remains paramount, for citizens, the media, human rights defenders and activists. Thus, the continued need for capacity building and awareness raising efforts on internet freedom was stressed by Forum participants. Closely related to this is the need for localisation exercises between tools developers and end users, given the diverse contexts of African internet users.
Internet freedom could also be supported by the budding community of artists and creatives on the continent, who are currently not adequately involved in discussions around freedom of expression and privacy online.
Read the full Forum Report, which also explores the relationship between internet freedom and online economics, press freedom, online creative expression, access to information, cybercrime and digital safety, from the perspectives of law enforcement, regulators, intermediaries, artists, the media and human rights defenders. On each of these themes, the report discusses the challenges and opportunities and suggests actions to take in order to advance internet freedom in Africa.

The Challenge of Tackling Online Violence Against Women in Africa

By Evelyn Lirri |
The story of a 19-year-old student from Kenya who committed suicide after a man she met through Facebook threatened to publish her nude photos came to the limelight on the heels of the opening day of the Forum on Internet Freedom in East Africa, which took place in Kampala, Uganda.
The forum, organised by the Collaboration on International ICT Policy for East and Southern Africa (CIPESA), under the OpenNet Africa Initiative, drew a cross-section of people from Africa and beyond, including human rights defenders, academics, , law enforcement officers, communication regulators, media, and the tech community to debate issues impacting online freedom of expression and cyber security in Africa. The emerging issue of online violence against women (VAW), a growing problem worldwide, was among the key topics discussed.
Panelists at the Forum said cyber violence against women exists in several forms, including stalking, sexual harassment, surveillance, revenge pornography, public shaming and use of images or videos to manipulate individuals. It is particularly carried out through email, social media such as Facebook, Twitter and mobile phone instant messaging platforms like WhatsApp.
Ruth Nsibirano, a gender expert from Makerere University, said it is difficult to quantify the extent of cyber VAW in Africa because of several inhibitions including the culture of silence.
“In many cases when women report this kind of violence, they are blamed for causing it and so they end up keeping quiet instead of speaking out,” explained Dr. Nsibirano. She added that many women were reluctant to report their tormentors because of the fear of reprisal and, in other cases, they did not know where to seek redress.
According to Jan Moolman, a feminist activist with  the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) who was on  the panel that discussed gender-based online violence, women’s access to the internet and technology remains low, especially in developing countries, leaving the conversation on internet rights to be dominated by men. She noted that in some African countries, online VAW was targeted at public figures, largely because of the nature of their work.
“We need policies and legislation by governments to say this kind of behaviour online is unacceptable. Just like we are responding to violence against women offline, we need to do the same online,” said Ms. Moolman.
Despite the ongoing reports of harassment and intimidation, Ms. Moolman urged more women and girls to join online spaces in order to be part of the conversation against the vice and how to ensure they are safe when they use different online platforms.
Nanjira Sambuli, a research manager with iHub Kenya, said cases of violence against women are usually difficult to prosecute because the evidence is hard to present.
“The cases that come to the limelight are likely a representative of what we don’t hear or see. We need to work towards frameworks that allow people to report anonymously. That way, we shall have a better sense of what is happening,” she said.
Ms. Sambuli highlighted the fact that efforts to combat violence against women have thus far been mainly offline, with fewer strategies put in place to document the harm that happens online and ensure women know where to seek help when they have been violated.
“The internet especially social media platforms are spaces where people are beginning to negotiate and understand what it means to have freedom and what the boundaries are. The internet should be a space where citizens can engage, learn and build a better society,” she added.
Among the possible efforts to curb the vice, Dr. Nsibirano called for increased education of women on the dynamics of the internet through school curriculums. “That way, we shall get more women who will be knowledgeable when these crimes happen,” she said.
Many countries across Africa do not have specific laws under which offenders can be prosecuted. In Uganda, some offenders have been charged under the Anti Pornography Act, 2014, but participants noted that this law was not sufficient to address the problem given that the same law could be used to prosecute the victims.
“Digital evidence is an area that the world is still trying to figure out,” noted Ms. Sambuli. She stressed the need for laws not to aggravate the infringement of victims’ privacy during investigations and prosecution of VAW crimes.