Online Abuse: A Monster that Silences and Curtails Women's Rights Online

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Woman looking at phone: photograph

Woman looking at phone: Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

The new freedom of expression brought by the internet goes far beyond politics. People relate to each other in new ways on a medium that offers the cover of anonymity but also deception. However, information technology and the internet are rapidly transforming almost every aspect of our lives - some for better, whiles others for worse.

Ghana has in recent years been celebrated for achieving a number of development milestones, despite these achievements, there are still deep-seated inequalities among segments of the population particularly between male and female populations. The gendered dimensions of inequality in the Ghanaian society cut across economic development, education, access to healthcare, vulnerability to violence and even political representation as said by a baseline report on women's rights online issues in Ghana, published by Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) in December 2017.

The gendered dimensions of inequality in the Ghanaian society cut across economic development, education, access to healthcare, vulnerability to violence and even political representation

These inequalities are fueled by some cultural and social practices, high levels of illiteracy and general lack of awareness among the citizenry. Gender inequality creates an unhealthy situation where most women and girls feel unnecessarily insignificant and end up as passive observers in the society while men, unfortunately, tend to have a feeling of superiority and dominate the women in their lives.

In a country where the female population is more than half (about 51.2%) of the total population (Ghana Statistical Service, 2014), these realities are highly retrogressive and promote an imbalanced society which is detrimental for holistic development.

One dynamic tool that has the potential to reverse this trend and create an equally enabling atmosphere for both genders is the internet.  Unfortunately, since the online world is a reflection of offline realities, similar patriarchal and misogynist trends are being experienced online and this is denying several women access to the opportunities that the internet offers. Some factors that deter women from being online include online safety issues such as cyberbullying, harassment, name calling and trolling and "revenge pornography". Social media platforms are most especially the fertile grounds for online harassment but these behaviours occur in a wide range of online venues.

Some factors that deter women from being online include online safety issues such as cyberbullying, harassment, name calling and trolling and "revenge pornography".

A baseline study on Women's Rights Online in Ghana by the MWFA, for instance, found out that about 40% of the women respondents reported experience in different forms of harassment online with almost 7 out of 10 of those women experiencing the abuses more than once. Nonetheless, to validate the findings of the study, below are some instances of online abuse against a number of Ghanaian females.

ABUSES AGAINST YVONNE QUARCOO

In September 2018, a tweet about a grammatical error made on the official page of the vice president of Ghana about a sod cutting ceremony by Yvonne Quarcoo sparked criticism, while she on the other hand in an attempt to correct the error slipped, she mixed up the words sod and sword. However, right after her tweet, she went through heaps of backlash and harassment that has made her delete her twitter account and all her social media handles.

ATTACKS AGAINST MOESHA BOUDONG

A comment Moesha Boudong, Ghanaian model and actress made stoked controversy on social media after she told CNN's Christiane Amanpour that her motivation, just like other women in Ghana, for dating married men, is because the economy is hard. She said "In Ghana, our economy is such a way that you need someone to take care of you. You can't make enough money as a woman here. Because even when you want to get an apartment, in Ghana they take two years' advance and I just started working where will I get money to pay?" She came under heavy criticism on social media on how being a mistress is a financial decision.

ATTACK AGAINST AFIA SCHWARZENEGGER

 A video of a popular radio and TV personality, Valentina Nana Agyeiwaa (well-known as Afia Schwarzenegger in the showbiz) known to be a hot-headed and an outspoken person, who had been caught in bed with another man was trending in September 2017. The man who took the video, reported to be her husband, threatened to empty the contents of a bottle he claimed was acid on the naked body of the lady in the video. The "revenge" video generated a lot of harsh comments inGhanaian cyberspace. While a few posts express sympathy with the victim and reproved her husband for videoing the nakedness of his former wife, many others criticized her for being a 'prostitute'.

While a few posts express sympathy with the victim and reproved her husband for videoing the nakedness of his former wife, many others criticized her for being a 'prostitute'.

Online harassment can have real-life consequences like suffering emotional and mental breakdown, damage to reputation and even fear of one's safety, even though some of the victims come out later to apologize and set things right like in the cases of Yvonne and Moesha, they also attest to the fact that the events have made them strong.

The growing phenomenon of abuse and sexual harassment of women online need to be addressed urgently. Unfortunately, there are no clear guidelines as to the process of reporting online abuse to state security agencies and getting perpetrators duly punished. According to the baseline report by the MFWA, while some of the victims block their harassers, others take precautions in what they do online leading to self-censorship.  However, none of the study respondents reported the online abusers to any security agency. The few who reported did so to some friends and family members. Whereas the Domestic Violence and Victims Support Unit (DOVVSU) of the Ghana Police have received training on online violence against women, they are unable to respond adequately because they lack resources.

None of the study respondents reported the online abusers to any security agency.

CONCLUSION

Even though the government has put in place some ICT-related policies aimed at improving internet accessibility and use, and creating a safer internet space for the public, including women, many of them do not have clear targets or specific action plans or bud­get allocations for their effective implementation. It will help that future amendment should include online harassment in order to erase any possible uncertainties. In addition, concrete policy interventions about online protection of women/girls should be formulated.

More education and sensitization by the media, the Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice (CHRAJ) and National Commission for Civic Education (NCCE), may possibly assist in making women aware of what to do about online harassment so they can take safety measures. Again, the security and protection agencies also need to make available materials and ways on how these encounters can be reported to them and what is their process of dealing with the guilty party.