By Esther Tawiah
Whether at home, on the streets or online, violence against women and girls is a human rights violation of pandemic proportions that takes place in both public and private spaces. Violence against young women manifests itself in physical, sexual and psychological forms – whether online or offline.
The online space through social media applications such as WhatsApp, Instagram, Twitter and Facebook were originally created to foster relationships and networking opportunities. Over time they have become mediums through which citizens and groups can express their views, advocate for changes in policy, critique government actions and rally against dictatorial governments as was seen in the case of the Arab Spring, where several regimes were put to test across the Arab world in 2011 through the power of social media.
Online harassment significantly affects its targets, with 29% of the harassed stating that they were scared for their life and 20%, afraid to leave their homes according to an Amnesty International report. Online violence and abuse against women has become a far too common experience especially for young women who want to add their voices to national discussions. The free internet space has created a hostile environment of violence and abuse against online users such as active young women by political and other social actors with the aim of shaming, intimidating or degrading these young women, which violates their human rights of freedom of expression and association.
I have recently experienced violence online when I was invited by a media house to express my views on a topic which mattered to me as an activist who seeks to increase the participation of women in governance processes. Due to the the patriarchal and politically entrenched society in which I find myself, my views on the topic were taken out of context. What followed next was a barrage of insults and threats on social media. My intelligence, looks and upbringing were scrutinized and degraded. My identity and personal information was also revealed online without my consent which was a violation of my personal privacy. I believe the aim of the people was to degrade me and expose me to distress, panic and otherwise cause alarm or silence me. People sent me hundreds of messages using the word ugly, frustrated fool, thief, prostitute — that’s the sort of response I got after commenting on a statement. It’s highly racialized and it’s also gendered … they talk about my physical appearance in a way they wouldn’t talk about a man. I’m abused as a young female activist because it is believed that my voice does not matter and why talk in the first place”.
Unfortunately, this is what most politically active women deal with on a daily basis, simply because they want to participate in national politics, whether in civil society or in political parties. After my experience, most young women I spoke to about this subject expressed that they had experienced online abuse or harassment, some said their personal details had been revealed online in this way. My experience and the experiences of these other young women shows how dangerous the online space is becoming for young women. Ultimately, all forms of online violence and abuse have a chilling effect on women, violating their right to freedom of expression. Not only do women tend to censor themselves out of fear of online reprisals but they may leave social media platforms altogether in order to protect themselves. Whichever way you look at it, women are being silenced. It’s important to remember – women also have the right to express themselves freely without fear.
Despite these obstacles, we shall not be silenced, and we will continue to advocate for the welfare, representation and inclusion of young women in politics and national life.