Gender equality goes beyond being a basic human right. It serves as one of the cornerstones of a developed, contemporary economy that promotes sustainable, inclusive growth. It is essential for ensuring that all members of society can contribute to its betterment and economies at large. The Internet, digital platforms, mobile phones, and digital financial services provide a plunge-like effect in terms of opportunities and can thus help close the inequality gap by giving women the chance to make more money, get better jobs, and learn more about general information.
In Africa, only 21% of women have access to the Internet, and the gender gap is already present at a young age since boys use the Internet four times more frequently than girls do as reported by the United Nations (UN). This exists due to hurdles to access, affordability, as well as inherent biases and socio-cultural norms that curtail women and girls’ ability to benefit from the opportunities offered by digital transformation.
|Access: In Sierra Leone, about 18% of the population is connected to the internet: 16% via their phone and 2% from mobile dongles or fixed wireless broadband.
Furthermore, the relatively lower educational enrollment of girls in fields like science, technology, engineering, and maths as well as information and communication technologies often result in wider disparities and greater inequality.
Online Gender-Based Violence
Online gender-based violence has been one of the main factors contributing to the digital divide. It manifests as any type of cruel or abusive conduct that targets a person solely because of their gender or sexual orientation.
Digital media, particularly social media, was created as a tool to connect the world and improve living, but it is now increasingly being used as a weapon against journalists, activists, and women in politics around the globe. Although social media platforms did not initially create sexism or authoritarianism, they have become tools with the potential to criticise citizens, weaken democracy, and further marginalise voices deemed to be problematic.
Online gender based violence can fuel the digital divide in different ways such as: Online harassment which discourages women and marginalised groups from participating in online spaces, including social media and other forums. As a result, they may be less likely to access and use digital tools and technologies, exacerbating the digital divide. Equally concerning, cyberstalking can foster an environment of fear and intimidation, causing women to curtail their online activity or avoid particular online venues entirely. A loss of trust in online environments brought on by the prevalence of online abuse may result in less use and engagement with digital technology. Online gender-based violence can also lead to the creation of echo chambers and the spread of disinformation and hate speech, further aggravating social divisions and widening the digital divide. It is worthy of note that online gender-based violence does not exist in isolation, it is a result of all forms of existing gender-based violence.
OGBV in Sierra Leone
According to the 2019 Sierra Leone Demographic and Health Survey (SLDHS), 62% of women aged 15–49 report having suffered physical or sexual violence. The COVID-19 pandemic may have increased the already unacceptably high incidence of GBV throughout the nation, as it did in most states.
Importantly, the alleged rape of a 5-year-old girl by her uncle and the girl’s partial paralysis afterward sparked the Black Tuesday movement in Sierra Leone at the end of 2018. Many people believe that this movement was the catalyst for why President Julius Maada Bio declared a national emergency in February 2019. This level of physical violence extends to messaging apps like Facebook and WhatsApp as well as gaming platforms.
An amended sexual offences Act was soon after passed in Sierra Leone in October 2019. The act establishes the Sexual Offences Model Court to expedite justice, strengthens the penalty (up to life in prison) for rape and sexual assault, and creates government one-stop centers where SGBV survivors can obtain free services, such as treatment and counseling. Unfortunately, like most other African countries, the Sexual Offences Act did not cover violence that could occur online.
Luckily, in 2021, Sierra Leone enacted a Cyber Crimes Act which criminalises cyberbullying. The Sierra Leone Association of Women in Journalism (SLAWIJ) published a report in July 2022 titled “Threats Against Public-Facing Women in Sierra Leone” that highlighted the experiences of female journalists and human rights advocates in the nation. Sixty-four percent of the female journalists and activists surveyed by SLAWIJ for the research project claimed to have personally been the target of threats, harassment, or acts of violence, either because of their jobs or during their professional careers, experiencing higher rates of harassment, verbal insults, and verbal threats. All of the above highlights the importance of the law.
Despite the law, it has been difficult to put the law into practice. Due to concerns of stigmatisation and revenge by offenders, there is purportedly a low rate of reports and reluctance to pursue cases. The police have additionally shown that they lack the knowledge and technical know-how needed to record such incidences. Individuals’ understanding of how to compile the evidence required for such cases is restricted because they frequently bear the brunt of the abuse they get online. Most of the time, the state still does not give law enforcement employees and agencies the support and training they need to effectively detect and look into such events. Notwithstanding the problems, Sierra Leone is well on its way to solving them, and it can do so with the help of the following suggestions.
All stakeholders involved in shaping online spaces, and/or addressing gender-based violence, including ICT users’ communities, internet intermediaries, government policymakers, organisations working on GBV, and the media, must work toward making these spaces safer for women and providing clear reporting lines and information on how to go about it.
It is crucial to conduct a legislative review and pass new laws and policies to address technology-assisted violence such as another amendment of the sexual offences Act.
In order to ensure that policies continually respond to women’s experiences, there is a need to encourage more systematic reporting and monitoring of technology-related gender based violence. With better trained officers on how to take on cases.
By fostering an online environment that has zero tolerance for GBV and upholding their duty to defend users’ rights, internet and mobile phone service providers can help ensure that women and girls’ privacy and safety are protected when using their services.
Blog post by Khadijah El-Usman for International Women’s Day