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SocietySilenced and threatened: Gendered online abuse endangers Ethiopian women

Silenced and threatened: Gendered online abuse endangers Ethiopian women

Selam Abebe, a pseudonym used for privacy reasons, bravely shared her story, shedding light on the escalating abuse she has endured over the past decade. As a passionate writer voicing her political opinions, she says she has faced the horrors of Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) head-on, with over 500 individuals blocked from her Facebook account.

In the face of this relentless onslaught, Selam has been subjected to attacks on her appearance and gender, rather than engaging in constructive discussions. The barrage of insults and threats not only affected her personally but also instilled fear in the hearts of her family and friends.

Selam recounts distressing instances where fake accounts shared her personal information and location, putting both her safety and the safety of her loved ones at risk. She explained that the constant harassment has taken a toll on her relationships and daily life, prompting desperate pleas from her family to abandon her online presence altogether.

Selam’s story is not an isolated incident in Ethiopia. According to Ethiopia Aid, half of all women in Ethiopia have endured physical or sexual violence at least once in their lifetime, underscoring the deeply rooted problem of gender-based violence.

A recent study conducted by the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR) revealed a staggering 37 percentor more than one-third of women have reported experiencing the technology related GBV. This alarming statistic highlights the widespread nature of this issue in the country, emphasizing the urgent need for action. The study was presented during an event held on May 9th at Eliana Mall.

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These research findings shed light on the various forms of TFGBV, including non-consensual intimate images, threats, harassment, extortion, disparagement, surveillance, cyberstalking, discriminatory speech, technology-related sexual abuse and exploitation, and attacks on communication channels and information dissemination, as outlined by the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD).

Moreover, women are more likely (27 percent) to be harassed online more than men, according to UN Women.

Despite the existence of laws that outlaw gender-based violence, Ethiopia continues to grapple with alarmingly high rates of such incidents. Many areas still cling to traditional cultural values that perpetuate the mistreatment of women, and a large portion of the population remains either apathetic or unaware of the new laws in place, according to Ethiopia Aid.

The research study by CIRshowed the widespread prevalence of online abuse, including hate speech, in Ethiopia, revealing that gendered online abuse effectively silences women, coercing them into withdrawing from public spaces and significantly impeding their participation both online and offline.

Adyam Solomon, CIR research and project coordinator, says, men and women face different forms of online abuse in Ethiopia. “While men often face abuse for their opinions or political views, women are targeted based on gender stereotypes, including their appearance, marital status, suspected relationships, and societal roles. Unlike abuse directed at men, the abuse targeting women is gendered and misogynistic, implying their inferiority.”

The impact of TFGBV extends beyond immediate harm; it can cause severe damage to personal reputation, result in psychological trauma, and disrupt the lives of individuals and their families. Furthermore, the Center for the Advancement of Rights and Democracy (CARD) highlights the broader consequences within the community, such as gender inequality, erosion of democracy, and societal costs.

The event was organized in a collaborative effort between the Centre for Information Resilience (CIR), the Ethiopian Human Rights and Democracy Center (EHRDC), and the Ethiopian Women Human Rights Defenders Network (EWHRDN) aimed at combating Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence in Ethiopia. The event served as a platform to raise awareness about TFGBV, focusing on women’s rights, online GBV, andhate speech. It featured presentations, an exhibition, discussions and a call to action.

“It aimed to showcase the work of various organizations and individuals who are actively combating or responding to these issues” Adyam said.

The research conducted by CIR revealed that “no platform is safe for women” in Ethiopia, with Facebook being the primary platform for abuse. Women experience abuse across all social media platforms, both in private and public channels, according to the study. Interviewees that participated in the study say they do not feel safe on any social media platform.

“Tec-facilitated GBV is so widespread that it has become normalized. Online abuse can lead to women withdrawing from online and offline spaces altogether,” Adyam said.

During the event, a panel discussion was held led byKalkidanTesfaye, program coordinator at the Ethiopian Human Rights and Democracy Center, MayaMisikir, a journalist, and BethelhemAkalawerk from Setaset Power, engaging in discussions about the vulnerability of women to technology-facilitated GBV and explored potential solutions.

Kalkidan stressed the importance of raising awareness about online security to protect oneself from hacking and other risks on social media.”Over the past three years, we have focused on addressing GBV and TFGBV. We have trained nearly 700 journalists on these issues,” she said.

“Our primary role is advocacy and supporting victims, including assisting them with relocation, legal support, and release from jail. However, during this period, we have observed a concerning rise in TFGBV, particularly impacting journalists, women in politics, feminists, women human rights defenders, and social media influencers,”Kalkidan explained.

She also highlighted that platforms like TikTok and Facebook have become hotbeds for various forms of abuse, blackmail, revenge pornography, GBV, and hate speech.

The panelists also discussed cases where women were exposed to society through social media and mainstream media. They highlighted the need to protect personal information and emphasized the importance of making online spaces safe for women and girls, especially with the growing internet access in Ethiopia.

“With internet access rising across Ethiopia, now is the time to make online spaces safe for women and girls,”Adyamsaid.

The organization Setaset Power collaborates with nearly 50 other organizations on social media to empower women and amplify their voices. However, the situation is becoming overwhelming as they receive numerous daily direct messages from women facing abuse and seeking support.

Maya empahasized the need to adequately protect personal information, comparing it to the recent incident where the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia released the personal info of its users.

“Personal info should be kept confidential,” she said.

YaredHailemariam, the director of EHRDC, emphasized the need for action beyond relying solely on laws. He stressed the importance of teaching abusers a lesson and highlighted the significance of prevention, creating awareness, sharing accurate information and ensuring security.

Hana Lale from EHRDC pointed out the obstacles women face in the digital sphere, such as restricted access, lack of awareness, and safety concerns. She underscored the need to address these challenges to ensure meaningful digital access for everyone.

Selam, on her part, expressed the urgency of working on awareness and acknowledged that they were already late in addressing the issue. She emphasized the importance of raising awareness and taking action to combat technology-facilitated GBV.

The recommendations put forth by organizations like CIR, EHRDC, and EWHRDN emphasize the need for education, awareness-raising, empowerment, advocacy, and innovation. These initiatives aim to educate women about digital tools and resources, empower them to navigate the digital space confidently, advocate for their rights and safety online, and promote gender equality and inclusivity in the digital realm. By implementing these strategies, it is hoped that a more equitable and accessible digital environment can be created for all individuals in Ethiopia.

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