Digital Access to Healthcare and Online Harassment
In my penultimate year in secondary school, I joined social media – a fifteen year old thrilled to meet strangers who might become friends, eager to share her poetry and fictional stories with the world. A few sustained platonic relationships, life-changing opportunities, unsolicited dick pictures, name calling and slut shaming by men bitter at my non-response later, I have come to reflect on the harassment I experienced online, and examine those I witnessed, took actions against, and the ones I didn’t know happened until I created a survey where Nigerian women and girls shared their online harassment experiences.
With pandemic-related lockdowns and restrictions digitalising many aspects of our lives including healthcare, it becomes ever more important to investigate how safe are the online spaces and what we can do to reduce and eliminate the prevalent dangers.
What Counts as Online Harassment?
Online harassment includes any form of virtual interaction, action, or reaction that makes a person feel unsafe or discriminated against.
In a research conducted by Pew Research Center in January 2021, online harassment is measured by the following behaviors: offensive name-calling; purposeful embarrassment; stalking; physical threats; harassment over a sustained period of time; and sexual harassment.
However, online harassment means different things to different people, as it is contextual and personal.
What Does Online Harassment Look Like for Nigerian Women and Girls?
Yasmin, an 18-year-old, says online harassment is “everything pushy and forceful, done with the intent to harm. From stalking to persistent texting, sharing nudes, making up lies, blackmail, sending graphic pictures without consent, screen grabbing pictures and saving them (especially nude pictures)”. Yasmin experiences some of these often because of her sexuality. She prefers to ignore harassers.
To Mariam, a 19-year-old, online harassment is “sending unsolicited dick pictures, someone constantly in my dms [direct messages] trying to get me to sleep with them even after I’d already said No”. Mariam reports harassers’ accounts and blocks them.
“Trolling, body shaming, and doxxing”. These are what Cassandra, a 22-year-old considers online harassment. Cassandra mutes and blocks her harassers, or logs off the internet when she’s being harassed.
How is Online Harassment a Gender Based Violence?
According to a research by Pew Research Center in 2017, women are about twice as likely as men to say they have been targeted as a result of their gender (11% vs. 5%). Harassers target girls mostly because of their gender and for speaking up on issues they are concerned about. Marginalized women are more at risk of online violence, especially LGBTQ+ people, women of color, and Black women. This increases the insecurity and targeted violence these women are often at risk of physically in their daily lives. Six out of the 10 women and girls who filled my survey said harassers target them because of their sexuality.
How COVID-19 Has Exacerbated Online Harassment
Since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic in March 2020, there has been an increase in social media usage, especially during the lockdown, because social interactions, workspaces, events, and engagements largely moved online. This led to an increase in reports of online harassment during the pandemic, as discovered by a UN Women survey.
Impact of Online Harassment on Women and Girls
Silence: Harassers often scare people into silence. This happens especially in cases when the harasser shares non-consensual intimate images (NCII) online and blackmail women to damage their reputation. In less severe cases, to protect their privacy when harassed, women and girls change their privacy settings or deactivate their accounts.
Physical insecurity: Survivors of online harassment may have a heightened fear of physical violence. Especially if the harassers have access to private information such as their contact number, email address, or location. A research by Plan International conducted in 2020 across 31 countries with over 14,000 girls and young women about their experiences online discovered that more than half (58%) of those surveyed have been harassed and abused online, and 24% (about one in four girls) are left feeling physically unsafe.
Psychosocial stress: According to the Plan International report, 42% of the girls and women said they lost self-esteem or self-confidence. Furthermore, 42% feel mentally or emotionally stressed, and 18% have problems at school.
Loss of access to digital resources: In a society rife with rape culture characterized by victim blaming, when parents or guardians of girls who are being harassed online catch wind of the situation, they may limit the girls’ access to the internet by seizing their mobile devices and computers.
This in turn affects the girls’ education, professional and social lives.
How to Handle Online Harassment
Report harassers’ content and account: Many social media platforms have functions to report abusive content and get support. You may also proceed to block the harasser’s account to prevent seeing their future updates.
Report to a local police station: According to the Nigerian Cybercrime Act 2015, Child pornography and related offences; cyber stalking; racist offences; conspiracy, etc. are crimes that can be reported to the police and are punishable by law.
Be an active digital bystander: When someone harasses another person online, do not engage with their content in any way. Instead, report the content and the harasser’s account. You may also check on the survivor to see how they are doing. You can offer support, or share helpful resources or tools with them.
Resources For Combating Online Harassment
Feminist Internet is an organization that intervenes in digital inequalities women and girls experience, and supports those who are discriminated against by providing tools such as Maru, an anti-harassment chatbot that helps with tackling online abuse.
EndTAB specializes in training people and organizations on how to navigate the digital abuse landscape via its online and live courses.
With its Tech Policy Design Lab, Web Foundation is collaborating with tech companies and civil society organizations to create solutions for online gender-based violence.
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About the author: Emitomo Tobi Nimisire is a writer, sexual and reproductive health and rights advocate, and communications strategist. She blogs at nimisire.wordpress.com