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Net security

August 03, 2017


LAST year, Pakistani law student Khadija Siddiqui was stabbed 23 times by a classmate named Shah Hussain, leaving her lying on the road in a pool of her own blood. But Hussain didn’t just step up out of nowhere to try and kill Siddiqui. They’d been friends in law school until Hussain became “coercive” against Siddiqui. She cut off all communication between them, but he hacked her social media accounts and continued to harass her until the day he drew up alongside her car, wearing a motorcycle helmet and armed with a knife.

Siddiqui’s case illustrates that sometimes online violence against women precedes real physical violence. If the government takes an extremely strong line against online violence committed by men against women, boys against girls, the perpetrators can be stopped before their online violence escalates into actual physical assault, rape or murder.

Unfortunately the relative safety and anonymity that women experienced online in the first years of social media has been replaced by an unsafe online environment for women the world over. But what does online harassment and violence against women look like? It can take many insidious forms: being blackmailed with personal photos or information, or receiving unsolicited messages and repeated requests for contact, which often become more and more abusive and violent in nature when ignored.

What does online violence against women look like?

Women have their social media accounts hacked and used to upload obscene images or messages. Their phone numbers or email addresses are shared online without their consent. They are stalked by harassers who even reach out to their friends and family. They are doxxed, which means their addresses and other personal identification information is leaked online. Their pictures are photoshopped and shared without their consent. They may be threatened with sexual and physical violence. All of this has an overwhelming effect on the mental health of a victim, and may result in her becoming traumatised or even suicidal.

At this point, it’s important to address the Pakistani myth surrounding cases of online harassment and violence against women: people mistakenly believe that this can be eliminated by women simply not going online or not sharing their photos. I won’t attempt to insult my readers’ intelligence by attempting to explain why these are unrealistic expectations in 2017.

Pakistan’s Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), an NGO committed to digital privacy and women’s online safety, started a project called Hamara Internet in 2014. This programme trained 1,800 female university students all over Pakistan on cyber harassment and digital security. The online part of the project urged women to tell their stories of online harassment and record incidences on an eMap to see where it was occurring. And it was happening in all four provinces, to Pakistani women from all walks of life.

In 2016 DRF created a gender-sensitive, confidential safe space for women: a cyber harassment helpline, the first of its kind in Pakistan. In their recently released report, they say they’ve received about 80 calls a month, mostly from women, talking about themselves or inquiring “on behalf of a friend” or relative.

The helpline engaged counsellors, psychological and legal advisors online to deal with the fallout of these crimes. But they were limited in what they could do to help, beyond offering advice and recording data. They informed callers about the FIA’s National Response Centres for Cybercrime (NR3Cs), the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act, and the mechanisms by which they could go to the authorities and register their complaints. But the final decision to go to the authorities always rested with the callers, never the helpline staff.

Unfortunately the NR3Cs are located in the main cities, so callers from outside those cities have limited access to the centres. The FIA requires a harassment victim to present herself in person at the office to register the case, submit personal photographs and CNIC information, and come back regularly at various points in the investigation. These are two major factors that discourage victims from reporting these crimes.

In order to succeed, the NR3Cs need more resources, clear and consistent standard operating practices, and better case tracking and management systems. Most of all, the FIA must devote more resources to making the NR3Cs accessible to all women across Pakistan, with gender sensitivity training and psychological support available to those who avail of its help. And it must ensure that its services are private, confidential and safe.

Pakistan’s economic future will be shaped in part by the internet, and the young women who are being trained to join the workforce. Yet these women’s talent and potential is being blighted with online violence that can quickly and easily spill over into real life. It is Pakistan’s moral obligation to ensure the safety of women and girls as they conduct their daily lives, both professional and personal, online and offline.

The writer is an author.

Twitter: @binashah

Published in Dawn, August 3rd, 2017