WINner’s view: Ruth Atim, Uganda on online violence against women and girls

During COVID-19 and moving restrictions, people have spent more time online, increasing the risk of cyberviolence against women.

Journalist Ruth Atim, from 2020 Ugandan cohort of WINners, also works as a digital security trainer, here she shares the stories of women who have been harassed online and offers some tips for staying safe.

Millions of women and girls are now using videoconferences frequently, sometimes daily, to work and study. Many abusers use this opportunity to harass them, for example, by sending unwanted, offensive and sexually explicit emails or SMS messages, or making offensive, inappropriate advances on social networking sites, stalking, bullying and sex trolling.

Certain groups of women, including human rights defenders, women in politics, journalists, bloggers, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, are a particular target of online facilitated violence.

Lamwaka Milly, a journalist, was trolled online by someone who kept sending her his nude pictures and asked her to do the same. The sender was someone she has never met. When she did not reciprocate, the sender threatened to attack her on her way home from work.

“This person knew everything about my family and me and where we live. I felt threatened and stressed” Lamwaka said.

Women who experience similar harassment can suffer from psychological trauma, depression, panic attacks, loss of self-esteem and a sense of powerlessness in their ability to respond to the abuse. As a result, such victims of online violence tend to restrict their access to the internet, widening the gender digital divide.

Another female freelance journalist, who requested anonymity, said dealing with online abuses while working was difficult because there was no supervisor.

“I recently reported a sexual harassment issue, and nobody did anything. Some of my colleagues also shared their stories, but nobody listened to them. Most of us feel as if we are on our own when it comes to dealing with online harassment,” she added.

Such abuses can lead to long-term emotional and psychological effects. Discomfort after the incident is typical, so too difficulty concentrating and avoidance of people or places that remind them of the online abuse.

It can also have negative professional consequences. Some victims may abandon their pursuit of specific stories, or have difficulties with their sources as a result of the threats and abuse.

In some cases, young women have considered leaving the journalism profession entirely, which will reduce the number of women in the newsroom.

How to prevent Cyber/ Online Harassment.

Anyone using the internet should take necessary precautions. Here are some tips to help protect yourself against cybercrime and online harassment.

1. Use strong passwords

Don’t repeat your passwords on different sites and change your passwords regularly. Make them complex. That means using a combination of at least 10 letters, numbers, and symbols. Use two-factor authentication where possible

2. Manage your social media settings

Keep your personal and private information locked down. Cybercriminals can often get your personal information with just a few data points, so the less you share publicly, the better and this will make it difficult to track you down or use your personal information against you.

3. Take measures to help protect yourself against identity theft

Identity theft occurs when someone wrongfully obtains your personal data in a way that involves fraud or deception, typically for economic gain. How? You might be tricked into giving personal information over the internet, for instance, or a thief might steal your mail to access account information. That’s why it’s essential to guard your personal data. A VPN, (virtual private network) can also help to protect the data you send and receive online, especially when accessing the internet on public Wi-Fi.

4. Block/unfriend people whom you feel are threatening your peace online 

This will eliminate the ability for that user to make direct contact with you. In many cases, blocking has helped people end their bullying trauma.

5. Know what to do if you become a victim

If you believe that you have become a victim of a cybercrime/online harassment, you need to alert the local police or local authorities. This is important even if the crime seems minor. Your report may assist authorities in their investigations or may help to thwart criminals from taking advantage of you or other people in the future. In a way, fighting cybercrime, especially in tough times like this, is everybody’s business. Think of it as an obligation to do your part in the fight against cybercrime/online Gender-Based Violence (GBV). For most people, that means following a few simple, common-sense steps to keep yourself and your family safe. It also means reporting to relevant officials at the appropriate time. When you do, you’re helping to fight cybercrime.

Ruth is a 2020 WINner from Uganda. She is an Information and Communications Technology (ICT) graduate. She’s been in media for seven years and has worked as a News Anchor/Editor and Reporter in Gulu-based Radio Stations. She currently works at Uganda Refugee and Media Migration Network as a reporter and sub-editor. It’s an online platform that publishes articles on refugees and migrants.In 2019 Ruth won a Media Award from Johannesburg for her work in writing about Refugee children.

Away for her journalism work, Ruth is also a digital security trainer and recently founded The Gender initiative-Uganda, a community based organization that empowers women and girls with digital safety and digital literacy skills. Her work has been able to save many women from online harassment.

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