Harassment in the digital age
Facebook and WhatsApp, both amongst the most widely used social media apps in the country, have become new tools to be used as a means of harassment. Most of the victims are young women between 21 and 25 years and the trend is hardly surprising in a society where woman often face harassment of many kinds. The problem is linked to our patriarchal culture and also the growing notion that women and girls do not deserve a status equal to that of their male counterparts. According to the Digital Rights Foundation, an NGO which aims to create safer spaces for women on the internet, the situation has been worsening over the past few years. Particularly for women users, cyberspace presents a growing number of hazards. Facebook and WhatsApp are most commonly used to threaten women in various ways, by misusing data which has been published including photographs and using these in some cases to blackmail or to collect personal information. In other instances, the purpose is to hack into accounts often impersonating as an official agency of some kind.
According to the DRF, it has received 2781 calls between December 30, 2016 and November 1, 2018. The callers have complained of harassment over the internet. Unsurprisingly most of the callers have been women. Fifty-seven percent of the calls came in from Punjab but there were others too, from more remote areas of the country, suggesting that the problem is a far-reaching one. It is very likely that only a very small percentage of the female victims of online harassment are using the helpline. Many may not be aware of it or even be afraid of word getting back to their families. There are still households in which use of social media by women is discouraged in the first place.
We also know that cyber bullying is a common problem at schools and colleges, creating even more dangers for all users and especially women. While efforts have been made at some educational institutions, these are limited and often do not cover all the facets of the problem. DRF findings show that alarmingly on average 91 calls complaining of harassment are being made each month to a single helpline. As the DRF has said, there is clearly a need to sensitise staff at organisations and also to ensure that awareness is created and laws implemented more strictly to protect all those using social media, especially women.