Online abuse hotline
AS many women already know, the online space is not a level playing field — and violence is not always physical. The freedom that the internet affords can, in the hands of depraved and unscrupulous individuals, lead to consequences that can take a serious toll on women’s emotional well-being as well as their personal and work relationships. From trolling to blackmailing with images of an intimate nature posted on social media forums, women are subjected to a gamut of online abuse. The launch of Pakistan’s first cyber harassment hotline today by the advocacy group Digital Rights Foundation is thus a timely and much-needed initiative. It will provide legal advice, digital security support, psychological counselling and a referral system for those that call in for help.
Online abuse directed at women is a global problem. However, it takes on a particularly dark edge in societies such as Pakistan. Here, traditional notions of honour, shame and social acceptance come into violent conflict with modern, digital means of communication and information-sharing. Spurned suitors, former partners and even complete strangers can use social media or their smartphones as a means of shaming their target through explicit images, fake or otherwise. Those working to promote a safe digital environment describe online abuse as a ‘silent epidemic’, with many at the receiving end unwilling to speak to family members about it in order to avoid further humiliation and/or for fear that the hard-won freedom to study or work will be lost. Some have even committed suicide, unable to deal with the relentless harassment. Conservative norms, as with other crimes against women, thus end up shielding perpetrators from the consequences of their actions. It takes a brave woman such as the teacher in Lahore, whose story appeared in this paper yesterday, to stand her ground against family elders urging her to reach an out-of-court settlement with her harasser, and instead see to it that he was punished under the law. The man, who had hacked into her Facebook account and uploaded doctored images of her on it, was sentenced to two years in prison. It is, therefore, important to have a hotline where victims of harassment can seek assistance and informed advice; the media too should take up the issue. While the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act, 2016, tends to excessively limit personal freedoms, a judicious use of this law can deter people from committing the crime of cyber harassment.