The proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) has dramatically shaped our social environments and interactions over the past decade. While much of this influence has been beneficial, ICTs have unfortunately also created new avenues for violence and victimisation against the most vulnerable members of society.
Online harassment and the abuse of women and girls has become so rampant that it is mirroring what happens offline. According to the World Health Organization, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence in their lifetime. As frightening as this statistic is on its own, when we consider that women are increasingly experiencing violence and abuse in online spaces, too, it becomes even more alarming.
In South Africa, the situation is particularly dire. A recent survey found that 56% of South African women have experienced some form of online harassment, with 26% reporting that the abuse made them feel unsafe in their own homes.
It’s time to act. It is both our collective responsibility and duty to create safer digital spaces for women and girls. This is how I believe we should go about it.
First, we need to recognise that online abuse is a real and rampant issue. Too often, women’s experiences of harassment and abuse are minimised or dismissed. We need to validate these experiences and acknowledge the harm they cause.
Grassroots programmes that pay deliberate attention to identifying and addressing the challenges that young girls interested in STEM face, and channelling them into STEM careers, are lacking.
Second, I believe that you can only protect yourself from threats you are aware of. In response to this, digital safety should be incorporated into the national curriculum. Education on digital safety should include, but not be limited to, understanding how to protect our privacy online, unpacking digital citizenship, recognising the signs of harassment and abuse, and knowing how to report it.
This must be further supported by courses offered by higher education and training institutions that fuel research into digital safety and best-practice guidelines for both the private and public sectors. If we want to make digital spaces safe, we must become informed and responsible digital citizens first.
Third, we need to hold tech companies accountable. Many social media platforms have policies in place to address harassment and abuse; however, these are often not effectively enforced. And a policy that is not enforced is merely a recommendation. During the pandemic, any mention of “infection”, “disease” or “vaccine” earned you a “Learn more about Covid” banner under your post.
This tells us that AI can detect harmful language accurately and efficiently, and should be picking up words that are threatening or abusive, too. We need to demand that tech companies take action to protect their users and be held accountable if they fail to do so.
Last, we need more women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) careers. I am particularly insistent on prioritising STEM subjects for girls in high school so they have the opportunity to study STEM-related courses at tertiary level and, hopefully, take up STEM jobs.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Investing in Stem education and building scientific capacity is critical for Africa
Grassroots programmes that pay deliberate attention to identifying and addressing the challenges that young girls interested in STEM face, and channelling them into STEM careers, are lacking. They do exist, however. Tuta-Me is working with corporates to provide programmes like Mobi-Tuta and Promaths that help pupils in underresourced schools have access to STEM-aligned resources.
Having women in STEM roles and careers is critical if we are going to tackle digital violence effectively. In spite of their best intentions to be inclusive, men cannot view the world through a woman’s lens. Building safer digital spaces is tightly bound to having women write the code on the platforms in which victimisation is taking place. Only then can we help to address unconscious bias and combat virtual abuse.
Creating safe digital spaces for women and girls is not a one-time effort but an ongoing process. It requires all of us to act, to put money behind impactful programmes, and to work together to make the internet a safer place for women.
Committing to this important work is critical if we are to create a world where online harassment and abuse are no longer accepted as tragic norms. DM