Weak legislation fails vulnerable groups

A video of a frail, frightened half-naked old woman dragged across the street in the early hours of the morning is trending.

She seems confused and oblivious to the fact that community members are accusing her of witchcraft. She does not even know her name, nor where her home is, and what she is doing in the street so early in the morning.

Unfortunately, neither she nor her accusers are aware that she is suffering from Alzheimer and Dementia, a spectrum of mental decline causing loss of memory, language, and thinking abilities among others.

In the video, many other community members comprising of people young enough to be her children and grandchildren have also taken out their smart phones to capture live, the “hilarious” spectacle that sends tongues wagging across the community, nation, and even beyond because of the unending reach that the internet has enabled.

This is just one of the many unfortunate scenarios involving the elderly, under age children, women, and victims of crimes, among others that flood online platforms on a daily basis.

Those who publish these types of videos and photographs online, many times do not even know they are committing a crime. But ignorance of the law is not an excuse.

Executive Director of Botswana Network on Ethics, Law and HIV/AIDS (BONELA), Cindy Kelemi is totally not amused by these types of illegal online activities.

She expressed her disgust at the launch of the newly-released report titled, ‘Understanding Online Gender-Based Violence in Southern Africa,’ this week.

Kelemi said that these incidents often go unreported and therefore are never investigated, and are left to just die down. She said it is high time that these are looked at from a human rights perspective.

She believes cyber space has been given a leeway to disregard people’s basic rights.

“What happened to consent? Many of these people are sometimes unaware that they are trending in videos and photos somewhere,” she said, adding that the dignity of people is dragged in the mud by people who could not care less about what they post online and what effects it could cause.

She says there is need for education and awareness to members of the public. “It should be so specific and deliberate, and should ensure that people understand human rights, respect for human rights, issues of consent, and dignity,” she said, adding that many times people whose rights are abused on the cyber space have no one to speak on their behalf.

She advocates for policies and regulations that will force organisations and institutions to craft internal policies of accountability in the workplace, just like during the time of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, where organisations had rules and regulations in place that guided how those infected and affected would be treated.

“Let organisations also help in bringing internet users to account,” she said, adding that there is a need to tackle the serious challenge of Online Gender Based Violence (OGBV) through a multi-sectoral approach rather than single-handedly as the fight would not be won.

Her contention is also that the escalating rate of OGBV is a clear indication of degeneration of the Setswana morals and values. “We have lost who we are,” she said, adding that some of the strong Setswana values and morals that have built this nation from time immemorial should be entrenched into the school curriculum.

The report, ‘Understanding Online Gender-Based Violence in Southern Africa,’ has revealed that there is a spike in OGBV, with the increase of digitisation. Laws that govern ordinary GBV, do not necessary cover aspects of OGBV.

“We still encourage that just like when you see criminals breaking into your neighbour’s yard and you alert the police, do the same when you see someone subjected to abuse online,” Botswana Police Deputy Director, Department of Cyber Forensics, Nonofo Dichabe said.

Dichabe added that in cases of OGBV, it is also very important to collect and keep evidence because investigating OGBV cases without any evidence has proved to be difficult.

African Union Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa, Commissioner Maria Manuela says OGBV against women and girls is closely linked to and necessitated by the existing societal realities such as the institution of patriarchy.

“This institution creates an environment for these forms of abuse to be committed,” she said, adding that it manifests in a number of ways including, gender trolling, cyber bullying, cyber stalking, defamation, hate speech and sexual harassment, as well as image-based abuses.

She is concerned that women suffer physical, psychological, social, and economic harms as a result of such OGBV, regretting that in some cases, the damage could be irreparable, with others ending up with mental illnesses.

“It is, therefore, imperative to deal with the phenomenon of OGBV and hate speech online against women. The practice should be strongly condemned in all its various forms as it is to the detriment of women and girls' psychosocial, political and economic wellbeing,” Manuela said.

She believes that concerted efforts should be applied to build cases for action against OGBV across the continent. More significantly in her view is the need for legal and policy reform processes. She adds that such actions are urgent and should be spearheaded by all progressive forces in society.

In tackling OGBV, she says it is important to build consensus from localities on definitions of the crimes, including across diverse languages in order to inform advocacy and programme implementations and evaluations.

Further that there is a need to promote a culture of "speaking out", where those who report abuses feel protected by the law enforcement agencies, judicial system and other relevant authorities.

Equally crucial is the need to address impunity so that survivors of online violence have access to effective remedies and psychosocial support services.

“It is with profound hope that this research contributes to understanding the nature and extent of OGBV against women that is largely unknown due to inhibitions including a lack of awareness, culture of silence, and lower levels of access to the internet and related technologies and weak accountability and reporting mechanisms,” Manuela said.

She says solutions to OGBV will be enhanced by harmonised and concrete strategies that effectively tackle the online violence committed against women, girls and equally and importantly other vulnerable groups such as LGBTIQ and people with disabilities in virtual spaces in the Southern African region.