Sadia’s (pseudonym) world fell apart one morning when she found out her private photos were circulating online and went viral. She realised her former partner leaked those photos in the digital space out of sheer vindictiveness. She was subjected to endless harassment and bullying on social media platforms for weeks and was driven towards severe depression.
Many a woman like Sadia today is facing cyber harassment and bullying in the online space. According to the Cyber Crime Division of Dhaka, 80 percent of victims of online harassment are women, among which the majority of victims are aged between 16 and 17. A recent BBC report pointed out that the risk of harassment through social media is increasing at an alarming rate in Bangladesh, and in most cases, women and minors are the victims.
WHAT IS CYBER-HARASSMENT?
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines cyber harassment as the type of harassment that occurs using digital technology in the online space. It can happen on social media, messaging and gaming platforms, and mobile phones.
Repetitive behaviour, such as spreading lies against someone, sending embarrassing photos or posting video clips, sending abusive or threatening messages or images, and distributing offensive content through opening fake accounts in others’ names, falls under cyber harassment and bullying.
The sudden increase in cyber-harassment is primarily due to free access to modern devices and social media. Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber, IMO and other social media platforms allow us to navigate the virtual world with hardly any oversight or monitoring. Adolescents, an age group usually vulnerable and susceptible to manipulation, enter and sail through the virtual world, often without parental supervision and control. In urban and rural areas, young girls are groomed, coaxed and often intimidated by their partners to share their private photos and videos, eventually leading them to become victims of vicious cyber crimes, threats and blackmail.
The Police Cyber Support for Women was launched in November 2020. A total of 17,280 women contacted the unit in the first year. All of them were victims of cyber-harassment and bullying in one way or other. Last year, the Cyber Crime Investigation division worked with more than 900 cases in Dhaka, where women were found to be more susceptible to becoming victims of ‘sextortion,’ i.e. blackmailing with intimate photographs or videos.
HOW CAN WE PREVENT AND REPORT CYBER-HARASSMENT?
The Digital Security Act 2018 has been enacted with the overarching goal of addressing cyber harassment by identifying and preventing the crime committed using digital technology. Section 25 of the Act deals with sharing or publishing any data in a digital medium that is offensive, threatening or even false. Bangladesh Police have also initiated a special cyber support service known as “Police Cyber Support for Women”, providing female victims of cyber crimes or harassment with necessary assistance and guidance. This support service through female officers provides victims with technical and legal assistance. The victims of cyber harassment and bullying can also report their grievances to the official Facebook page of the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of Bangladesh Police by submitting evidence of their harassment or bullying.
Adequately sensitised communities and institutions and rightly placed robust preventive and reporting mechanisms are prerequisites for creating a safe online space for women. An example of such an extensive sensitisation initiative is “AGNEE”, a project under which BRAC currently works with 80 secondary schools in Rajshahi and Gazipur districts with support from the European Union. AGNEE provides intensive training to 16,000 students and their teachers on awareness and prevention of gender-based violence and sexual harassment in their schools, public transport and digital platforms.
Effective implementation of laws and policies is another prerequisite for preventing and curbing cyber harassment and bullying. With laws adequately implemented and robust awareness among adolescents, families, communities and local leaders, responsible internet use will increase, enabling women and girls to navigate the digital world safely.
[Barrister Jenefa Jabbar is the director of Social Compliance and Safeguarding at BRAC]