BY EVANS MATHANDA
The number of female leaders and activists being subjected to online abuse in Zimbabwe has reached worrying proportions.
Social media debate is encouraged to share divergent views and to promote democracy, but to some this has only made cyber bullying worse, with reports of some female activists deactivating their social media accounts to escape the abuse online.
Cyber bullying has negative consequences for both the offender and the victim.
A number of women in Zimbabwe and abroad have raised issues over unwanted aggressive behaviours by their male counterparts, especially on social media.
Recently electoral watchdogs and women’s rights groups cited cyber bullying as a major factor that discourages women from actively participating in politics and in the decision-making processes, whether economically or politically.
Female politicians have experienced cyber bullying on the micro-blogging site Twitter, notwithstanding that the emergence of social media has generally provided women, particularly aspiring women leaders with an alternative space to have their voices heard in real time.
According to a research by the Zimbabwe Electoral Support Network, Twitter has been a toxic environment for local female leaders.
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Cyber violence is an increasing problem worldwide with some saying it is often gender-based and targeting women and girls.
Predominantly, the root cause of cyber-violence against women and girls is gender inequality.
Violence and abuse online may limit women’s right to express themselves equally, freely and without fear, women are often silenced, according to Citizen Coalition for Change vice-president Lynette Karenyi-Kore.
Cyber-attacks and violence against women are often not taken seriously by law enforcement agencies locally.
It is high time the responsible authorities address cyber bullying the same way they deal with any other forms of violence against women and by using all the tools at their disposal.
Twitter has its own regulations, which state that anyone who violates the platform’s rules will be suspended and it has suspended a lot of accounts.
But the challenge is that in Zimbabwe people will use languages such as Shona or Ndebele, which Twitter cannot deal with.
Some social media experts have since suggested that Twitter should come up with a system that reads all languages to curb rampant cyber-attacks.
In 2017, women around the world boycotted Twitter for a day, using the hashtag, #WomenBoycottTwitter.
It was a backlash against what many perceived to be Twitter’s inadequate response to abuse on the platform, and it led to many women sharing examples of horrendous online abuses that they had experienced.
Much of this abuse clearly violated Twitter’s community standards and yet it had not been removed.
The biggest responsibility must come from the users, who should create content that does not harm the third party.
I believe that verbal abuse as one of the ugly facets of gender-based violence is not to be tolerated and neither should it be ignored.
Opinion leaders and social media users must have a responsibility to lead their audiences by example.
And everyone has a responsibility to join the fight against gender-based violence through their social media platforms setting a good example.
To deal with this, we must stand in solidarity with victims of cyber bullying and continue amplifying this social problem as we take steps to eradicate gender-based violence (GBV) in all its forms.
GBV occurs in all spaces and spheres of human interaction, whether public or private, but cyber attacks have been on the rise.
On December 3, 2021, Zimbabwe enacted the Data Protection Act, to curb cyber crimes but more needs to be done by both the government and citizens to guarantee the safety of women on online spaces.
The cyber law must be explicit on penalties for those who harass women online, including clear protection provisions for women in politics like what was done in South Africa.
Citizens themselves must be responsible and desist from attacking and discrediting women online.
A new research by Amnesty International has revealed the alarming impact that abuse and harassment on social media are having on women, with women around the world reporting stress, anxiety, or panic attacks as a result of these harmful online experiences.
This has opened up a global debate about what social media platforms should be doing to respond to the misogynistic abuse that is so prevalent online.
No to cyber bullying.
- Evans Mathanda is a journalist and development practitioner who writes in his personal capacity. For feedback email: firstname.lastname@example.org or call 0719770038 and Twitter @EvansMathanda19