It is estimated that one in 10 women have already experienced some form of cyber violence since the age of 15.
Research also suggests women are disproportionately the targets of certain forms of online harassment and cyber stalking. This is according to a report complied by the European Institute for Gender Equality titled Cyber Violence Against Women And Girls in June 2017. It defines online harassment as – but not limited to – unwanted, explicit online messages; hate speech, insults or threats; and inappropriate or offensive advances on social networks.
In South Africa, the Protection from Harassment Act covers both online and physical harassment. For those who think they can hide behind the anonymity of sending emails or SMSes, the act requires service providers to give the addresses and ID numbers of perpetrators to the courts.
Social media law specialist Emma Sadleir of The Digital Law Company says if someone is sending you threatening messages, you should block them immediately.
“Don’t feed the trolls, don’t give them the airtime they seek.”
Sadleir stresses the importance of using privacy settings; and the ‘block and report’ functions across social media.
“You can take legal action by getting a protection order; sending a letter of demand; or a cease and desist letter,” explains Sadleir.
A local journalist and author Shubnum Khan was a victim of stalking and online harassment. It started off innocently through a primary school friend who wanted to catch up after 18 years.
But, he wanted more from Khan and claimed she was giving him mixed messages. “If I sent a message to tell him to leave me alone because I wasn’t interested, he would say I made a typo,” says Khan.
The messages became intense when he spoke about their wedding, and referred to Khan as his wife.
When I stopped replying to his messages or calls and eventually blocked him, he took to harassing me on Twitter, says Khan. “I think social media became a platform where he felt he could force himself on to me because it was in a public space and I was active there.”
“I considered police action when he came to my house. I was so afraid to leave home because I thought he might be waiting somewhere – to this day, I get nervous every time I see a black BMW,” says Khan.
The turning point came when he posted photos of her house on Twitter.
“A few people tweeted at SAPS when he posted photos of the front of my house, but my father managed to phone his family and it died down from there.
“I consulted with a police officer as to what my next steps should be and I was considering taking out a restraining order just before it died down.
“I think having a profession where you’re in the public eye doesn’t help. Sometimes, people read my personal essays or novel and think they ‘know’ me and understand what I need or want.
“I’m more careful about what I post now, but due to the nature of my work it’s a difficult place to negotiate,” says Khan.
“Twitter suspended the account and I feel better about it but things can quickly spiral out of control so I would suggest finding a balance in what you post in public.”
Sadleir thinks social media companies are failing their users, and should be better and quicker at responding.
“For me the problem lies in the anonymity, they are not very good at providing information about who started the account, with what device, and the IP address, which is information they have.”
“The truth is they don’t give a damn about South African laws, or any laws,” concludes Sadleir. – Written by Nafisa Akabor
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