Student leaders often targeted in ‘rife’ online violence

The cyberstalking, trolling, doxxing and Zoom-bombing of women, alongside hate speech on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp groups, are online gender-based violence weapons that have been rife – and they are hard to combat.

A 2022 publication by UN Women, Accelerating Efforts to Tackle Online and Technology-Facilitated Violence Against Women and Girls, shows that, although violence against women and girls in the digital contexts is not a new phenomenon, it worsened during COVID-19.

Moreover, research indicates that students did not know how to protect themselves from online bullying; neither did they know their digital rights, nor the legal frameworks to follow while reporting online violence – all areas in which universities can play an active role.

It is against this backdrop that organisations working with young women, including students, have been working to combat online violence, in particular during the United Nations’ 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, which is observed annually from 25 November (International Day of No Violence Against Women) to 10 December (International Human Rights Day).

The No Violence Against Women and Girls campaign, this year titled ‘Unite! Activism to end violence against women and girls’, has aimed to support women’s rights by advocating for an end to gender-based violence, including sexual harassment, physical violence, forced marriages, psychological violence, and online violence.

Students’ experiences

Salim Razina Msalam, treasurer for the University of Nairobi Students Association, Image provided

On campuses, young women in leadership roles often become targets, as Salim Razina Msalam and Yvonne Yael Otieno told University World News.

Msalam, a third-year journalism and mass communication student at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, has experienced online violence.

In March this year, Msalam vied for a leadership post as treasurer for the University of Nairobi Students Association (UNSA). She used digital campaign platforms including Facebook, Twitter and WhatsApp groups.

Msalam said she experienced online violence in the form of hateful comments that questioned her morals as she pursued the leadership position.

“I used to share my campaign posters on WhatsApp groups during the campaign period for my current post and I used to get hateful comments on the platform, but I could do nothing because I could not leave or block all the haters; it was an institutional forum.

“Some guy even told me that I was sleeping around to get the post, but he did not have evidence. It was not true but pure hate,” she said.

Msalam said that it was hurtful and difficult to stay sane in the forum because of vote hunting, and the least she could do was to try to save her reputation by dismissing the claims, but the more she did that, the more things spiralled, forcing her to stay quiet and minimise the harm.

“I think women are sometimes number one haters online, hating each other because they always find a reason to bash other women, no matter how innocent a picture looks. For instance, when you post, they will either body shame or criticise [you] …” she recounted.

But, she also recalls a couple of both male and female students in the forum defending her.

Msalam (22) said universities should take the issue of online violence against young women – who are a substantial proportion of the student population – seriously, to enhance their mental health.

“Online violence curtails freedom of speech and peace of mind. Therefore, a lot of ongoing awareness on digital safety needs to take place and victims of online violence [should be] given therapy sessions. Online spaces are not safe, and, in Kenya, Twitter is worse because people ride on hashtags to bully others.”

Trauma, fear and anxiety

Yvonne Yael Otieno, the president of the Students Council at Mount Kenya University, is a fourth-year BA student pursuing a public relations and diplomacy qualification.

She, too, has been a victim of online violence. She says that all that comes to her mind when she hears about online violence is trauma, fear and anxiety.

Pictures of her in a bikini were displayed on the dating site Tinder during campus political campaigns when a fake account was created in her name to shame her.

Being a model, her modelling photographs (in a bikini) were published on Tinder without her knowledge and she was subjected to online bullying and ridicule. She has never found out who was behind the vice but she suspects a close female friend who was supporting her opponent in the campus campaign.

“I was devastated at that time and I remember I skipped school for almost a week before voting day. People’s reactions to photos on the fake account made me feel bad,” she recalled.

“Women are the most subjected to online violence because, in a patriarchy, men tend to get away with anything. Women, on the other hand, are dictated to by society on how to behave and present themselves. For instance, a man posing bare-chested on social media is portrayed as handsome, while a lady posing in a bikini is condemned for nudity, hence exposed to online trolls and bullying.”

Otieno (23) believes that online violence against women and girls is rife because social media users lack proper education on digital safety and digital etiquette.

She added that universities should be monitoring online spaces to protect students, especially during campus leadership campaigns and other activities, as this will instil behaviour change and shape individual morals now and in the future.

E-safety education

A February research paper titled, ‘A strategy to enhance e-safety among first-year students at Zimbabwean universities’, highlights the need to educate students and young people about the benefits, risks and responsibilities of e-safety.

E-safety measures protect and raise awareness so that users can control their online experiences and aims to improve the behaviour of people using the internet.

Researchers used questionnaires, and a total of 159 out of 172 – or 92% – of the questionnaires were completed.

Some of the respondents said that they would react to a text, e-mail, photograph, video, or tagging that was humiliating online by only responding to comments of persons they know and ignoring those they did not know. Others said that they would be angry at mean comments on digital platforms and delete them immediately.

The research results showed that the awareness of e-safety among university students was low and there is a need for an e-safety strategy as students spend a substantial portion of their time on non-educational content. The high volume of messages also suggests a high level of addiction to digital platforms.

Badili Africa, a non-profit organisation, tackles barriers that prevent young women from running for political governance positions at universities where they are under-represented. The barriers are, for example, gender-based violence and online violence.

In line with the 16 Days of Activism theme to eradicate violence against women and girls, especially online violence, Badili Africa empowers young university students in about 10 Kenyan universities with digital knowledge to navigate digital spaces safely and drive advocacy campaigns towards online safety.

Data from a survey conducted by Badili Africa in 2020 showed that 99% of students did not know how to protect themselves from online bullying; neither did they know their digital rights, nor the legal frameworks to follow while reporting online violence. About 76% of participants had experienced some type of online security breach or knew someone who had been affected.

The survey sought to find out if students knew their digital rights, and was also geared towards encouraging young women in universities to have a voice on online platforms as an opportunity provided by the digital space to learn and work.

“[The] majority of the people who have been pushed away from online spaces because of harassment were young women aged between 18 and 25. They are likely to be trolled, deactivate their social media accounts, or delete them completely,” said Bina Maseno, the executive director of Badili Africa.

To stay in line with the 16 Days of Activism theme, Ephraim Muchemi, the deputy regional centre manager for IREX East Africa, recommends that universities should work together to combat online violence against students.

IREX focuses on empowering the youth, cultivating community leaders, and enabling access to education and information through teacher training and journalist safety programmes.

“It would be prudent for leaders to mentor young women on campuses, especially victims of online violence, by guiding them and restoring their confidence, especially those in leadership positions who have also experienced online violence and understand it,” said Muchemi.