The spectre of online sexual harassment | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, December 26, 2017 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:44 PM, December 26, 2017

The spectre of online sexual harassment

Yeanur Rahman came to Dhaka with big dreams. She studied hard, aced her final exams maintaining a good GPA and got admitted into a public university in the capital. Things were going exactly as she had envisioned. Better yet, the freshman thought she had fallen in love with someone in her very first year.

However, the relationship did not work out. It was a mature enough break-up, she thought, as the couple mutually decided to move on. Days later, all of Yeanur's assumptions took a pounding. She was horrified to find nude pictures of herself trending on her Facebook timeline. She became physically ill thinking of the consequences of her parents, relatives, friends—everyone—seeing these pictures.

Her face had been cropped onto a nude body and it was being shared by strangers. Some of them found it funny, some of them were saying horrible things about her. Living the dream in the capital turned into a nightmare.

The photo appeared with objectionable text, inappropriate comments and was posted in such a way as though she was making sexually provocative statements. It was clear that her ex was on a mission to destroy her reputation. He posted her pictures as a means of revenge for discontinuing the relationship. She called the man, but found his mobile switched off.

Twenty-five-year-old Naina Rahman from Brahmanbaria experienced something similar. A stranger had opened a fake account and photoshopped her face onto images of naked bodies. While she did complain to the Brahmanbaria Sadar Police Station she did not get any help. Desperate, Naina contemplated suicide, but was thankfully talked out of it.

Cases of sexual abuse online have been on the rise. While the country now has more than 80 million internet subscribers, issues like these haven't been addressed properly.

“We receive 20–25 complaints from girls a day,” says Jennifer Alam, President of Crime Research and Analysis Foundation (CRAF), an NGO that works on issues related to social media harassment.

“The problem is that most adolescent girls are unaware of this new type of crime. In this digital age, access to the internet and smartphones has made it possible for almost anyone to have a social media account. This is why more and more teenage girls are falling prey to some sort of sexual harassment or the other,” she adds.

Jennifer explains that the absence or dearth of sex education and the lack of awareness on harassment in social media are some of the reasons why so many girls are facing harassment. “People think it's a safe place to abuse a girl, whether it is out of revenge or hatred,” she says.

According to Minhar Mohsin, General Secretary of CRAF, these cases take different forms. Some blackmail girls for revenge, while others do it for money.

“Although jilted lovers are the common offenders, there have also been cases where couples claim that their Facebook profiles have been hacked and they are being threatened that their intimate photos will be shared online or shown to their parents if they don't pay money through bKash,” states Minhar.

Aside from data provided by CRAF, the number of cases filed under Section 57 of the Information and Communication Technology Act also suggests that sexual harassment online is quite common. More than 70 percent of the cases filed under the section are filed by teenage girls, according to a public prosecutor.

In addition, M Najmul Islam, Additional Deputy Commissioner of Social Media Monitoring of Counter-Terrorism and Cyber Crime told The Daily Star that cases of intimate videos of girls are also being uploaded on pornographic websites without the victims' knowledge.

CRAF believes that one of the key ways to alleviate this problem is to spread awareness based on internet literacy. CRAF initiated activities last November to teach girls how to take legal steps. “Cyber crimes on Facebook are alarming. I believe that if the perpatrator gets exemplary punishment then he will think twice before participating in such heinous acts,” says Jennifer.

However, activists say that law enforcement agencies are not well-equipped to deal with such matters.

Human rights activist, Nur Khan Liton, says, “These cases are not solved in a legal manner because law enforcement has limited knowledge as far as technological advancement is concerned. Police fail to trace perpetrators because they do not have the capability to fight cyber criminals.”

Another issue that Nur points out is the absence of a regional Facebook office in Bangladesh. “If Facebook authorities operate from Bangladesh, the number of harassment issues can be minimised as the victims can directly report the culprits,” he says.

The fear of public humiliation is another reason why such cases are often dismissed. “A girl is reluctant to complain to law enforcement because authorities would want verification and that would paint a poor picture of her in society,” he adds.              

According to Mahtabul Hakim, Programme Analyst, Ending Violence Against Women, UN Women Bangladesh, there is a need for dynamic prevention of cyber harassment. The perpetrator feels that attacking someone online is not a crime and thus is not as harmful as other crimes. But the truth is that such crimes attack the privacy and mental wellbeing of the victim; they can cause lifelong damage to the victim's reputation and even lead to suicide. Such online harassment should be considered violence against women and treated as such by the legal system.

Shadma Malik is a reporter at The Daily Star.

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