Are digital spaces only for men?

Image: Freepik

"As a woman, navigating online spaces in Bangladesh is quite challenging. Whether it's crude comments about women or gender minorities, news of violence and people making fun of it and victim blaming or problematic content - all of them affect me negatively and stay with me," shares Ahona Aroni Hassan, 26. While boasting about the growing digitalisation of the country, we can't ignore the other side of the coin - digital spaces are not yet safe for women in Bangladesh. According to a study by ActionAid Bangladesh in 2022, about 63.51 percent of women in the country face online harassment and violence. We must keep in mind that this is based on only the reported numbers, which means the real situation of digital safety of women in the country is tremendously alarming. 

"Offline public spaces, such as fairs, roads, and public transport, are so unsafe for women and girls that it's no surprise digital spaces can pose similar dangers. In both spaces, this can manifest as not only sexual harassment but also aggression, bullying, and use of obscene language," says Nobonita Chowdhury, Director of Gender, Justice and Diversity (GJD) and Preventing Violence Against Women Initiative, BRAC. In fact, cybercrime can sometimes be even more dangerous due to the layer of anonymity that cybercriminals possess. They can easily impersonate someone and lay a trap for the victim, and they can also hide their digital footprint, making it difficult to track them down and bring them to justice.  

One of the most common forms of harassment of women online is victim blaming. "Victim blaming is not confined to only physical spaces. When a woman speaks up about online harassment, people start to bombard her with questions such as why she posted photos online or wore such a dress in her photos -- and if she has followed all societal rules, then they will question why she is even using social media in the first place," explains Nobonita Chowdhury. This culture of victim blaming causes victims to think a hundred times before speaking up and reporting online harassment and violence. "Young women and girls usually don't even share with their parents since they commonly engage in victim blaming," shares Kaniz Fatema, CEO, Bangladesh Open Source Network (BdOSN).

While discussing safer digital spaces for women, we cannot exclude transwomen and gender-diverse people from the conversation. "From our surveys, we have found that huge numbers of transwomen and queer women face online abuse, especially fraud and blackmailing. Their safety and security online are so much at risk that many choose not to use social media. This paints the picture of a bigger problem - trans people do not have access to online spaces, and hence are deprived of important opportunities; for example, they miss job postings online," shares Lamea Tanjin Tanha, Founder and CEO, TransEnd.

"There is a need for more conversations on how women and girls have the right to exist in both offline and online spaces without facing harassment or violence. Legal action can't be the only solution to unsafe spaces - there also needs to be a behavioural change in society. We need to create an environment of mutual respect, where people stand up against harassment or violence instead of partaking in it. Social media etiquette should be taught through conversations in families and schools," she continues. Indeed, the Digital Security Act (DSA) 2018 has proven ineffective in protecting women against cyber violence, so resorting to legal action may not be the best approach.

"Many women and girls in Bangladesh do not maintain 'online hygiene' -- they do not have the awareness and knowledge of basic safety and security measures they need to follow when using digital spaces," says Kaniz Fatema. "BdOSN organises regular awareness sessions at academic institutions on online safety. We include both students and teachers in the sessions so that teachers are also aware of these issues and can help students when we are not there. Since a single organisation can't reach all women in Bangladesh, it's imperative that the government and other NGOs conduct similar sessions," she continues.

Another type of awareness session is also required, according to Lamea Tanjin Tanha. "We cannot forget that trans people also have digital rights as citizens of Bangladesh. We need to organise more awareness sessions for cisgender people so that they are aware of these rights and can learn to respect trans individuals. There should also be an app with resources for trans people on digital rights and safety, along with hotlines and website features. There is also a lack of data on the trans community concerning online safety, which needs to change. At TransEnd, we are already trying to change people's mindsets with our activities, such as our documentaries that portray a counter-narrative to the common misconceptions cisgender people have about trans people," she shares.   

While awareness building is crucial, there is no alternative to education. "I believe awareness sessions and seminars can't completely solve the problem at hand. Our national curriculum now includes a subject called Information and Communications Technology (ICT). We could include information on online safety in the curriculum of ICT so that students are equipped with this knowledge as early as class three," says Kaniz Fatema.

Finally, we must address the elephant in the room when discussing women's safety in the digital space. "There is a stark digital divide between men and women. We cannot talk about digital safety without ensuring all people, especially women, have equal access to the internet and technology," remarks Nobonita Chowdhury.

Therefore, we can see how breaking down the digital divide and ensuring access of all individuals, including women and gender-diverse people, to online spaces is vital. Simultaneously, their safety and security must be ensured so they can continue accessing online spaces and not be forced to go offline. Everyone deserves to be on the internet - safely.

Mayabee Arannya is a feminist activist leading the youth organisation Kotha.


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