With the use of internet and social media surging, Bangladesh has experienced a rise in gender-based cyber harassment. Despite comprising only about one-fifth of the nation’s social-media users, in 2016 alone, 73 percent of Bangladeshi women and girls online fell victim to this type of cybercrime.
In the absence of an adequate response from the government, a few organisations have taken up the fight against gender targeted cyber crime. Founded in 2016, Female Empowerment Movement (FEM) is one such organisation. Based in the capital Dhaka, FEM has launched a programme called Cyber Attorokkha—meaning “cyber self-defence” in Bengali—to train women and girls on how to keep safe online.
Zaiba Tahyya, co-founder of FEM, said that while running their flagship Project Attorokkha programme, which aims to ensure mobility and security of women in Dhaka’s slum areas, she realised that “women were not literate when it comes to cybersecurity,” making them particularly vulnerable to predators.
Motivated to take action, FEM project coordinator Tajwar Hoque designed the Cyber Attorokkha curriculum to teach women and girls—especially those from low-income areas—basic computing, self-protection in social media, and about email spamming and phishing (a tactic where fraudsters attempt to obtain sensitive identity information by disguising as a trustworthy third-party online).
Tanjina Akhter Tania, a graduate from the Cyber Attorokkha programme, recalls that a number of her local friends from the Korail slums in Dhaka have had bitter experiences with social media. One of them even considered suicide, she said, after an online acquaintance blackmailed her with her personal photos, trying to coerce her to marry him. However, with Tania’s help, the girl regained control of her identity online and successfully resisted the blackmailer. Sadly, Tahyya has met many such girls.
Online predators can simply download all the photos of the targeted girl from, say, her Facebook profile to create a fake profile. The next step would be to send friend requests to people that know her, which many of whom, unaware of the potential danger, would accept. And finally, defamation or scandal would follow—some have even involved girls’ faces being superimposed onto nude images of women—which would stir rumours about the girl in the neighbourhood or amongst her friends and family. The cybercriminals capitalise on the social stigma because the girls would traditionally not dare report the crime, lest it spread even further and provoke more cyber attacks.
Apart from social media, Tahyya said, Cyber Attorokkha also focuses on other aspects of online security. “We teach students a lot about device security and internet connection security such as public WiFi and how that’s unsafe,” she explained. “We teach them about the major hacking practices and how to steer clear of them—social engineering, primarily. Our lessons are not just based on Facebook, but take a more holistic approach towards online privacy and security.”
And these methods yield results. “Girls who were taught actually set guidelines in their households. They took actions and taught other girls on the importance of privacy and what it means when you are sharing information,” Tahyya explained. “We have seen that teaching one girl in one community worked as a ripple effect.”
Reflecting upon her experience as a graduate of the programme, Tania commented, “First of all, I now know how to defend myself online. Second, if I’m still somehow harassed, I know that I can go to the police and report them.” Confident in her rights, Tania added, “Silence is no option.”
Apart from online security, Cyber Attorokkha teaches girls about general computer skills, which can help them in the professional world. Since most girls are still in school, the project leans towards basic circuit components, programming and coding. “Some of them are working to make low-cost alarms for security,” Tahyya said with a hint of pride.
However, Tahyya’s journey was not an easy one. Recruiting young girls was a particular challenge, as parents didn’t feel it safe to send their children somewhere they didn’t know much about. “We had to start over, build a relationship and gain trust,” the co-founder said. And, being a woman leader was an inherent burden for her in Bangladesh’s conservative society. Sadly, landlords wanted to speak to a male and didn’t even want to entertain the idea of allocating a place for only females.
When asked what her future goal is, she was rather broad. “My main goal and vision is to increase mobility and visibility of women in Bangladesh in the real world as well as the cyber world,” Tahyya responded. “I want to decrease their vulnerability.