The Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA) welcomes the Resolution by the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ (ACHPR) on the Protection of Women Against Digital Violence in Africa.
The Resolution which was passed during the ACHPR’s 72nd Ordinary Session held virtually from July 19 to August 2, 2022, among other things, called on states to undertake awareness-raising programmes about the root causes of digital violence against women within the general context of gender-based violence. According to the ACHPR, when states effectively carry out this initiative, it will bring about changes in socio-cultural attitudes and remove gender norms and stereotypes, while promoting the respect of fundamental rights in the online space, particularly on social media platforms.
The ACHPR in the Resolution cited Article 1 of the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa (the Maputo Protocol) which defines violence against women to include acts that cause psychological or economic harm, threats, arbitrary restrictions on or deprivation of fundamental freedoms.
It is increasingly becoming a dismal reality that these acts of violence are being replicated online. There is a wealth of research that shows that women are more likely to suffer abuse online in Africa due to a number of factors, including existing gender stereotypes against women offline that naturally spill over into the digital space. Women, for instance are usually more conscious about their security online compared to men because of the tradition of abuse that they suffer.
Besides being fueled by gender stereotypes, the growing incidents of digitally-enhanced attacks on women also has an economic dimension. Comparatively higher rates of poverty among women in many societies means that a woman is more likely to own a phone or computer that has weaker safety capabilities. Lower incomes also often translate into less digital literacy, including in safety skills.
A 2019 Afrobarometer report indicated that women are less likely than men to “own a mobile phone, to use it every day, to have a mobile phone with access to the Internet, to own a computer, to access the Internet regularly, and to get their news from the Internet or social media.”
“Given that the number of women online is fewer, the scale of attacks targeted at the them in digital spaces as compared to men is worryingly disproportionate. In view of the lopsided targeting of women, coupled with the complex factors conspiring against women, the ACHPR’S call to action could not have been more timely and appropriate” said Vivian Affoah, Programme Manager for Digital Rights at the Media Foundation for West Africa (MFWA).
However, while, the call for education and sensitization is welcome, there is some heavy lifting that needs to be done, including ensuring real commitment by governments to adopt policies to empower women economically and institute direct laws against digital violence. Also crucial in achieving improved safety for women online is the complimentary role of the media, civil society organizations and other stakeholders can intensify advocacy.
As a freedom of expression group, the MFWA under its Digital Rights Programme, has over the years focused extensively on women’s rights online. In line with this, we have promoted women’s access to digital tools, their digital capacity and the attendant issues of security, safety online. This has been carried out through research and documentation, engagements with governments, policy briefs and other sector stakeholders, capacity-building workshops, and online advocacy across West Africa, especially in Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone. In the last two years, the MFWA has trained over 300 female journalists, bloggers and activists in Ghana on how to be safe online.
The ACHPR resolution affirmed Article 3 of the Protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women which guarantees every woman’s right to dignity and to protection from being exploited and degraded, and from all forms of violence, particularly sexual and verbal violence.
The Commission said there is an urgent need to criminalise digital violence against women under domestic national laws. It also urged States to review legislative frameworks in order to rid them of discriminatory laws that exacerbate violence against women in order to afford them better protection.
Finally, the ACHPR called on States to:
- Review/adopt legislation that aims at combating all forms of digital violence, and expanding the definition of gender-based violence to include digital violence against women including cyber-harassment, cyberstalking, sexist hate speech amongst other ICT-related violations;
- Undertake research on digital violence against women. This research should include studies and the adjustment of crime statistics on digital violence against women to identify legislative and non-legislative needs;
- Undertake awareness-raising programmes which target boys and men, as well as campaigns involving all relevant stakeholders. These programmes should address the root causes of digital violence against women within the general context of gender-based violence in order to bring about changes in social and cultural attitudes and remove gender norms and stereotypes, while promoting the respect of fundamental rights in the online space, with special regard to social media platforms;
- Facilitate women’s access to education in digital technology domains in order to remove the digital gender gap, and ensure gender diversity in the tech sector;
- Undertake mandatory and continuous training for practitioners and professionals dealing with victims of digital violence including law enforcement authorities, social and child healthcare staff, criminal justice actors and members of the Judiciary;
- Ensure and facilitate effective cooperation between law enforcement authorities and service providers with regard to the identification of perpetrators and gathering of evidence, which should be in full compliance with fundamental rights and freedoms and data protection rules.
- Implement victim-friendly and gender-sensitive policies when handling cases of digital violence against women;
- Undertake measures to safeguard women journalists from digital violence, including gender-sensitive media literacy and digital security training;
- Repeal vague and overly wide laws on surveillance as they contribute to the existing vulnerability of female journalists.
The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights, established by the African Charter is mandated to promote and protect human and people’s rights through sensitization, public mobilization and information. The Commission also interpretates the provisions of the African Charter upon a request of a state party, organs of the African Union (AU) or an individual.