The Internet, Information and communication technologies (ICTs) and Social Media can be powerful tools and platforms to enhance gender equality and empower women. Thanks to social media, blogs and apps, women have been able to speak out against societal ills that they face and been able to form supportive networks in Facebook groups like Kilimani Mums, which was instrumental in organising the #MyDressMyChoice protest late last year. The Deadbeat Kenya page also caused a lot of controversy last year when it was created for women to expose their partners for not paying child support. Apps have also been created to help women report gender based violence. Strategic Applications International (SAI) partnered with Usalama Innovative Systems to develop the SEMA app, which is a G.B.V. reporting mobile phone application that connects the user to emergency hotline numbers, service providers and priority persons in their contact list in cases of emergency. It also connects the user to the One2One counselling hotline number.
However ICTs can also be a threat to women’s physical and emotional integrity when used to perpetrate technology-related (cyber) violence. Cyber violence can be defined as any form of gender based violence expressed through ICTs such as mobile phones, video games and the Internet. There are several ways in which cyber violence can be perpetrated including sending demeaning comments and insults, sending threats via text or e-mail, publishing or sharing sexually explicit pictures, audio and videos without the expressed consent/ knowledge of the person concerned, recording, photographing and documenting acts of sexual violence for further distribution and sharing, and so on.
The ICT sector in Kenya has grown rapidly over the past few years, and mobile phone penetration is up to 80%. According to the Communications Authority of Kenya, 32.8 million Kenyans are subscribed to a mobile network. These mobile networks are in constant competition to offer cheaper bundles and phone offers in order to draw customers in. Even when companies have promotions and giveaways, be it banks, supermarkets, radio stations, most of the prizes are either laptops, smartphones, power banks and other related products. The ease at which one can get a mobile device with an Internet connection makes it easy for us to communicate, however not everyone has good intentions. There are those who can take advantage of the accessibility and anonymity to harass, stalk and abuse others. Because all one needs is a mobile phone, abuse can be done without any physical contact and from anywhere with network.
With little fear of detection, apprehension or punishment, the degradation and humiliation of others has become a sport. Once intimate pictures are released by angry former partners for revenge purposes. Socialites and celebrities are insulted through their Twitter accounts, Instagram comments and in online forums. Entertainment sites tend to capitalise on such moments for clicks and shock value, and as a result of competition amongst sites, the more explicit and outrageous the material, the better. Of late, there has been a steady rise of abuse being carried out in tech related ways and I decided to highlight a few.
#Mollis Audio Tape
In recent weeks there was an audio clip that was doing the rounds on social media that generated lots of controversy. The #Mollis tape has been debated at length, with one side laughing and applauding the man in the clip, Morris, for being a ‘strong man’ and having great sexual prowess, and the other side appalled at the audio itself. In the audio clip, the woman involved tells Morris to stop, but he refuses and goes on. After her protests go unheeded, she eventually relents and lets him finish.
Blogger Daniel Ominde asks in his post:
“Does a woman have a right to say STOP in the middle of sex?
When a woman says STOP does it mean “I am having fun continue?
When does consensual sex turn into sexual abuse?”
What is disturbing about the tape was that she told him to stop but he did not. Even if the two did seem to know one another, she did not want him to continue, but he disregarded her instructions and continued. STOP is not an encouraging word, she was either in pain or discomfort, and that alone was withdrawal of her consent in the sexual act. Once a person withdraws consent, be it a man or a woman, and it is disregarded, that immediately becomes a violation of their bodies and is totally unacceptable. If you are given consent to engage in sexual acts with another person, that consent is not permanent and can be withdrawn at any given time.
The origins of the tape are still unknown, we do not know how or why the tape was in circulation. It has however been posted on several entertainment sites, blogs and forums and sent to several people via WhatsApp and e-mail. The audio tape and the impact it has made will continue to exist for a long time or even indefinitely. While some people will forget and move on, those involved could face consequences. If it was released without the knowledge or permission of the woman involved, she could experience shame, fear, sadness and anxiety, reduced productivity at work and so on. There are those who could recognise her voice and use it against her to damage her reputation. It could take a toll on her physical and mental health, leading to stress and stress related illnesses, as well as depression and feelings of suicide. All those who propagated the tape, (by sharing and distributing it, making inappropriate memes and jokes, calling her all sorts of names) would be ultimately complicit in some way or another should the consequences affect her so drastically.
Nyeri Students On School Bus
In the same week of the #Mollis incident, police in Central Kenya impounded a bus carrying students who were going home for the August holidays and discovered alcohol, cigarettes, miraa and several rolls of marijuana. Some of the students were already intoxicated and there were alleged reports of sexual activity in the bus. At the police station, one of the female students was found to have hidden some contraband in her underwear, and was forced to strip as photographs were taken of her genitalia and face. These photos, taken intentionally to embarrass the girl, were then leaked onto social media and circulated quickly.
The police officer who yanked off her underwear as well as the photographer who took the pictures behaved in a deplorable manner and should face the law. While the student did plead guilty to possession of narcotics, she should not have had to endure such a humiliating experience. Provisions in the Constitution of Kenya [Article 51(1) and Article 29(f)] guarantee a person who is detained or held in custody all the rights and fundamental freedoms as well as the right not to be treated or punished in a cruel inhuman or degrading manner. Instead of stripping and humiliating an under-age student, the police could have used their power to investigate how those students gained access to those narcotics. Wasn’t there a government crackdown on second generation brews? What good was the exercise if students in school uniform can still access and purchase alcohol? Who sold the alcohol to them? Aren’t there laws against such? Shaming and parading the students involved might be a deterrent to other children, while others might just find more creative ways to ensure that they do not get caught.
What makes the whole matter worse is that the female student is a minor, and treating a minor in such an abusive manner is perverse and predatory behaviour. Those pictures would not be necessary in the court of law because the evidence of the narcotics themselves would have been enough. One has to ask, for whom were those pictures being taken for? Those pictures were taken for a specific audience, perverts and paedophiles who would be pleased by what they were seeing. Her abuse was performed for the camera and it quickly found an audience.
Publishing and sharing sexually explicit photos of minors is a sexual offence. An independent data company, East African Data Handlers, revealed the social media user who leaked the photos of the schoolgirl to be Dagitari Wanjohi, who is behind the twitter handle @Wakigogoine. While it is unclear whether the user is the one who personally took the photos or was sent to him by the police officers, it is clear that the first appearance on social media was his work. He and all those who retweeted and picked up on the post are responsible for causing her mental distress.
Ann Mbaru’s Instagram Post
It is not uncommon to hear of cases of women being assaulted by taxi drivers, who turned on them in the middle of their ride. Most women are advised to have the number of a taxi driver that they trust, to prevent situations like that from happening. Companies like Easy Taxi and Uber have penetrated the local market and usually do background checks in order to verify that their drivers are trained and can be accounted for. Unfortunately there are still cases of women feeling unsafe and being placed in terrible situations.Former Kenyan Big Brother contestant Ann Mbaru, took to social media after being sexually assaulted by a taxi driver during her night out. In an Instagram post, she described how the taxi driver disrespected her, fondled her breasts and told her to shut up.
I almost got raped this morning by a taxi man. I never disclose personal… https://t.co/vqWB46oWCS
— Ann Mbaru (@AnnMbaru) August 16, 2015
It was only after she threatened the man with the names of powerful people that she managed to escape. She received a number of consoling messages, mostly from women who had either experienced the same or hadn’t but still understood the situation she was in. However there were trolls who took to insulting her. She was accused of lying for attention and doing PR stunts for a cab company she recommended to others in the post. Others made incorrect conclusions about her state of mind and dressing, they accused her of being intoxicated and indecently dressed (as if that makes one somewhat deserving of assault.) One post even said “never believe these ladies.” Instead of receiving support after such a traumatic experience, she was subjected to relentless insults and attacks on her character, which undoubtedly compounded the psychological effects of the original incident.
The reactions to her post were despicable, to say the least. It takes a lot of courage for a woman to speak out on any incident of sexual assault, as they risk being accused of being dressed indecently or being intoxicated. Blaming a victim for their assault obfuscates the facts of what happened; instead of focusing on the person who committed the act of violating another person, it focuses on the victim’s behaviour, which reverses the moral accountability. Such reactions are precisely why a large number of incidents like this go unreported, which explains why rape culture is so prevalent in the country. With less than 30% of rapes and sexual assault being reported, and an even lower conviction rate of those actually reported, this means there are more than a few actual rapists walking around.
These are simply a few examples of the type of cyber violence that happens on Kenyan social media platforms. It is quickly becoming a usual phenomenon, with an incident like this happening almost weekly. The Internet can be a place to express opinions, tell jokes and anecdotes. It can also be used for positive social change, as seen in the recent crowdfunding attempt #1MillionForJadudi, that raised Ksh 6.4M for a cancer patient in less than 48 hours. However there are undesirable elements who use anonymous profiles to propagate harmful opinions and provocative items on an Internet forum in the hope of inciting a hostile, naïve or corrective response.
Simply sharing these images on Whatsapp, Twitter or Facebook makes you a factor in the normalization of terrible behaviours in society. The culture of sexual violence will never change as long as it is considered entertainment.