The Truth About Cyber Harassment And Digital Rights For Women

09/06/2017 05:00 pm ET Updated Sep 06, 2017

Nighat Dad gave a powerful talk at TEDGlobal this year in Tanzania about cyber harassment and women's rights. As a Pakistani lawyer and Internet activist who founded The Digital Rights Foundation, Dad has risked her life to help women share their voices on the web. To explain why this issue matters, Dad, a new TED Fellow, in Arusha, shared with my friend, Beth Doane, about her work. In this intimate piece, Dad shares the truth about cyber harassment and digital rights for women globally.

1. Why did you focus your life's work on the cyber harassment of women specifically?

I studied law in Pakistan, in an environment where women are not encouraged to acquire education, let alone attend a law school. While I was studying, I didn’t have the freedom to own a mobile phone because it was considered “the source of all evil”. Not because my family questioned my intentions, instead, they were barring me from accessing the technology because they didn’t trust those who could possibly harass me through mobile phone. I wondered why I was the one to bear the consequences of someone else’s actions. I didn’t own a mobile phone until I got married.

When I began studying digital rights and founded the Digital Rights Foundation, I attempted to get the answer to this question: why are women made to suffer the consequences of something they haven’t done? During my sessions on digital security at schools and universities across Pakistan, young women would come to me and tell me how they were forced to get off the Internet because somebody sent them unsolicited messages. Their families blamed them instead of addressing the issue. These girls often blamed themselves for what they experienced because nobody was supporting them. Often, when families did take action against the harasser, the officers at the law enforcement agencies would blame the girls for putting up their pictures online, or posting something that the officers didn’t deem appropriate. The girls didn’t have the necessary help, to say the least.

That’s when I, and my team at Digital Rights Foundation, established Pakistan’s first Cyber Harassment Helpline in December 2016. Through my organization, victims of cyber harassment can call in and receive confidential services like legal advice, psychological counseling, and digital security advice.

2. How common is cyber harassment globally and why are women at higher risk than men?

No woman, no matter how famous or unknown - is immune to online trolls. From Malala Yousufzai to any young woman, we all are vulnerable to online harassment. Women are particularly susceptible because their voices still aren’t always welcome in the public sphere. In many societies across the globe, there’s a patriarchal notion that women shouldn’t have a social standing of their own. So, women get rape and death threats, just because a woman posted something they didn’t agree with.

The problem is this - online harassment is as real as offline harassment. It doesn’t happen in vacuum, instead it stems or results in offline violence. If someone is being stalked online, often times their personal safety could be in danger. Online devices are used to locate the location of a person if the proper digital security precautions are not taken.

There have been cases where women have been hurt because their online identity was revealed; Pakistan’s social media celebrity, Qandeel Baloch, was murdered by her own brother last year. Furthermore, we handle multiple cases where families discontinue education or access to mobility due to “transgressions” online.

2. What are digital rights and why does this matter?

Digital rights refer to the rights of people to safely access digital spaces, as they please. From possessing a mobile phone, to accessing the Internet, expressing one’s opinions online, or having the necessary legal safeguard to protect oneself against unwarranted monitoring - these are a few things that come under the bracket of digital rights.

Digital rights are human rights – the United Nations confirmed as much when they declared access to technology a basic human right in 2010. It’s important to acknowledge these rights as human rights because in the technological era such as this, our whole lives are practically online, saved in the form of codes that are sensitive in nature. Often, it’s not just about the information being online, it’s also about the access to basic technology for the information to go online. Having no infrastructure around accessing technology is one thing, but forcefully refraining people from accessing it is another - example, internet shutdowns, and cyber harassment that results in people leaving the cyber spaces for indefinite period of time. It’s important to talk about these rights because they affect the masses.

3. What has proven most successful so far in curbing cyber harassment?

Having laws against such crimes is crucial. It’s also important to note that the work doesn’t end on passing a law. It’s important to implement these laws, and unfortunately, implementation has been weak in the context of PECA in Pakistan.

The government of Pakistan passed the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) in August 2016 to provide legal relief to the victims of harassment. The Digital Rights Foundation, along with others, lobbied for the amendments to the law when it was still a bill because of its vague nature. The bill was amended and passed into a law. This law has criminalized the many cyber crime issues that affected people’s safe access of technology, including cyber harassment. As we move forward with our activities, we’re educating people of their rights under this law and the safeguards that this law provides.

4. How can people support your work?

Digital Rights Foundation is a small organization that welcomes any support it can get, to ensure sustainability. We would welcome having people spread the word. They can reach out to us at info@digitalrightsfoundation.pk.

Follow Maimah on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook; and Beth Doane on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

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