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Online Gender Based Violence in the Gambia: The Need For Collective Action

This graphic is by Ousainou Jonga and an Equals Now property 

This contribution is by Fatoumata Nagib, an Equals Now Digital Volunteer and a Gambian student of the African Leadership University, Rwanda. She is a feminist and an advocate against GBV in The Gambia.  You can connect with Fatoumata on: Email: fatoumatanagib@gmail.com and : LinkedIn

For the longest time, Gender-Based Violence (GBV) has remained a nightmare and one of the most pressing challenges facing women and girls around the world. An estimate by the United Nations puts it that 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced forms of GBV, either physical and/or sexual at some point in their lives. The same estimate showed that approximately 15 million adolescent girls worldwide have experienced forced sex at some point in their life, while more than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by a current or former intimate partner. In the past, for this to happen, it required physical contact between the perpetrator and the victim. But towards the end of the last decade, a new form of Violence Against Women has taken the form i.e Online Gender-Based Violence. In 2019, a survey conducted by the “InternetWithoutBorders’ reported that 45.5% of Facebook and Twitter users in The Gambia have experienced some form of online GBV but only 15% of these women have reported the issue. This has been through recent advancement in technology, specifically with the growth of social media and other internet networks. As put by SIDA (Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency), Online Gender Based Violence is used to attack, oppress and silence women, girls and LGBTQ+ persons in private and public spaces. “This is particularly targeted at demography because of the limited laws available for their protection (offline) and how the internet is mostly the safest platform for expression, especially LGBTQ+ people in a country where their right to their sexuality has  been denied through criminalization”. 

Online GBV, particularly in The Gambia, targets feminists and activists who advocate for the rights of women and girls. For these women,  the internet is a key advocacy tool to help them reach their audience and work towards a better Gambia for women. Digital advocacy and activism  has been seen to be on the rise for some years now in The Gambia, almost on all platforms especially Facebook “as it was used to mobilise in the December 2016 elections which also prompted a government internet shutdown by the then incumbent”. The use of  Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), such as accessibility of gadgets social media platforms, and email in The Gambia is scoring higher in online gender based violence in the region, especially for women Equals Now is currently implementing project  a funded by the Association for Progressive Communications – Take Back the Tech  Small Grants to raise awareness on Online Gender Based Violence and have so far released interviews with women in different sectors who have experienced Online GBV in The Gambia in many forms. As a culturally conservative country, especially for women, the recent advancements in technology and lack of safety of women on the internet lets perpetrators target Gambian women and girls who would otherwise not be reached physically and who use these online platforms as an escape route to tell their stories or create awareness.

A classic example of this was captured in the project proposal by Equals Now; young school going girls have been victims of Non-Consensual Distribution of Image and Videos online and the action taken was to expel them by their schools and targeted on the internet for harassment. Just like those girls, Gambian women and girls continue to be sexually harassed and threatened through means such as non-consensual image sharing, doxxing, trolling, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos, and threat of physical violence by their perpetrators among other forms of Online GBV.  As a 2020 publication by Policy, a Ugandan-based tech organisation, put it, “The internet, once viewed as a utopia for equality, is proving to be the embodiment of old systems of oppression and violence.”

One would wonder whether or not there are laws against gender-based violence at all and if there are, whether they cover the online violence women and girls face.  But of course there are laws, for instance, The  Gambia  Sexual Offenses act of 2013 addresses common sexual offenses against vulnerable groups like women and children in terms of rape and other sexual offenses but fails to address other forms of violence like online GBV and Intimate Partner Violence like marital rape. .Article 3 (d) of the 1993 United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women to which The Gambia is a signatory, calls for the development of “penal, civil, labour and administrative sanctions in domestic legislation to punish and redress the wrongs caused to women who are subjected to violence” and further calls on all members states to ensure safe mechanisms of justice for those women. Equally, SGD 5.2 calls for the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls, specifically by 2030. But although these measures exists to punish acts such as rape, assault, defilement etc, there are problems with enforcement, thus GBV continues to thrive and remain prevalent, especially the online form. A situational analysis by UNFPA Gambia put it that 26% of ever-married  Gambian women have experienced physical, sexual and emotional violence by their husbands or intimate partners, about 24% of ever-married women have had physical injuries due to intimate partner violence, and 1 in 4 women aged 15-49 years will become a victim of sexual and gender-based violence, in the status quo. Although statistics of this might not be available now, but we have seen a rise in multiple reports of rape and sexual assault in The Gambia since March 2020.

The challenge then lies on multi sectoral fronts.  First GBV matters are not given the regard and due attention by law enforcement agencies and personnel, thus, online GBV is a concept most officers struggle to understand and produce mechanisms to address. The level of awareness and advocacy against online GBV is very much limited. Secondly, there are hardly any existing legal frameworks in place to address this growing issue. Thirdly and most importantly, issues of gender based violence, whether online or offline are often normalised and considered merely cultural. As a result, most victims do not get to report or talk about their experience. The situational analysis by UNFPA previously quoted has it that “the occurrence of GBV in some communities in The Gambia has been ‘normalised” to the extent that 40% of women believe it is acceptable for their partner(s) to hit them. This plus many other challenges make it hard to address the situation, hold the perpetrators accountable, and tend to the needs of the victims and survivors. As a result, more women suffer from seclusion, ostracization, suicide, career halts, depression, and many other forms of trama with which they live for the rest of their lives. These effects also extend to women who experience Online GBV such as harassment and bullying, and also goes on to prove that our online lives and digital bodies are extensions of our real lives and thus the violence is not separate.

This graphic is by Ousainou Jonga and an Equals Now property.

The burden then lies on both national stakeholders and individual Gambians to set up measures that will put a meaningful reduction on GBV in all its forms, including  and specifically recognising Online GBV. This must be an especially aggressive multipartite and multidimensional approach with the inclusion -re-introduction – of measures such as comprehensive sex-education in school curriculums, teaching growing children about internet use, strengthening grassroot feminist and women rights advocacy as a defence mechanism, creating cyber harassment help that traces and reports online abuses and revamping the justice system of the country. The police should not only be responsive to the heterosexual cases, but also receptive to LGBTQ+ community which starts by first decriminalising homosexuality in The Gambia  and provide safe spaces for women to talk about their experiences and seek justice from their offenders. Equals Now hopes that this project will provide stories and inform people of how harmful Online Gender Based Violence is, and in the long run through various projects and through its Anti-GBV Solidarity Network, lobby for policy changes in some of the issues highlighted here.The platform is working toward making online navigation of the internet safe for women in The Gambia to express themselves, for sexual rights activists and feminists, women politicians, women with disabilities and other groups of women who experience violence online.

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Published: September 20, 2020