The internet is not supporting women’s access to information and civic participation, and it may be exacerbating inequalities. The pandemic of online harassment and violence against women, says the Web Foundation, leads to obvious violations of women’s rights. According to its latest research, this is not only in terms of freedom from violence and bodily integrity, but also for women’s freedom of expression, privacy and right to personal data protection. “These violations are inextricably linked, for example violence and threats to women’s online privacy and digital security may further prevent women’s access to information,” says research. Many women who experience harassment are driven to self-censor or go offline entirely. In August 2018, the Heinrich Boll Foundation released a paper ‘Digital India as if Women Matter: A Policy Discussion Paper’. It highlighted online abuse, harassment and gender-based violence as a pervasive problem in India – Dalit women, women journalists and rights activists being susceptible to such attacks. Cyber violence and hate speech online against women occurs on a variety of platforms such as social media, web content and discussion sites, search engines, messaging services, blogs, dating websites and apps comment sections of media and newspapers, forums, and chat rooms etc.
According to a United Nations Women report, almost three quarters of women globally have faced some kind of cyber violence. The online harassment of women and marginalized genders and sexualities is rampant, in contrast to the internet’s initial promise of equal opportunity and neutrality. This infringes women’s fundamental rights and freedoms, their dignity and equality and impacts their lives at all levels. Moreover, it impacts their physical and mental health and well-being as their social and financial development. Various research and studies point towards the unregulated nature of social media platforms and other online spaces. According to the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizen’s Rights and Constitutional Affairs, cyber violence is alarmingly pushing back women from public spaces to the private sphere. “Gender stereotypes as well as legitimization and normalization of violence against women in the media lead to victim-blaming and the invisibilization of victim’s perspectives when it comes to cyber violence and hate speech online against women,” it said.
IT for Change highlights that there is no dedicated legislation in India on gender-based cyber violence. Provisions dealing with this issue are scattered across different laws such as the Information Technology Act 2000 and the Indian Penal Code 1860. “The law also does not recognize sexist or misogynistic trolling. Content related laws based on obscenity also create an absurd situation, where women victims themselves could be at risk of legal action in cases of non-consensual circulation of sex videos by their former partners,” says IT for Change. The structure of the ICT sector, its gender imbalance and gender inequality reverberates in the online world. There is no doubt that the proliferation of 3G and 4G networks across India and the affordability of smartphones have made it easier for Indian consumers to own, access and use technologies and the internet. But there has to be laws and responsibility. Media moderation policies should be evolved. New laws should be made to respond or counter the growing amount of harmful content and behaviour targeting women online.