In the backdrop of the Covid pandemic, online and offline lives have become more integrated. As a result, online or technology-facilitated gender-based violence (GBV) has been rising at an alarming rate throughout the world. Online GBV is also known as gender-based cyber-violence.
While GBV is a decades old menace, the technology dimension adds elements of searchability, replicability and persistence which facilitates an offender’s access towards women and children that they are targeting. Online GBV can escalate and exacerbate harm as the facilitation of technology makes it easier to perpetuate it. Offenders are now able to use digital tools, such as social media and GPS tracking to cause harm alongside in-person violence. Women’s rights defenders such as female journalists, lawyers and politicians are particularly exposed to gender-based cyber-violence. For example, a member of the European Parliament once shared that, “One time, over a period of four days, I received more than 500 threats of rape on Twitter.”
Online GBV includes several wide-ranging offences including cyberstalking, cyberbullying, non-consensual distribution of intimate images or videos, blackmailing and pornography, etc. Online GBV can result in repeated trauma every time the non-consensual pictures and videos are reposted. Moreover, online GBV can cause emotional and physical trauma and some instances have also led to suicide.
Although anyone can experience online violence, harassment and abuse, women and children are disproportionately affected. According to Plan International’s 2020 report titled: ‘the State of the World’s Girls Report’, more than half of girls surveyed across the world reported that they were harassed and abused online. Of these, one in four of the girls abused online reported feeling physically unsafe as a result.
It is an indisputable fact that every year following the Aurat March (held to mark International Women’s Day observed on March 8 every year), there is a surge in online GBV across Pakistan. Women and girls are abused, bullied, harassed and threatened with rape and death threats on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Women and girls holding placards are photoshopped, their placards are edited with indecent language and their pictures and videos are uploaded online without their consent in order to stir controversy. This rise in online GBV forces many organisers and marchers to limit their activity on online spaces and social media platforms at a time when it is increasingly important for activism and advocating against inequalities, women’s rights and social justice.
It has been reported that the FIA Cyber Crime Wing received 95,567 complaints throughout Pakistan during 2020 -2021. Of these complaints, 20 percent belonged to the offence of online blackmailing and harassment. As a result, 267 FIRs were registered and 185 arrests were made with regards to online blackmailing while 199 FIRs were registered, and 187 arrests made concerning online harassment. Moreover, 49 FIRs were registered, and 52 arrests were made regarding child pornography. The director operations of FIA stated that in order to tackle the heinous crime and avoid child rape, the FIA Cybercrime Wing has prepared a list of sex offenders.
The Cybercrime Wing (CCW) of FIA is guided by laws under the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act (PECA) 2016. Recently, on February 18, 2022, PECA was amended through the promulgation of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes (Amendment) Ordinance 2022. The amendments to PECA have been widely termed as ‘draconian’. The amendments were mostly made to Section 20 of PECA which reads as: ‘Offences against dignity of person’, after the amendment. Before the amendment, Section 20 applied to ‘natural person’ but the word natural was deleted through the amendment. Additionally, in order to define ‘person’, Clause xxva was inserted in Section 2 of the Act. A person is defined as “any company, association, body of persons whether incorporated or not…” after the amendment. The result of a rushed amendment is that the legislation fails to define ‘Natural person’ or ‘dignity’ under PECA. Post-amendment, there remains a poorly drafted legislation that applies to a very serious issue of GBV, and the word persons and natural persons being used interchangeably.
Section 21 of PECA specifically applies to natural persons, it is titled, ‘Offences against modesty of a natural person or minor’. It criminalises the superimposition of photograph of the face of a natural person over any sexually explicit image or video, posting a photograph or a video of a natural person in sexually explicit conduct, etc. Other sections that are now left in a poorly drafted manner include Section 22 titled, ‘Child pornography’ and Section 24 titled, ‘Cyber stalking’.
Nevertheless, the insertion of Section 44A titled, ‘Timeline to conclude the trial and supervision by the High Court’, is a much-needed addition. It mandates that the trial shall be concluded expeditiously and preferably not later than 6 months of taking cognizance of a case. Section 44A presumably also applies to Section 21, 22 and 24 (see above). This positive step will result in expedited trial times, and the case would not linger for years. However, it is important that it is implemented.
Nevertheless, a report published by the Digital Rights Foundation revealed that only 15 percent of those surveyed reported their cases to the FIA. Moreover, about 47 percent of women surveyed felt that reporting to the FIA would be “a waste of time”. This data echoes a lack of trust in the FIA. Overall, it was revealed that there is a less than 10 percent chance that the complaint will lead to a registered inquiry.
In order to create safer online spaces for women and children, it is important that technology companies, civil society organisations and the government make research-based positive interventions. This includes educating women and children in order to improve digital literacy levels and on what constitutes online GBV. Women and children must also be informed of the process of reporting online GBV.
The government must make efforts to gender-sensitize and train authorities on addressing complaints and aiding and redress. Mass awareness about digital security, safety and rights must be made to the public through local radio and TV channels. Lastly, civil society organizations must step-up and create awareness using Information Education Communication (IEC) Materials.
The writer is a barrister. She tweets @RidaT95 and can be reached at:
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