Why we need to talk about online violence against women in India

Amnesty International India
12 February 2018 4:47 pm

Internet usage in India is among the highest in the world, and more new users log on every year. Access to the internet has enabled many people to overcome barriers and actively participate in public life. But this participation comes at a cost for women and other marginalised groups, who often face online violence and abuse for expressing their opinions on social media. And more so if they are members of a religious, racial or ethnic minority, are LGBTI people, or have a disability. This sort of targeted violence has left Indian women who express themselves online feeling increasingly vulnerable instead of empowered.

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Online violence against women, that is, violence directed at women because of their gender, is a barrier to their enjoyment of their rights to equality and freedom of expression. While men can also be victims of online abuse, women are often excessively targeted, especially when they express political opinions. Also, the abuse they face is itself gendered. It often takes aim at women’s sexuality, reducing them to sexual objects and reinforcing gender stereotypes.

In the recent past, journalists like Barkha Dutt, student leaders like Shehla Rashid, and actors like Swara Bhaskar have faced horrific online abuse. Rape and death threats and other forms of gendered abuse have been directed at them for merely expressing their opinions online. Last year, an ‘anti-trolling’ campaign by the Hindustan Times newspaper analysed a week’s worth of tweets sent to four prominent Indian women journalists. Of them, Barkha Dutt received 3,020 abusive tweets, while Rana Ayyub received 2,582 abusive tweets, often accompanied with Islamophobic remarks.

A major consequence of online abuse is the silencing effect it has on women, sometimes forcing them to shut themselves out of online spaces. A survey by Feminism in India, a digital platform, found that 28% of women who experienced online abuse said they intentionally reduced their online presence. Amnesty International conducted a study on online violence against women in 2017 which showed that more than 75% of women surveyed across eight countries (Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and USA) who had experienced abuse or harassment made changes to the way they used social media platforms. A third of women said they even stopped posting their opinion on certain issues altogether.

Women often find it difficult to report online abuse to the police for several reasons, ranging from not knowing the law to not trusting the criminal justice system. Of the women surveyed by Feminism in India who reported harassment to the authorities, only one in ten said they had received a helpful response. The National Crime Records Bureau says that around 12,000 incidents of cyber-crimes were reported in 2016, and nearly the same number that were reported the previous year were still pending investigation!

Social media platforms, which are uniquely positioned to take quick and effective action against abusers, are also known to fail to act. Amnesty’s survey indicated that women feel social media companies need to do more. Just 18% of women polled across all countries said that the responses of social media companies were very, fairly or completely adequate. In India, there have been a number of reports in the media about women who reported online abuse to social media platforms, but received highly unsatisfactory responses.

The Internet Democracy Project, in its submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, points out that India already has laws which – while flawed – can be used to tackle online abuse, but what needs attention is how these laws are implemented. Further, implementation needs to be coupled with non-legal measures to address the structural inequalities – stemming in part from patriarchal notions of morality – that lie at the heart of online abuse.

It is high time that we took online abuse against women more seriously. We need to ensure women are able to express themselves online without fear. We need to create safe spaces for women to talk about the abuse they face. And we need to improve the implementation of existing laws. For a start, social media companies must be urged to follow their own community standards and rules relating to abuse against women on their platforms.

Join our campaign to make online spaces safe for women in India.