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Facing Digital Dangers: Battling Gender-Based Cyber Violence in Zimbabwe

By Tendai Makaripe

In an era of digital connectedness, the darker facets of technological advancement emerge, casting shadows over society.

While digital connectivity in Zimbabwe has fostered greater access to education, bridging knowledge gaps in remote areas, among others, the country is grappling with the duality of the digital age—reaping the benefits of interconnectedness, yet facing the menace of Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TF GBV).

Recent studies paint a concerning picture.

A report by Plan International reveals that nearly half of Zimbabwe’s young women and adolescent girls have encountered online backlash for merely expressing their views on pressing subjects such as politics, feminism, or health rights.

This digital animosity not only threatens the virtual space but profoundly affects the physical and psychological well-being of its victims.

One such heart-rending tale is that of Nyasha, a 19-year-old student from the University of Zimbabwe, whose life became entangled in the web of TF GBV, giving a human face to these grim statistics.

Nyasha found herself cornered and tormented by social media platforms that promise connection and convenience.

Her troubles began with a breakup.

The decision to end an abusive relationship was met with a fierce technological backlash from Panashe, her ex-boyfriend.

Abusing Facebook, Panashe painted a picture of himself as an abandoned lover, haunted by sleepless nights and descending into a crippling depression.

The messages turned darker, carrying a weight of guilt, insinuating that any harm he inflicted upon himself would be on Nyasha’s conscience.

He even threatened suicide.

Her situation became increasingly challenging when he circulated the intimate images in an act of malicious revenge.

This act, known as ‘revenge porn’, shattered her life.

Nyasha faced widespread judgment at college and church, and her family’s trust in her diminished.

Her story is a reminder of how technology can amplify GBV, leaving ineradicable scars on the victims.

Gender activist, Joyce Svotwa, amplifies this sentiment.

“In the modern digital landscape, TF GBV emerges as a critical concern, spotlighting the urgent need for protective measures and awareness campaigns to shield young women from the dangers lurking within their screens,” she said.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) – a United Nations (UN) agency that works to promote sexual and reproductive health, gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls defines TF GBV as “an act of violence perpetrated by one or more individuals that are committed, assisted, aggravated and amplified in part or fully by the use of information and communication technologies or digital media, against a person on the basis of their gender.”

TF GBV is rife in Zimbabwe and other parts of the world, and most girls and women are bearing the largest brunt of this scourge.

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A 2020 study conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU), a research and analysis division that is the sister company to The Economist newspaper noted that 57 percent of women have had their videos or images online abused or misused.

Another poignant story is that of 22-year-old Tadiwa (not her real name) from Mbizo township in Kwekwe who recorded an intimate home video at her boyfriend’s request.

He shared the video with his friends, who then posted it on social media leading her to face victimization in both online and offline spaces.  

“My body became public without my consent but people blamed me because I let myself get recorded,” she said.

Such victimisation is sad.

Information and Communication Technology (ICT) specialist, Stalin Chingarandi said TF GBV manifests in several ways.

“These include cyberstalking, online harassment, and revenge porn,” he said, adding that: “TF GBV has insidiously woven its way into the fabric of society, further exacerbating the challenges women face in a predominantly patriarchal setting but the problem is not being taken seriously.”

Even prominent Zimbabwean women are not spared.

Linda Masarira, Thokozani Khupe, and Fadzai Mahere frequently grapple not just with criticisms of their policies but with degrading personal attacks rooted in misogyny.

Gender expert, Norman Muvavarirwa believes that TF GBV not only deepens the scars of misogyny but also silences and side-lines women from the critical discourse and leadership roles they are striving to achieve yet the problem is allowed to persist.

He also said the aggressors, shielded by the semblance of virtual space, relentlessly pursue and harass their targets, subjecting them to debilitating psychological torment.

Knight Shadaya, a controversial figure on the microblogging site Twitter often posts negative and derogatory comments about girls and women.

He has in the past attacked celebrities like Samantha Mary Musa, Olinda Chapel, and Pokello Nare.

Shadaya once described musician Kikky Badass as a “walking, talking cemetery of many men’s Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA)”.

“Shadaya’s tweets create a hostile and unsafe environment for women online, where they may face harassment, threats, or violence from his followers or other like-minded users. They are a typical example of TF GBV which reinforce harmful gender norms and stereotypes that justify and normalize GBV in the offline world,” said Harare woman Vimbai Kasichi.

The consequences aren’t merely digital.

As psychologist Ivy Mukombachoto highlights, the impacts of TFGBV on mental health can be devastating.

“Survivors of sexualized forms of TFGBV are often stigmatised and blamed, and suffer damage to their reputation, affecting many aspects of their social lives. When women rely on online spaces for their professional lives, TFGBV also has serious impacts on their economic opportunities and access to resources,” she said. 

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Media lecturer and conflict resolution researcher Lazarus Sauti said the powers that be must see to it that this violation is nipped in the bud because it is an infringement of the rights enshrined in both domestic and international laws.

Hate speech and other online violations curtail Section 61(1) of the Zimbabwean Constitution, which provides that every Zimbabwean has the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the media.

“TFGBV discourages women from voicing their perspectives or engaging in digital spaces out of fear of harassment or retaliation,” he said.

Section 57 of the Constitution guarantees the right to privacy, a cornerstone in the protection of individual dignity.

This right is violated when intimate content is shared without consent or personal details are doxed.

The country’s laws like the Cyber Security and Data Protection Act should not appear abstractly but fight digital aggressions.

The government, together with its development partners, must recognise and integrate TFGBV into national laws, regulations, and policies, and develop a common international legislative framework to fight cross-border TFGBV.

South Africa has the Protection from Harassment Act, which can be applied to cyber harassment cases, and the Philippines have the Anti-Photo and Video Voyeurism Act of 2009 and the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 both contain provisions that can be used to address certain forms of TF GBV, like the non-consensual distribution of intimate images.

Sauti calls for adequate budgeting and resourcing, including establishing independent statutory boards to ensure compliance, address TFGBV, and promote the safety and accountability of technology platforms.

Society also has a role to play as seen in how Tafadzwa Munjoma, an IT specialist in Harare, is using his platforms to advocate for digital etiquette.

 He argues that it is important to recognize the ripple effects of our online actions.

“Digital respect is not just a personal responsibility but a community one. By mentoring young men, we can build a safer and more inclusive digital space for all,” he said.

Amidst the digital age’s benefits, the challenge of TF GBV in Zimbabwe stands out. Safeguarding digital spaces requires collective action from governments, civil society, tech platforms, and the public.

People must ensure an online world centered on safety, respect, and dignity.

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