How Internet is helping rape victims in Africa

October 24, 2016

In the past i have come across survivors of rape and when some of the victims would narrate their ordeals, my tears could fill a bucket.For many victim survivors of sexual violence, that day when their abusers face justice may never come.While three in five African women and one in ten men will experience sexual violence in their lifetime, most do not report it to police. Even for those who do, conviction is difficult. And the trial process can further add to victims’ trauma.Studies in Nigeria with victim survivors in war ravaged northern part of the country has also repeatedly found that getting justice itself can mean many things. Some Boko Haram survivors describe justice as meaning that their experience is heard and the offender is held responsible for their actions.Other victims also describe wanting to be able to tell the whole story about what happened to them to an audience that believes them and that acknowledges the wrongfulness of the harm done.Perhaps this is why northern Nigeria survivors are using social media and other online platforms to share their experiences of sexual violence and seek support from a community of peers.Digital technologies are receiving a lot of criticism for being tools for abuse, harassment and violence against women. You could be forgiven for thinking of the internet as, by design, a largely negative place for women. Technologies are tools and can be used in both negative and positive ways.Victim survivors are seeking support through anonymous and confidential reporting apps and sites for sexual assault. Free smartphone applications and websites provide information, support and anonymous reporting options for victims of sexual violence.Online communities such offer safe spaces where survivors can share stories and seek support in the aftermath of sexual violence. These communities also offer anonymity to survivors.While some survivor forums are publicly accessible, most are password protected and require membership. These closed communities are moderated often by volunteers or survivors themselves and prioritise participants’ privacy and safety.

In Kenya, social media platforms allow survivors to raise awareness by connecting with the broader community. Feminist groups, activists and survivors are using digital tools to defeat perpetrators and spread the message that violence against women will not be tolerated.This type of public disclosure is certainly not without its challenges. It might, for example, impact on formal justice processes if an investigation or court proceeding is underway.However given that most cases of sexual assault will not go through the formal justice system, such digital vigilantism might be the only way a survivor can gain a sense of justice in Africa. There are several online projects in South Africa that gives a voice to survivors. But perpetrators are not named and shamed. Rather, survivors submit details describing their experiences with sexual violence.Data in South Africa show that victim-survivors benefit from different opportunities to share their stories. This suggests that digital tools are providing an important therapeutic space for the harm done to victim-survivors to be publicly acknowledged.Victim-survivors also describe that what they want from online justice is a promise that something will be done by society more broadly to stop sexual violence from happening again. In Nigeria, studies into why victims report sexual assault to police has found that some are not motivated by a desire to punish the offender. Rather, they want to raise awareness and seek to change Nigerian society and culture to prevent sexual violence from happening to other women and girls.Digital platforms provide new opportunities for the crowdsourcing of justice. One of the activist projects in Zambia has been mapping information submitted by victims of street harassment. They provide locations and stories of verbal and physical assault in cities across the country of 14 million people.In Kenya, a female MP has proposed a law that will see a clampdown on street harassment which is a form of gender-based violence that is difficult to tackle through the Kenya’s justice system.Online platforms provide an avenue for victims to do something both to raise awareness and advocate for change.In a sense, these emerging forms of cyber justice are really forms of collective justice. Victim-survivors are empowered to share their experiences and to be heard, at the same time as society more broadly is challenged to listen and to take action to stop sexual violence.This is particularly important when studies have shown problematic attitudes towards sexual violence in the African community. These attitudes too often minimise rape, blame victims and excuse the actions of perpetrators.

Contador Harrison