How to fight back women online harassment

Recent events in Cape Town have highlighted the terrible violence women in South Africa face.  A teenage girl was murdered in Tokai forest and another young woman’s body was left in a community toilet in Khayalitsha.  Violence against women is a global disease, but the scale and violence seems more devastating in our country.

Not only are women exposed to physical brutality, many experience online harassment, which is often left unexposed and can have a huge emotional impact and may even lead to suicide.

I would like to discuss a few solutions to fight back against online harassment. First, what exactly is online harassment?

Forms of online harassment range from unwanted contact, trolling, character assassinations, and cyberbullying to sexual harassment and threats of physical violence, rape and death.

Harassment usually involves repeated communications via email, instant messaging or social media after the harasser has clearly been told to go away and it can have a significant emotional affect on any person,

Celebrities and those with a public profile are easy prey. The likes of TV presenter and media personality Minnie Dlamini and former Miss South Africa and businesswoman Batsetana Khumalo have had to deal with stalkers.

It’s not just celebrities who are targets of stalkers though. In an era in which just about everyone has an online footprint, a Google search turns up more information about people than they may have intended to share publicly – it’s all ammunition for stalkers.

They can use the information to threaten, harass or defame their victims, or steal their identities, take over their social media accounts, publish revenge porn, soliticit others to have sex with them, order goods and services in their name and destroy their reputations among family, friends and colleagues. Cyberstalking can be accompanied by real-life monitoring, vandalism and violence.

Shandré Jansen van Rensburg who is with Unisa’s Department of Criminology and Security Science, completed her MA research into the rise of cyberstalking in 2014. Part of her research focused on the experiences of 12 women victims. Jansen van Rensburg describes cyber stalking as “a complex phenomenon which is a dangerous and harmful consequence of modern society’s participation and interaction with cyber technology and the Internet”.

“One of the things that surprised me most was the depth of the problem.” she says. “People who have not been stalked think it’s as simple as changing a phone number or deleting a Facebook account, but the harassment from stalking starts to impact on every aspect of their victims’ lives. One woman, a medical student, was stalked for seven years.”

Cyber stalking is on the rise worldwide. The British Crime Survey of 2010-2011 found that one in five women and one in 10 men are stalked at some point in their lives. The survey also found that 77 percent of people experience 100 incidents of harassment before they contact police.

Jansen van Rensburg says South Africa’s own statistics are patchy but she says the Protection from Harassment Act, that extends to cyber stalking and came into effect in April 2013, is recognition that cyber stalking is a modern problem that needs an appropriate modern response.

How To Fight Back Women Online Harassment

  • REVIEW your online presence
    • Check your security and privacy settings
    • Protect your mobile device
    • Regularly change passwords
  • RECOGNISE the problem if it happens and move quickly
    • Do not respond to the perpetrator
    • Keep all records and evidence of the harassment by making a copy of the message, photo or video
    • If you are witness to online harassment, offer support to the person being targeted
    • If someone says or does something that is inappropriate or deemed as harassment, report it to the relevant authorities immediately
    • If inappropriate content is displayed online, contact the website operators by phone or email requesting the content be removed or blocked
    • If the emotional impact of online harassment takes its toll on your wellbeing or that of someone you care for, please reach out to organisations listed here for help
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