Surge in online harassment of women

Lahore: Cultural patriarchy and ongoing lawlessness has driven a surge in the harassment of women online in Pakistan, say digital rights activists.

Nighat Daad, head of the Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), said women experiencing harassment rarely report it.

“Women are bearing online harassment and blackmailing, but seldom turn to external sources especially law enforcing agencies,” Daad told News Lens Pakistan.

She sees shortcomings in the present mechanisms to counter cyber-crime developed by the law agencies.

“In 2007, the FIA launched the National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (NR3C), a complaint procedure that requires the complainant to disclose their details including name, CNIC number, home address and contact details. We receive online applications, emails and complaints submitted by hand,” the unit’s deputy director Shahid Hassan told News Lens Pakistan.

He said sexually motivated cyber harassment has surpassed every other type of cyber-crime over the last two years.

“The record shows an 80 per cent prosecution ratio of cases registered with NR3C. However, there is no yardstick to measure the percentage of unreported cases of cyber-crimes,” Hassan added.

Another study by Bytes for All Pakistan on Pakistan’s internet landscape, published in July 2016, found the gradual increase in online usage by Pakistani women under 30 has been discouraged due to the increase in digital harassment of women.

“Digital harassment has had a grave real life impact on more than 95 per cent of females who consulted DRF,” Daad said.

Hamza Irshad, Digital Security Trainer at DRF, blames a pervasive culture of misogyny.

“It is because of the presence of common misogyny and sexist elements in every hierarchy of law enforcement structure. This makes seeking legal help for a female as the last and least favourable option,” Irshad told News Lens.

Ahmed Ali’s sister is a recent victim of cyber harassment by her former fiancé. The ex-fiancé became angry when she returned her engagement ring to him after their engagement was called off.
“He demanded Rs 50,000 from her, as he claimed that the ring’s price at the time of purchase was more than its present selling price in the market,” Ali told News Lens.

“My poor family couldn’t manage such a big amount. In revenge, her ex-fiancé circulated her morphed pictures and personal details including her mobile number, and defamed her as a prostitute,” Ali recounted.

Attempts to lodge a police report were thwarted.

“I went to the nearby police station to report it. Instead of lodging a report, the inspector covertly asked for my sister’s pictures and phone number. What’s more, Rs 25,000 bribe was also demanded to lodge the complaint,” Ali said.

His sister has been confined to her home by her extended family. To avoid further defamation, she no longer uses her mobile phone.

Sidra Humayun, a women’s rights activist from the Lahore-based campaign group War Against Rape, estimates nine out of ten women face cyber harassment by current or former partners.

“Sexualized slurs, sexual remarks on body, sex life, character, seduction-based conversation, and rape threats are the major complaints War Against Rape deals with in cyber harassment cases of women aged 16 to 30,” Humayun told News Lens.

During the last six months DRF received more than 250 complaints of profound cyber bullying, 95 per cent of which were lodged by women. The majority were filed by women in the ultra-conservative Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) province.

“In the year 2014-2015, we were receiving two to three complaints per week. Now the foundation deals with two cases daily on average,” Daad said.

DRF research records show that hacking, phishing, impersonation and doxing to blackmail, harass and bully are the most frequently used cyber-crime tactics.

One of the women who sought help from DRF had been attacked with acid after declining a relative’s marriage proposal.

The girl fought back by filing a case against the acid attacker. Her family is under severe pressure as the accused relative has threatened to circulate her private pictures and videos online if she does not drop the case.

Syeda from the KP region of Lower Dir turned to NR3C to complain about online harassment.

“After 10 days, I was asked to visit the NR3C office in Peshawar. But I could not go there,” she told News Lens.

Syeda’s elder sister Meher is the only one who knows about the harassment.

“There should be a women-friendly complaint mechanism because we cannot even tell our family that someone is abusing us,” Syeda said.

“If we dare to do so or step out of home even for our rights we will be taken advantage of.”

A report released by NR3C in 2011 shows a consistent increase in online crimes as 62 cases were recorded in 2007, 287 cases in 2008 and 312 cases in 2010.

“These cases comprise only 10 per cent of cyber-crimes in Pakistan,” the report states.

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