Campaign: CHIME FOR CHANGE

How Online Abuse Ruined My Life

By Rutendo in Zimbabwe

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On a November morning two years ago, I walked into a lecture room at my university and found everyone was staring at me. At first, I thought it was because I was late for the lecture, but this was hardly news for me. What had changed was that some students were overtly laughing at me, others just seemed to observe me in disbelief.

The uneasy atmosphere made it difficult for me to concentrate on the class, so I made my way out of the room before the lecture ended. Just as I was leaving, a close friend of mine followed me outside. She opened a Facebook page used by students at my university to gossip and post the latest social news.

It looked like I had made the headlines. Pictures of me were posted, but they had been edited on Photoshop in the most degrading manner. At first, I thought I was going through a nightmare and that I would wake up. I pinched myself, it was all so very real.

The pictures included a caption that read: “If you want bronclere (a cough syrup loaded with codeine favoured by students) or marijuana you can contact the lady in this picture, Room 229… university campus.....she is a whore, she goes around sleeping with man and spreading H.I.V on campus, SO BEWARE OF HER."

My heart sank. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The photos had gone viral on WhatsApp, and within a few hours everyone on campus had seen them.

That same day, the Central Investigation Department of the local police took me into custody to investigate. My room was searched for drugs; there weren’t any, obviously. I cried and I could feel hate growing out of my bones. None of the claims were true, but I was beaten up all the same at the police station so I would confess my purported crime - they were determined to find the drugs I was rumoured to be selling on campus.

I spent two days locked up in a cell. This was the most horrible experience of my life. The conditions were appalling and I felt my health may be in danger.

After my parents were alerted, they came to visit me at the police station. They were outraged and refused to believe me when I explained that I had been the victim of online harassment. My dad said that I was a disgrace to the family. He said that he had decided to stop paying my tuition for the following year. He stated that it was better for him to invest his money otherwise since I was so unfocused. I tried to defend myself but the fake news won: “There is no smoke without fire” he said.

I was released after two days, but my life took a very wrong turn as I had to return to school to finish the semester.

My parents and my friends rejected me because of the false reputation I had acquired. My boyfriend was suddenly shy in my company, he was embarrassed because people threw insults at him too. Eventually, he broke up with me because he didn’t want to be associated with a “whore” who is HIV positive.

Not one of my friends stood by me and I seriously considered committing suicide. I felt useless; I became a bitter person and one fearful of social networks. For months, I was afraid to go on the Internet. I deleted WhatsApp and Facebook from my phone. I lost trust in people because I had no idea who was behind the degrading images and allegations.

I began to isolate myself from other students on campus. I was demotivated and gradually lost all self-confidence, students kept looking down on me. My grades deteriorated because I was lonely. I stopped attending group discussions. Instead, I developed anger, depression, and became withdrawn. I stopped attending family functions, I even gave up volleyball, which further angered my parents.

I felt that I had lost everything to online abuse. In 2014 and 2015, I had been crowned as an ambassador of my university. But after the postings, the committee decided that I was unfit to hold the title. I was devastated. My father went through with his decision to stop paying my tuition fees, and I had to defer my studies in 2015. I still haven’t managed to resume my schooling.

They say time heals, but I am still finding it hard to recover from these events. Online abuse and harassment negatively impacts lives for the long term.

WHAT HAPPENS WHEN WOMEN ARE SILENCED ONLINE

Sadly, my experience is not unique. Women are harassed online every day.

Social media presents women with unprecedented opportunities to make a difference in the world. Women are able to connect and build relationships across all sectors of the economy and the world through Internet access. Technology empowers us through online courses, membership institutions, and access to information on various subjects, including career development. I myself have benefitted from online courses, online communities, and membership to international associations.

In addition, safe Internet access is vital to the economy. In Zimbabwe for instance, women are primarily responsible for purchasing household goods, and companies rely on social media and online marketing strategies to attract them. But if women feel unsafe online, we are less likely to purchase from businesses that rely on online advertising. This has a negative economic impact on local economies and the gross domestic product.

When women shy away from Internet for fear of harassment the fight for gender equality suffers tremendously. If online spaces become a battleground, women in my country will have a hard time determining a career path for themselves, rather than advancing their education they will withdraw and seek safety by remaining home.

WHAT IT WILL TAKE TO CREATE A SAFE INTERNET

Because The change needs to happen in laws, policies, attitudes, perceptions, and even in technology itself, it seems to me that eradicating online abuse will be more than a lifetime’s worth of work. In fact, it may take generations to make the Internet safe for all women.

We cannot ignore that the willingness to change comes when people have been educated on the topic. I have been thinking hard on how to achieve this. I envision awareness campaigns to educate and empower individuals to take action. We could start with talk shows about online abuse on the radio. Victims would be invited into the studio to share their stories, and the audience would call in to share their own accounts.

I would also love to see a documentary film focused on this burning topic that could end up costing so much to our nation. We could also take advantage of Arts festivals, such as the Harare International Festival of the Arts, to get the message out through plays, drama, and paintings. Novels and magazines could be freely distributed in schools and public spaces such as hospitals and shopping centres.

I also believe that the Ministry of Education should introduce cyber crime as a compulsory subject in primary, secondary, and tertiary education curriculums. In my mind, this will go a long way in preventing the contamination of online abuse and harassment for the next generation. It would also help to promote zero tolerance to online abuse and online respect.

Coordination is vital for transparency and effective delivery. Our government must be committed to work with partners across all sectors of society for this to work. This is partially underway. The Zimbabwean government is drafting laws to protect Internet users. But enforcing these new laws will be a challenge. Police officers, lawyers, and judges should be trained on how to handle online abuse cases. This is because the difference between freedom of speech and abusive comments remains unclear. Therefore, it becomes difficult to prove whether a comment is abusive or not. Currently, anyone can post anything online without fear of punishment.

And it is the responsibility of technology companies to address this social threat as well. I believe Internet, software, and computer manufacturers must unite to upgrade technology to catch cyber criminals. For example, I imagine a system whereby one opens an account and is given a card to use whenever he or she wishes to go online, similar to a bank account. This would help get rid of the issue of Internet anonymity which feeds impunity.

Everyone can play a role in eradicating online abuse. If we come together, the Internet can remain this formidable opportunity for women to move forward in life through education, access to health and of course justice.

I can only hope my ordeal will prevent other women from suffering an online assault that would ruin their lives too. And I am still in shock that during this ordeal nobody ever cared about the truth. It simply didn’t seem to matter that I was innocent as charged. Fake news it appears have a distressing life of their own.

Rutendo is a contributor from Zimbabwe. This piece was originally published on World Pulse, a social network connecting women worldwide for change.

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