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Social commentary: By Moses Mugugunyeki – Cyberbullying weighs more heavily on women, girls

The heartbreaking story of a 14-year-old girl, who died while giving birth at an apostolic sect shrine in Marange, sparked outrage across the globe.

It is alleged that Anna Machaya was forced out of school and into marriage at the age of 13.

The picture of a pregnant Machaya spread quickly and widely on the internet through social media, shocking the global community, including the United Nations which compelled the government to take action.

Machaya could be dead to experience the effects of her quandary, but there are hordes of girls and women, who are alive and face the same predicament.

A few years ago, a very old man, who is member of an apostolic sect was caught in the eye of a cyber storm when a picture of him holding a very young girl, believed to be his new wife, went viral on social media.

No one knows what could have happened to the old man although it was reported that the law enforcement agents were trailing him, but from the look of it, the case died a natural death.

The girl could still be married to the old man, but she could have been affected more after her pictures went viral.

The coming in of the internet and social media has had ripple effects on victims of online bullying with women and girls being the most affected.

Victims of cyberbullying may experience lower self-esteem, increased suicidal ideation, and various negative emotional responses, including being scared, frustrated, angry, or depressed.

Amnesty International commissioned an IPSOS MORI poll which looked at the experiences of women between the ages of 18 and 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Nearly a quarter (23%) of the women surveyed across these eight countries said they had experienced online abuse or harassment at least once, ranging from 16% in Italy to 33% in the US.

According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund [Unicef], some 80% of children in 25 countries it conducted a survey report feeling in danger of sexual abuse or exploitation online.

A female university student said she was surprised seeing her picture circulating on social media platforms for wrong reasons.

“A relative called me to check on Facebook and discovered that one of my photos that I had shared on some WhatsApp groups was being used without my consent,” said the student on condition of anonymity.

“My picture was used on a Facebook page purporting to belong to sex workers, who were soliciting for clients.

“It was traumatic because I received calls from friends and relatives, who were also surprised by what had transpired.”

The student said it affected her very much that at some point she wanted to commit suicide.

“It was difficult facing my relatives and some church mates, including the pastor. At some point I wanted to kill myself,” she said.

She said she rued the decision to post her photos on WhatsApp groups, something she has stopped doing.

Psychologist and lecturer Onias Musanaiwa concurred that women and children were the most affected.

“Women and children are the worst affected because of inappropriate pictures and videos about them often circulated on the internet without their consent,” said Musanaiwa.

“As a result these girls and women may experience lower self-esteem, increased suicidal ideation and other negative emotional responses, including being scared, frustrated, angry, or depressed.”

He said there was need to come up with laws that help curb online bullying, especially abuse of girls and women.

According to Unicef, children are spending more time online than ever before and around the world, a child goes online for the first time every half second.

Online offers limitless opportunities through computers, smartphones, gaming consoles, and televisions, children learn, imagine and develop their social networks.

When used in the right way – and accessible to all – the internet has the potential to broaden horizons and ignite creativity the world over.

However, social commentator Dorothy Chirwa Tumbo said there was need for the country to have laws that explicitly include electronic forms of communication within stalking or harassment laws.

“There is need for our government to push fast the promulgation of the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill and specifically have clauses that specifically look at sexual harassment and abuse of girls and women online,” Chirwa Tumbo said.

Zimbabwe Gender Commission CEO Virginia Muwanigwa said her organisation also added input on the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill with regards to cyber harassment.

“As the Zimbabwe Gender Commission, we are working with frontline respondents in advocacy for protection,” Muwanigwa said.

“We also made input into the Cyber Security and Data Protection Bill.”

Gender and communication specialist Audrey Charamba said girls and women bear the brunt of cyber bullying.

“Victims of cyber bullying lack confidence and it is difficult for to move on because sometimes you don’t know who is coming after you and sometimes you are not sure of the location from which this perpetrator of cyberbullying is,” said Charamba.

“The trauma suffered at the hands of cyberbullying is really beyond imagination.”

She said there was need for crafting statutes through Parliament for law enforcement in order to deal with cyber-bullying.

“Awareness on the use of technology is one of the ways we are assisting our constituencies to realise that it’s not cupcakes and candy to be online all the time.”

“They should know that the image they put out there can expose them to vulnerability, hence the need to be careful.”

Zimbabwe is now a step ahead compared to other African countries after crafting the Cyber Security Bill and Data Protection Bill, but gender activists believe there is need to specifically include areas that deal with gender equality.

The Cyber Security Bill and Data Protection Bill incorporates a host of Bills with a bearing on cybercrime, namely the Electronic Transactions and Electronic Commerce Bill, Data Protection Bill and the Computer Crime and Cybercrime Bill, and, therefore, would need public consultations, as well as thorough civic society interrogation and input.

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