In the past there was a propensity to dismiss online violence against women as isolated incidents, but this has proven to be a pervasive problem. Reality shows that there are women in almost every household who have been subject to such online abuse. Smartphones are common nowadays as are WiFi connections and Internet data availability. And since coronavirus broke out here in March 2020, the entire education system has gone online. Work-from-home, shopping, everything is online.
According to the Bangladesh Telecommunications Regulatory Commission (BTRC) report of October last year, there were over 110 million internet users in the country. Of them, 8.65 million had broadband connections. The rest used the internet on their mobile phones. The use of internet has increased, and so has harassment. While this harassment occurs regardless of age, class or profession, it is women who are subject the most to this harassment and violence.
That was about numbers. What about the type of violence? Sometimes it all begins in a seemingly innocuous manner. It is no longer just restricted to irritating ‘Hi’, ‘Hello’, ‘How are you’ messages in the Facebook Messenger inbox. The harassment has reached a fearful degree.
Let me relate an experience of an acquaintance. When a classmate asked Sonia (pseudonym) out, she rejected his advances outright. In retaliation, he posted her number on a porn site. She started receiving continuous phone calls with all sorts of lewd proposals and vulgar remarks. She finally had to change her phone number to put all this to an end. But before that, she had been through mental trauma and even had to consult a psychiatrist for treatment. The Plan-Prothom Alo survey said that in the case of women, 71 per cent underwent such pressure.
There are innumerable women around us who have become victims of such harassment. Sometimes they speak out. Sometimes they remain silent. The victim women say that they do not say anything as they have no idea where to voice their complaints, or how long it will take to get justice
Women are even subject to harassment by their male colleagues in the workplace. Such incidents in society are not uncommon. The survey indicated that 32 per cent of the women victims had changed their professions, left their jobs or their free movement was constrained due to online harassment. This is happening all the time. The survey said that online, 25 per cent of the women felt insecure and 17 per cent were socially humiliated.
There are innumerable women around us who have become victims of such harassment. Sometimes they speak out. Sometimes they remain silent. The victim women say that they do not say anything as they have no idea where to voice their complaints, or how long it will take to get justice. It was seen that 62 per cent of the women have no idea of where to complain, where to get legal assistance.
The inspector general of police Benazir Ahmed last year inaugurated a Facebook page, Police Cyber Support for Women (PCSW). Any woman or child victim of online harassment can visit the page (http://m.facebook.com/PCSW.PHQ/) and post their complaint in the inbox. They may also contact the police by email or through the hotline for help. The e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The hotline number is 01320000888. Women police officers will run this unit. Their responsibility is to ensure the women and children victims get justice.
It has become imperative to include online safety in textbooks. The education ministry and ICT division needs to be more active in this regard. We hope that the online platforms become safe for women.
Firoz Choudhury is assistant editor, Prothom Alo