Concerns over increased online gender-based violence

A female internet user

Malawi has acknowledged that online gender-based violence (OGBV) is retarding global efforts to get more people access Internet tools.

In the digital media dispensation, internet access is said to be key in empowering people to make informed decisions for a better world.

Minister of Information and Digitisation Gospel Kazako has since described the online-based abuse as an emerging issue that needs immediate countermeasures not only in Malawi but also in other parts of Southern Africa.

In his address when officially launching the "Understanding Online Gender-Based Violence in Southern Africa Report ", Kazako called for the need to prioritise OGBV in policy and regulatory frameworks, considering that this area has not received as much attention, policy-wise, as compared to physical gender-based violence.

"We need to address OGBV with the same energy that we address physical GBV. Most cyber violence is not documented and it is doing a lot of harm. There is significant injury that can be done in cyberspace," the Minister said.

The report launch which was largely hybrid in nature, was hosted on Tuesday at the Bingu International Conference Centre ( BICC) in the Capital Lilongwe.

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Kazako: There is significant injury that can be done in cyberspace

It is aimed at providing regional evidence on the prevalence of OGBV in the region as well as the policy and practice frameworks in response to the emerging phenomenon.

Chikondi Mandala of Women Judges Association of Malawi (WOJAM), who prepared the Malawi Report, highlighted on the negative impacts of the vice on the country's socio-economic growth.

Her examples include the withdrawal from online activity, offline violence, loss of income, anxiety and self-harming.

Joining the event from her PhD post at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom from where she ably presented the report, Mandala also bemoaned the lack of enabling legislation for freedom of expression makes it difficult to know the parameters of free speech as compared to hate speech, criminality or OGBV.

Said Mandala: "Newer forms of OGBV are hard to address using the existing legislative framework which is archaic and even more recent laws have gaps. It would be hard to respond to #doxxing or deepfakes with the laws and policies that Malawi Government currently has in place."

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Kainja: OGBV has a chilling effect on women, pushing them out of spaces for political discourse

During a panel discussion, Jimmy Kainja, a lecturer in Media, Communication and Cultural Studies at University of Malawi’s Chancellor College feared for what the vice can do to women empowerment ventures across the region.

"OGBV has a chilling effect on women, pushing them out of spaces for political discourse. Observe the media; you will note critical political responses are predominantly written by men. Women's voices are undermined and OGBV forces them offline," he said.

Concurring with Kainja, Malawi Communications Regulatory Authority (Macra) Director of Legal Services Thokozani Chimbe said it was imperative to have women protected from the prevalent online abuses.

She also shared how violence experienced online is extremely gendered with women facing attacks on their reputation, unlike men who might hold similar public roles and experiences.

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Targeted: Women online surfers

"It's actually demeaning so to speak. The attacks include slut-shaming and even worse. The thing is the internet never forgets and the damage that an individual experiences is forever.

"Laws are instrumental and can help, but cyber violence needs a multi-stakeholder response. Much as we have crimes, we need support for victims and a clear framework for reporting," Chimbe said.

The OGBV Malawi Report launch on Tuesday coincided with a BBC media report on a phone repairer in Ghana who was sentenced to 14 years in jail for having stolen and posting naked photos of a customer.

This follows the convict violating the new Cyber-security laws in the West African country that incriminate publishing nudes for either revenge or blackmail purposes.