Take five: Why we should take online violence against women and girls seriously during and beyond COVID-19


Cecilia Mwende Maundu.  Photo: Njeri Waigi
Cecilia Mwende Maundu. Photo: Njeri Waigi

Cecilia Mwende Maundu is a broadcast journalist based in Kenya and a specialist in gender digital safety. She is also the current Secretary General of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television, Kenyan chapter. During COVID-19, women and girls are using the internet more than ever to stay connected with the world, but they are also the targets of online violence in the form of physical threats, sexual harassment, stalking, zoombombing and sex trolling. UN Women is asking governments to commit to enhancing women’s and girls’ online safety, and is supporting women’s organizations to strengthen their advocacy efforts during COVID-19. Here, Cecilia gives her top digital safety tips.

Why is it important to make the distinction between offline and online violence during COVID-19?

Online gender-based violence exists within a context similar to what happens in real life. It is just as destructive as offline violence.

We now live in a virtual society and offline violence has extended to online, which makes it easier for people to commit violence without consequences. Women are the main targets of online violence, especially women with voices, like female journalists and politicians. Online harassment can include online bullying, trolling, cyber stalking, defamation and hate speech, public shaming, and identity theft and hacking, amongst other offences. I provide training on how women can protect their identities online. 

Men are also harassed online, but when women are the target, online harassment quickly descends into sexualized hate or threats. Online gender-based violence is an overt expression of the deeply rooted gender inequalities in our society. 

What are the impacts to women and girls when they experience violence online?

The greatest impact that we are experiencing is self-censorship. Women start censoring themselves online. And that is what the abusers want.
Online violence attempts to keep women from a major sector of the public sphere. The law in Kenya is yet to catch up with technology. For example, the police only take physical violence seriously. Just because it's online does not make the violence any less harmful.

Some women even leave the online platform [after being harassed]. When journalists have to self-censor themselves, the fundamental right to freedom of information is under attack.

Online violence is a public health issue and the effects are very detrimental. It results in physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm, and erodes self-esteem.

Have you seen online violence in Kenya increase because of COVID-19?

Oh, definitely. In Kenya, like in many parts of the world, we are experiencing more requests for support due to attacks on feminist websites and social media pages. Many attackers have been successful hacking into and gaining control over women's and activists’ accounts.

When the first COVID-19 patient in Kenya, a young girl, was released from hospital, it was terrible for her. People bashed her online. Some even said she was not sick and that she had been paid by the government. Her private photos were released online.

What can governments and individuals do to stop online violence against women and girls?

First, we need public awareness. Even when I talk to my friends, many of them say online violence is no big deal. People need to understand this is real; that it's real violence with real impacts. And sometimes it moves from online to offline.

What is gender digital safety?

Digital security is the protection of someone’s identity online. Gender digital security includes training women and girls to protect themselves, as they are the most vulnerable group online. 

I want women and girls to know that they are part of social media and it is their right to be online. There are tools and tips that can help us be safe. For example, Instagram has recently added a ‘Restrict’ anti-bullying tool that is available to everyone, because no one should push you off the online platform. Some of my basic digital security tips include:

  1. Create a strong password 
  2. Have different passwords for different accounts
  3. Download apps from authentication platforms and use two-factor authentication 
  4. Log out of your accounts
  5. Don’t use public WIFI for sharing sensitive information, like online bank details
  6. Use antivirus software and, if possible, use a virtual private network