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Peter Kuthan / AZFA
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« on: August 23 2010 »

by Esther Nasikye, co-authored by Sally-Jean Shackleton
 on 19 July, 2010 - 20:38 · Southern Africa

Esther Nasikye is a trained citizen journalist and founder of ChangeWaves, a civil society organization in Uganda that was established to support organizations, women, men and young people to access and share knowledge through ICTs for the sustainable development. Sally-Jean Shackleton previously worked with Women'sNet and is currently a consultant doing work related to women's voice and representation with a number of organisations.

 A young man distributed explicit pictures and videos of his ex-girlfriend to her clients. The pictures were taken with her consent, while they were dating. In March 2007, he was charged with Crimen Injuria1 (impairing her dignity) and sentenced to a fine of 4000 South African Rand (USD 525) or 20 months in prison. This same man also sent SMS death threats to the ex-girlfriend - “You’re going to die in my hands; you know how I get when I am angry.” This is just one of the stories recorded in the August (2008) issue of the Women’sNet quarterly magazine, Intersections2

In the past, women's rights activists have been at the forefront of making the private public. Conceiving of the home as a private place has traditionally served men, particularly as perpetrators of domestic violence. For many people, home is a private place. Yet, universally, women are at more risk in the places where they are supposed to feel most safe, particularly within their own homes. They are also at risk from the people whom they are supposed to feel safest with - husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles - all of whom are found in the 'home' environment. For many women, violence has become a part of everyday life. According to the Tshwaranang “Violence Against Women Fact Sheet”3, 8.8 per 100,000 women 14 years and older are killed in South Africa. A woman is killed every six hours by her intimate partner, arguably the highest rate anywhere in the world. Domestic violence affects one in two women in some parts of South Africa. Only one in nine women report cases of abuse. Underlying this problem, is that in many an African culture, it is customary that what happens in the home stays within the confines of the home.

Now, however, what happens in the home is being made public in a very different manner. So what happens today when “private issues” are made public?

Is domestic violence a private issue or a public issue?

According to Lebogang Marishane, the Information and Media Manager at Women'sNet, South Africa is largely a patriarchal society. “Women and girls are still assumed to be passive and oppressed. They still have no say on anything to do with their sexuality,” she explains. Whereas systems are in place to handle cases of domestic violence, survivors are not keen to report cases as they feel that there will be no justice for them. Understandably so, as South African newspapers are full of reports about justice delayed and justice denied. A complainant in one case had to endure 25 postponements and an almost five year wait for justice, in a case being supported by activists from the One in Nine Campaign.

Domestic violence has far-reaching social and economic impacts. Non-intervention leaves women and children unprotected from violence and abuse. Communities must take up responsibility to provide protection and see it as a crime, a denial of basic rights, not a ‘private matter.’

“In South Africa, it has always been treated as a private matter. Even when women go to report these cases, they are sometimes told by the police to go and sort it out with their husbands,” Lebogang explains. In contrast to this practice, the Domestic Violence Act4 in South Africa recognizes that domestic violence is not a private matter but is a serious crime against society. The definition of domestic violence includes not only married women and children, but unmarried women who are involved in relationships or living with their partners, people in same-sex relationships, mothers and their sons, and other people who share a living space.

Patriarchy contributes to why women don’t report cases of domestic violence. “This cycle often goes on and women hide their scars for fear of stigma as society often views women who are abused as having done something wrong to deserve it,” Lebogang explains. “This is due to the status that men are given in society, that as head of households they still hold the power to control and discipline their wives, which often translates into violence against women.”

According to the South African Constitution’s Bill of Rights5, everyone has the right to privacyi, which includes the right not to have their person or home searched; their property searched; their possessions seized; or the privacy of their communications infringed. Many feminists argue that the right to privacy has limits, especially since the realm to which women are relegated – the home – is considered a private space, yet this is the space in which they are also most vulnerable to abuse6 and even murder. The ‘home’ is the place where, traditionally, women live under male dominance and the heads of households.

From policy to practice

The Domestic Violence Act7 (1998) recognizes that controlling or abusive behavior that harms the health, safety or well being of a woman, and that emotional, verbal, psychological abuse together with other forms of abuse directed at women, deny women their basic human rights. However the level of awareness about the Domestic Violence Act remains low among the populace and even the police fail to adhere to its tenets.

In 2009, the Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation reported to parliament that the South African Police failed to adhere to the requirement stipulated in the Act that every six months they should submit a report on any domestic violence incidents reported to them8.

Even when women are aware that there is legal recourse for them, they seldom act on this, and seldom seek help. In one study of 9429 cases reported within a specific area in Mpumalanga, only 63 resulted in criminal charges and only 12 women were given a Protection Order, as allowed for under the Domestic Violence Act.

So, while the Domestic Violence Act makes provision for Protection Orders (making domestic violence a matter of public record) and also requires the police to record domestic violence incidents, these good policies and practices remain paper promises.

There is legislation currently being considered that may offer some recourse, such as the Protection from Harassment Bill10 tabled in parliament in February 2010. This Bill extends protection to behavior that is defined as harassment.

ICT involvement

According to the South African Country report on Violence Against Women and Information and Communication Technologies written by Shareen Essof, privacy is not restricted to the physical realm. “It has relevance in the digital world. If we have to extend it to that realm, a definition of privacy is an individual’s right to: control the information collected about them, control how that information is used and control who has access to the information and the ability to access that personal information.”

Information and Communication Technologies are implicated as both a tool to address violence and a tool for perpetrating violence. Through the use of ICTs to amplify women's voices, Women'sNet has managed to create a space where women can speak out about violence against women. Child Line, a counselling service for children and young people in South Africa, has created a counselling space on a popular cell phone chat service called MXit (with over 12 million, mostly young, users). In spite of these spaces being threatened by censorship and closure for their openness, these organisations are creating more positive spaces online for children to be assisted.

Women’sNet and Child Line use a more positive aspect of the privacy/ information balance – tipping the scales in favour of providing positive and affirmative spaces for sharing information and engaging with the issues.

ICTs in some instances have been used to perpetuate violence, violating the privacy of women. According to the South African Country report, technology is developing faster than South African society can fully comprehend its uses and implications. “There is little understanding of the strategic use of ICTs to support combating violence against women as well as recognition of new avenues for perpetuating violence.”

ICT policyi in South Africa is complicated, but in general, the use of ICTs as a weapon for perpetrating violence against women is not included or acknowledged. The Prevention of Harassment Bill does include unwanted electronic mail and cell phone calls and SMS’ as harassment, but does not mention the use of technology as a tool for surveillancei – a common strategy for abusive men who try to control their partners. The governmenti has to come up with laws that comprehensively deal with the right to privacy. But how do you balance laws restricting the use of personal information with freedom of expressioni which is equally important to survivors of VAW?

Balancing the right to privacy and freedom of expression

The balance between the right to privacy and the right to freedom of expression and access to information is a fine one. Few feminists are in favour of the statei controlling what information can be accessed, but recognise that free flow of all information can erode women’s rights, for example through sensationalised reporting or the publication of images both online and in print media that misrepresent women.

Yet, feminists are also not in the same camp as conservative groups who would censor information that they find offensive – including information on reproductive rights and gay and lesbian rights. An example of these different approaches is in the debates surrounding pornography on the interneti. A recent Bill drafted by the Justice Alliance of South Africa (JASA)11 and presented to the Department of Home Affairs, suggests that all pornography be banned on the internet and on cell phones – claiming that women and children should be ‘protected’ from this material.

This protectionist approach is very unlikely to find favour among feminists who acknowledge women’s autonomy and freedom, but some more conservative feminists might find unlikely allies in their fight to ban sexually explicit materials which they define as demeaning women. Most feminists would agree that the right to privacy is often invoked to protect individuals and institutions such as ‘the family’. This needs to be open to interrogation and scrutiny on how women and girl children are treated and ‘protected’ by those institutions.

How much privacy can there be online?

Social networkingi, through websites such as Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Meetup and LinkedIn, present security issues for victims of stalking. A profile on a social network might include information such as your emaili address, phone number, general (or even specific) address information, birthday, legal name, names of family members, and even minute-to-minute updates on your location. This could be very good information for one to connect with like-minded people but could also act as a source of information for perpetrators of violence.

According to Shereen Essof, “Technological advances mean that women must be prepared to deal with new avenues for violence and need to be equally prepared to reclaim technology to further their own social justice struggles including of combating violence and overthrowing patriarchy.”

Online privacy is very difficult. The government needs to help protect victims through strong cyber policies and education. According to the country paper, some domestic violence perpetrators in South Africa have used tools like spyware and global positioning systems to track and control their partner’s movements by tracking their internet use and telephone communications.

The Promotion of Access to Information Act (2002) acknowledges the need to educate citizens on their rights, to enable them to participate in decision making that affects their lives. One of the action points in the country paper underscores the need for awareness raising around the intersections and interconnectedness of communications technology and violence against women.

However, as Essof notes “despite a commitment within the constitution of South Africa to gender parity and an even firmer commitment to gender equality within the national policy framework for women’s empowerment, policies take a gender neutral approach assuming that equal benefits will automatically accrue to women.” This is not the case. Women do not have the necessary skills and knowledge to function in an information society.

Users of technologies are therefore encouraged to learn about protecting their own computers and internet access to ensure their online activities remain private. Many women don’t have any form of protection when it comes to circulation of content against them on the internet or through mobile phones. The Take Back the Tech Project has been instrumental in this regard. Women are trained on how to ensure privacy especially on social networking sites.

Moving Beyond Privacy: Taking back the Tech

In 2009, the Association of Progressive Communications Women’s Networking and Support Program (APC WNSP) in partnership with Women’sNet started in South Africa a project ' Take Back the Tech! to end violence against women' to help women amplify their voices through the use of ICTs to fight violence. Implemented in 12 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, the project encourages women to use cyber space to share their problems and linkup with like-minded people to solve problems. This two and a half year initiative is supported by the Dutch government’s MDG3 Fund.

The project negotiates the fraught terrain of ICTs where freedoms of expression and information go hand in hand with growing privacy and security concerns. This acknowledges the complexities of the debate on rights and freedoms and that there is a difference in calling for the protection of privacy associated with individual rights and freedoms, than calling for the same rights to hide abuse and exploitation.
“Women’sNet works with organizations that are in direct contact with survivors of violence against women and provides platforms for women to profile their voices, tell their stories and thus share content with others who have gone through similar experiences,” Marishane explains. “These voices are often used as advocacyi tools. As in the case of digital stories, they can be used as education instruments or advocacy tools.”

According to Marishane, “the project has been received very well within the gender sector in South Africa and beyond. It is now seen as a tool to document women's stories and is widely used as it provides women with a sense of anonymity while they tell their stories in their own voices and use images that they can control and manipulate.”

The country paper underscores the need to have content online that is for women and managed by women and that is what the Tech Back the Tech campaign emphasizes. According to Marishane, creating spaces for women that are controlled by women themselves will ensure that we can better influence content posted about and by women online. “Online spaces provide a sense of anonymity, and with proper guidance women can document their stories while remaining anonymous,” she says. However with digital dangers looming online, women also need to be educated about security issues.

“They need to be empowered with skills to be able to navigate their way through the online spaces without compromising their security. It is important however to ensure that women have a presence online and that content that is relevant to them is made available,” she says. That is what Tech Back the Tech campaign encourages through for example the digital story telling.

Esther Nasikye is a strong believer in the notion that with more access to ICTs and the internet, to share and access information, transformational development in Africa will be realized faster than imagined. Esther was a community content facilitator with telecentre.org (Now telecentre.org Foundation) in East and Southern Africa. She is a trained citizen journalist and founder of ChangeWaves, a civil society organization in Uganda, East Africa that was established to support organizations, women, men and young people to access and share knowledge through ICTs for the sustainable development of Uganda and Africa. She is passionate about the use of ICTs to rid society of the core causes of under-development – gender inequalities and gender inequity.

Sally-Jean Shackleton previously worked with Women'sNet and is currently a consultant doing work related to women's voice and representation with a number of organisations. She is keenly interested in how ICTs shape women's activism and how women's activism shapes ICTs.

Source: GenderIT.org
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