The reality of getting online in Jamaica: How mobile phones and social media lead to violence against women

20 April 2016

According to the research report “Violence against women and the use of information and communications technologies in Jamaica”, there is insufficient recognition of the relationships between information and communications technologies (ICTs) and violence against women (VAW) in the country, and VAW in its many forms continues to be a serious problem. At the same time, the research notes that Jamaica has registered an increased in the use of ICTs such as the internet and mobile phones. “Given the pervasive nature of both gender-based violence and ICT use in Jamaican life, there are areas of overlap,” states the report. The findings of the Jamaican research share overwhelming similarities with the findings in APC's “From impunity to justice” research. For example, in both, Facebook was the main platform where experiences of online abuse or harassment had taken place, many cases of technology-related VAW were not reported, and most of the perpetrators were known to the victims, among other points of coincidence.

To know more about the Jamaican context and the research, GenderIT.org interviewed one of the authors of the report, Dhanaraj Thakur, a research fellow at the Centre for Leadership and Governance of the University of the West Indies (Mona Campus) in Kingston, Jamaica.

“He got so paranoid that he set up a fake Facebook account and started to literally stalk me there.”

GenderIT.org: Violence against women (VAW) often goes unreported. How did you identify the cases you mapped in the research and have you dealt with any difficulties in speaking to women about the cases?

Dhanaraj Thakur (DT): Identifying cases was very difficult, so we relied on existing support groups and organisations to act as intermediaries. They understood the purpose of our work and the benefits. Thus, they helped to identify potential persons to talk to and to share their experiences and insights with us. However, that was just the first step. It was also very important for us to protect the identity and safety of any potential person that spoke to us. We took steps such as meeting in safe venues, not recording personally identifiable information in any of our reports or publications, changing any reports that we drafted so as not to identify any unique experiences, making sure that only women from our team talked to other women, and ensuring that the timing and context of the talk would not jeopardise the woman’s safety in any way.

In addition, we made sure to emphasise we were not seeking to talk to “victims” but rather women who had experienced violence and who were willing to share their experiences for the benefit of others. We wanted to make the sharing of their experiences as beneficial to them as possible and we asked them to offer suggestions for how other girls and women might become better aware of how technology is related to VAW.

“Most recently, a young lady attempted suicide because of being harassed online. She went out with her friends to the beach and her bathing suit exposed her, and the pics were posted online. Persons online distorted the image with pictures of animals and made hurtful comments which drove her to attempt suicide.”

GenderIT.org: Your research, among other things, studied how ICTs influence risk factors associated with VAW. What did you find out? Does technology actually enable the violence that women experience, or is it just a reflection of offline realities?

DT: I think it’s both. We examined experiences where ICTs enabled violence and harassment, and where it exacerbated what was already an abusive situation. For example, we reported a case where a group of young women met with some men in an online space and over time were convinced to meet them offline, which led to sexual violence. Another trend we reported is for men to meet with girls online (often of high school age or younger) and then arrange to meet them offline for sex. In such cases we argue that ICTs actually enable these kinds of encounters because they present an ostensibly neutral and safe space (i.e., the online space) for people to meet. The reality is that these spaces are not neutral nor safe, but are instead used by predators to target girls.

In Jamaica (and similar countries) this problem is made worse by the fact that some people often do not have regular or affordable internet access, and do not yet have sufficient skills or experience to differentiate between the various motives of people they will meet online. In fact, we noted that when many young Jamaicans do eventually get constant online access (e.g., on a university campus) they tend to use online platforms extensively, much more than before, and often without the right precautions. This means that they often encounter illegal sharing of their photos/videos, revenge porn, and other forms of abuse.

Alternatively, in other cases such as abusive relationships we found that ICTs (the mobile phone in particular) were used as tools of control. The man would limit access to the phone or would constantly check it to monitor what the woman was doing and whom she was contacting. This always led to arguments or worse, as access to the ICT was just an excuse for the man to exercise power and control in the relationship. In fact, a few of the women we spoke to felt that these ICTs (whether it was their phone or their Facebook account) actually made their experience worse. In these cases, the ICTs did not create any new forms of VAW as the relationships were already abusive.

“Him always search mi phone to, read every single message, look through my pictures and delete what him feel like to delete; and is my phone.”

GenderIT.org: Anonymity is important for women's safety and expression, but simultaneously anonymity is used by perpetrators to get away with violence. How was anonymity implied in your research and the cases mapped?

DT: This is an interesting question. One of our survey findings was that of those who suffered online abuse, almost half said they knew the perpetrator. Only 21% said the perpetrator was unknown to them. Thus, anonymity is important here but in many ways online abuse can mirror offline abuse where the abuser and abused know each other.

“Each time I put up a pic on social media, I'm harassed by people who like my figure and want me to be with them sexually.”

GenderIT.org: Based on the research findings, what changes would you like to see in next two to five years?

DT: As a first step we need to raise more awareness about the impacts of online abuse and VAW in Jamaica and the Caribbean. Our survey results show that one out of five persons in Jamaica has experienced online abuse or harassment, yet there is very little public discussion about this. Our report puts forwards several recommendations to address the problem. One of the most important is making sure people have the skills and knowledge to protect themselves online. Take Back the Tech! (TBTT) has done lot of work in this regard and I would love to see civil society groups and others in the Caribbean partnering with the TBTT team to share these skills.

For example, a first step could be to set up a programme to train high school students on digital security and how to protect themselves online. In fact, some experts we spoke to suggested that this training take place even before high school, at the primary school level.

We also argued that another important venue for raising awareness about online VAW is the church. Jamaica is predominantly a Christian country and the majority of church members are women, and so this would be an ideal space to talk about safety online, and indeed VAW generally.

At a policy and legal level, there remain several gaps that should be addressed. For example, the current Sexual Offences Act needs to be reformed to protect men and women against all forms of sexual violence, and the current Cybercrimes Act does not specifically address online harassment or abuse (although it does provide recourse against the theft of data, e.g., personal images and videos).

GenderIT.org: How do you see the role of ICT companies in preventing and addressing VAW taking place on their platforms?

DT: When we talk about Jamaica and the Caribbean, the main ICT companies are the internet service providers (ISPs) and the mobile phone companies. There are few online content platforms such as Facebook that are from the region. That said, I think there is a huge role for these ISPs and mobile phone companies to play in helping to reduce online forms of VAW. For example, they can partner with civil society groups or governments to support the training programmes mentioned above – such as online safety and awareness training for high school students. This could also include training sessions at existing public access facilities. In Jamaica there is already a network of community access points and connected public libraries across the country that can facilitate these training sessions.

In addition, the ISPs and mobile phone companies can support public awareness campaigns around the issue of ICTs and VAW. This can both help to educate the public about this important issue as well as promote their brand. Of course, such a campaign can be timed to coincide with TBTT’s own global campaign.

Finally, turning to content providers such as Instagram, Facebook, etc., it’s fair to say that they are already working on this to some extent but can perhaps support more, broader education campaigns on how to use their platforms in a safer way. More specifically, these platforms need to be smarter about recognising the sharing of nude or sensitive media – not all of this is unwarranted but sometimes it is shared without permission and with tremendous consequences. While full photo or video recognition technology might not be available yet, the use of tags in photos or videos could be part of a broader system of seeking permission from users when others share photos/videos of them.

More generally, those that manage social networking platforms for video/photos or even chat need to be sensitive of the many ways in which people can be abused in online spaces. This should help them incorporate such sensitivities in the algorithms they employ or in the rules they establish for the use of their platforms.

The research project “Violence against women and the use of information and communications technologies in Jamaica” was funded by theRegional Fund for Digital Innovation in Latin America and the Caribbean (FRIDA)

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