From sensitisation to changing women's lives: Understanding tech-related violence in the DRC

In this article, Bianca Baldo interviews Françoise Mukuku and Patience Luyeye from Si Jeunesse Savait. In partnership with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC), they carried out the research mapping technology-related violence against women in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). In the interview, they elaborate on some of the findings, gaps in legislation, ambiguous role of internet services providers, and how justice is defined by survivors.



Bianca Baldo (BB): Technology related violence against women (TRVAW) often goes unreported. How were the cases highlighted in the “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online” project by APC brought to your attention?



Françoise Mukuku (FM): Some cases of TRVAW had been widely documented by the press, while others were brought to our attention through our awareness sensitisation activities, particularly our exchanges with schools, universities and women rights organisations and activists. In addition, a small number of cases had been revealed by victims themselves.



Patience Luyeye (PL): Some cases have been reported by participants through our advocacy work on the issue of TRVAW, while others have been brought to our attention by survivors who said it had become commonplace to share photos or videos of a person without their permission and without concern of the consequences by the perpetrator. Photos and videos of women and girls began to circulate through different types of information technology and communications (ICT) and victims felt helpless in these situations as they did not know what to do.



BB: Based on your professional observations and community feedback, what have been the most successful elements and what were the challenging areas following this work?



We observed that people often minimise these forms of violence and others were even unaware that sharing a private photo or video is considered a form of violence.



FM: Our success was mainly achieved through awareness and public activities. These initiatives allowed us to report local cases to the international community on the Take Back The Tech! website. As a consequence, the Tech Without Violence campaign allowed numerous women to understand that what they were experiencing was not a bad joke but actually violence.



PL: We observed that people often minimised these forms of violence and others were even unaware that sharing a private photo or video is considered a form of violence. They are often surprised to find out, after being informed through our sensitisation activities, that such forms of violence is very real, it destroys and disrupts the lives of those affected.



BB: Since the study, have you observed an increased interest and commitment to awareness and public education against TRVAW?



FM: No, we have not. This was mostly due to the fact that we did not circulate the study in its entirety but rather used selected pieces for our advocacy work on policy. Also, we believe that the study did not reveal much about potential strategies for future victims, mainly because among the three stories documented, none had successfully sought justice through judicial remedies.



In addition, we encountered challenges in offering support towards using legal recourse because the violence experienced was done over the phone. In these cases, there were difficulties identifying the responsibilities of telephone operating companies. The fact that these operators offered little cooperation during this process hindered the process.



PL: Unfortunately, there has not been an increase in interest in popular education and awareness activities against TRVAW since the publication of the research.



BB: In one of the cases highlighted by the DRC, a young girl was victim to the unauthorised use of nude pictures on Facebook. What steps would you consider crucial to increase young women’s protection against these types of abuses?



We wanted to be clear on the fact that this campaign was not about preventing adolescent girls from accessing the internet or protecting all women like they were children.



FM: Throughout our advocacy work, we found that young girls had particular needs for protection but we decided that it should not be our main awareness message. We wanted to be clear on the fact that this campaign was not about preventing adolescent girls from accessing the internet or protecting all women like they were children. We emphasized the need to understand this type of violence and to prevent cases of violations by educating users about what is allowed and what is allowed on the internet.



PL: We promoted the use of ICTs as an important tool in the present development of skills and encourage young people to use it, while explaining some tips on how to prevent online violence, especially clarifying the difference between what is considered private and public information.



BB: In another case, TRVAW was directly related to violence against the LGBTQ communities in the DRC. Are there any legislative or other protection mechanisms against violations based on sexual orientation?



FM: There is unfortunately no special legal protection for LGBTQ in the DRC. We have already tried to put forward the argument that our laws do not criminalise against homosexuality and that these abuses are often done in the context of the daily harassment from the police.



Unfortunately, this argument made it challenging to talk about specific violence that targets the LGBTQ community because it can happen to everyone in a context of widespread violence against women. As you know, the rate of sexual violence in the DRC is quite high and lesbians and other women from LGBTQ communities are no exception to this.



PL: Congolese legislation does not yet have any specific laws that protect LGBTQ issues. Therefore at this level, it remains difficult to lobby for the prevention of online violence experienced by the LGBTQ community. There are no legal texts on which they can rely on to denounce the injustices and inequalities they face. There are no legal protection mechanisms against violence based on sexual orientation.



BB: The transnational nature of TRVAW makes seeking justice for local abuses challenging because violators are located outside of the survivor’s country. In the case study where the ex-boyfriend hacked the survivor’s blog site and posted violent and harassing messages, the survivor attempted to seek justice through both governments in the DRC and France. She was unable to find justice because no authority had the competence to render the abuser accountable. What changes would you like to see to rectify this situation?



FM: Unfortunately, the process of seeking justice in a foreign country was not very clear and entailed numerous expenses for the survivor. For example, the French government asks survivors to go in person to file a complaint, which meant buying a plane ticket, getting a visa and finding a lawyer in France. This presented financial challenges to the survivor.



Moreover, navigating the process to qualify for assistance from the Congolese government was unclear. We are able to find one person, a public servant from Ministry of Foreign Affairs, who knew the process but unfortunately she was not available when the victim needed assistance.



As for the administrative solution to write to the CNIL, it was not only expensive but also difficult to evaluate since the victim never received any feedback related to her request. It had to send by international registered mail courier which is quite expensive.



To answer your question, this violence should be treated as we treat transnational economic crimes of violence with the possibility of involving existing mechanisms and if possible inexpensive recourse for the victim.



PL: It requires a strengthening of international laws that condemn the use of TRVAW when the violator is in a country other than the one of the victim.



BB: What has been the response of local services providers, including cell companies, social services and police? What needs to be done to strengthen their capacity to better protect against these crimes?



Often, these dispositions were only available in English, even though the service was provided in a French speaking country.


FM: Their answers were quite ambiguous. They consistently sent us back to their regulatory charters that existed on their sites. Often, these dispositions were only available in English, even though the service was provided in a French speaking country, and were numerous. We were unable to tell which dispositions covered which corporate responsibility.



We also found that they used the same charters for all countries of operations. They failed to provide sufficient feedback on dispositions that specifically targeted violence against women in the Congo.



PL: I found their answers were very vague. For the simple reason that they had not yet considered the need to provide security settings for women using their services and to show concern about these forms of violence.



BB: In numerous cases, women are unable to find legal remedies based on financial incapability to pay legal fees. Are you aware of organisations in the DRC that provide legal assistance in cases of TRVAW abuses?



FM: There are organisations that provide legal assistance for the crime of violence against women. Unfortunately, TRVAW is not officially considered to be violence against women and legal defenders lack the expertise to take on such cases. We had numerous conversations with advocates and lawyers during the project, who stressed that they had never received this kind of case and held reservations on the chances to defend it successfully in court.



BB: Seeking justice can present both psychological, physical and community challenges for survivors. How does your organisation support survivors of TRVAW and protect women from re-victimisation?



FM: We do not offer any special support to victims other than upgrading services for the security of their communication technologies in order to prevent potential abuse.



BB: Since the realisation of the study, have there been any additional TRVAW cases brought to your attention?



FM: Yes, we have received new cases. Most cases involve the theft of personal information by intimate partners, where passwords and other data were shared. These are similar types of abuses that we have documented so far throughout our sensitisation campaign.



BB: The concept of justice is wide and complex. In what ways did the women understand justice in their own lives?



Justice did not depend on sending the abuser to prison, but rather putting an end to violence so that life could resume its normal course.


FM: Our research has shown that for most victims, justice did not depend on sending the abuser to prison, but rather putting an end to violence so that life could resume its normal course.



BB: Organisations working against TRVAW often find themselves at the front line against human rights violations. Consequently, have there been any negative consequences on your organisation for working against TRVAW?



FM: At the very beginning of the project, our website was hacked by a group that was supposedly based in Turkey and whom left inappropriate messages on our old site. After understanding that our particular vulnerability came from our host, we redesigned the site and moved our hosting elsewhere. It took us time, money and energy to rebuild. Sadly, we decided to prohibit certain communication elements such as feedback from our fans and users of the site.



BB: How can TRVAW be understood in relation to other forms of VAW, patriarchal norms and gender discrimination in the DRC?



FM: These violations are sneaky, they only happen to segments of the population that are connected to technology and to members of women’s movements. Abusers are often older, do not understand and do not consider these acts as a form of rights violations. Yet, these abuses are widespread and cause the same damage as domestic or sexual violence.



They are often perpetrated among teenagers and women trying to stand up against socially predetermined gender roles. The women’s movement would have everything to gain from embarking on the combat against TRVAW.



BB: Are you optimistic about the work being done? How do you see this work impacting women’s human rights?



FM: We are optimistic because there is great interest in further understanding this matter and we believe that this campaign will allow for us to better comprehend violence against women in the DRC. As an organisation working against TRVAW, we have created a niche for which we are recognized and appreciated by other women’s organizations.



PL: Yes, we are optimistic that the work done has changed many women’s lives. Women are informed about TRVAW and can repair or find justice.



This article is part of APC’s project “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online”, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS).



For more information about the multi-country research visit the research site



Picture by Si Jeunesse Savait