The use of the internet and technology experienced exponential growth in Somalia, with more than 2 million Internet users and the cheapest internet in Africa. While more people make their way onto the internet, it is no surprise that the amount of electronic violence against women also rises. This is not a new phenomenon in the world, but this has been increasingly concerning in Somalia because it has turned the lifeline of the internet into a hostile space for women and girls.
Women and girls continue to experience increased forms of online gender-based violence, sexist abuse, doxxing, and other harms that prevent many women and girls from experiencing the benefits that the internet can offer. There is limited data on the extent of online GBV, and as a result of this, a consortium of organizations led by the Somali Women Journalists’ Rights Association (SOWJRA), Bareedo Platform Somalia, TRANSSOM, Somali Click, the Somalia Open Internet Chapter, the Open Knowledge Foundation Chapter in Somalia, WIMISOM, Biciid Magazine, Koor Films, the Somali Youth Federation, SOMGEM, Somalia Earth Volunteers, and many more organizations based in different parts of Somalia conducted a survey in 2022 aimed at knowing the extent of online gender-based violence against women and girls in Somalia.
The survey methodology used primary data collection that targeted more than 3500 women and girls throughout Somalia and also secondary data on reports and data collected by different stakeholders in Somalia indirectly regarding the matter. The primary survey was conducted targeting young women in universities and higher education schools and women in media, women popular on social media platforms, women in movements, human rights, public institutions, and business in Somalia. The survey was conducted in October 2022 and completed in November 2022. The analysis and key findings were presented in a meeting attended by different stakeholders held at SOWJRA’s office in Mogadishu on January 5, 2023, and briefly outlined below.
The Extent of Online GBV in Somalia
The prevalence of gender-based violence in Somalia, including rape, is one of the highest in the world. The same patterns that girls and women face offline are replicated by perpetrators online, turning the lifeline of the internet into a hostile space with 71% of surveyed women and girls in Somalia said they were harassed and abused online. The surveyed young women said that they continually face online harassment and abuses including blackmailing, non-consensual access and distribution of personal information, impersonation, defamation, sexist abuse, intimidation, hacking of personal accounts, recording without consent, identity theft, sexual harassment, surveillance, and cyber stalking.
Online violence against women and girls has been out of hand recently and sparked after COVID-19, with 31% of the surveyed women and girls said they face harassment and violence on the internet on a constant basis. The survey shows an increase in online gender-based violence against women and girls in Somalia in recent years compared to a small survey conducted by Bareedo Platform in the state of Puntland in Somalia in 2020, which shows a prevalence of 49%, which is much lower than the current prevalence of 71% of women and girls being harassed online.
The use of social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and SnapChat has gained momentum in Somalia and is particularly favored by young people, but these platforms remained a hostile space for women and girls. 85% of surveyed women and girls said they use social media networks, and it is the most common platform for online harassment. 50% of the survey respondents had been stalked and harassed through messaging apps, 59% said their online accounts had been hacked at least once, and 37.1% said more than once.
While all women are subjected to online harassment, particular groups, such as women in media, human rights, activism, social work, public positions, and those who are popular or active on social media platforms, are the most targeted. For example, all 39 young women who are popular on TikTok and YouTube said they were targeted online and continuously dealt with sexual harassment, defamation, sexist threats, intimidation, and hacking, showing how these abuses and threats are prevalent on them. Women in media are also the most targeted groups and face a double burden: being attacked as journalists and as women. According to the SOWJRA’s report in 2021, nearly 69% of women journalists in Somalia have experienced online abuse, harassment, threats, and attacks that forced many of them to retreat from the public sphere, leaving the male-dominated field of journalism with even fewer female voices.
Although the survey did not categorize the abusers or those behind the violence against women and girls in online spaces, but 71% of the surveyed women and girls said that online abusers are men who can be either a partner or ex-partner, friend or ex-friend, family member, or anonymous person. The women human defenders and activists surveyed said the abusers to be men, particularly those influenced by religious movements and governments who see their activism as being against religion and local cultures or promoting western ideologies in the country.
What Makes Online GBV More Prevalent in Somalia?
The use of the internet has been gaining momentum in Somalia, while the country boasts the cheapest internet and telecommunications in Africa. The onset of COVID-19 has also increased the use of the internet, causing more people to be reliant on it for many purposes. As the use of the Internet increased, so did online violence and cybercrime. While online GBV is a growing problem around the world, with women and girls facing harassment, abuse, and exploitation in digital spaces, there are underlying factors that make women more vulnerable to these problems in Somalia.
The offline sexual and gender-based violence, including domestic violence, rape, and sexual abuse, that remained widespread throughout Somalia greatly contributes to the prevalence of online GBV. The higher digital illiteracy in Somalia, particularly among women, and the limited availability of knowledge resources on digital security are factors contributing to the online violence against women in Somalia. 80% of the surveyed women and girls said they are not aware of tools and resources that can help them stay safe and also said that they find them difficult to understand or use, especially because these tools and resources are not available in the local language. Another factor contributing to the prevalence of online violence is that awareness-raising about using secure and safe Internet is not common in Somalia, and there is limited data on online harassment and abuses. The problem is often overlooked in discussions and is not perceived as a serious form of violence or an issue in Somalia, and women do not often speak about or report online abuse. 91% of the surveyed women and girls said that they didn’t report online abuse to law enforcement institutions when they are harassed because they believe that their complaints won’t be taken seriously, and they all react that reporting harassment to the police would be joking.
Other factors also include the absence of laws and policies dealing with cybercrimes in Somalia and the fact that laws dealing with gender-based violence against women and girls are not enacted and implemented in Somalia, with the exception of two regional states in Somalia that recently endorsed sexual offenses bills. There is another reality that the majority of the violence that takes place in online spaces goes unreported.
The Consequences of Online GBV on Women and Girls
The impact of online gender-based violence on women and girls in Somalia is obviously a series of challenges that prevent many women and girls from experiencing the benefits that the internet can offer. 79% of the surveyed women and girls believe online harassment to be a major problem with severe consequences, including suicide, physical assault, emotional distress, and women leaving education and online spaces in response to the damage to their reputation or fearing for their personal safety. Some of the respondents remind several young women who are popular on TikTok and YouTube whose videos in nude were posted online and then widely circulated on social media platforms, and due to that damage to reputation, some led to suicide or leaving the country.
The growing online violence and abuses caused women and girls to fear for their safety. 39% of the surveyed women and girls said they had either self-censored or stayed away from the online spaces due to fears for their safety and after seeing the increasingly hostile online environment. 37% of the survey respondents have witnessed a girl being bullied or harassed online, while 45% said they knew family members and friends who had taken a break from social media after being harassed online. This also affected women’s access to online and offline jobs due to the fear of being attacked physically.
While the consequences of online GBV are felt by all women and girls, women in media, human rights, activism, or public offices pay a special price. For example, Hawa Feminist Coalition, the only feminist-led organization in Somalia, says that about 200 of its 300 members reported being subjected to constant online harassment, impersonation, stalking, disinformation, sexual slurs and images, doxxing, threats of rape, deepfakes, and surveillance. Some feminist activists from this organization decided to self-censor and limit their interactions online, while others were driven off social media completely, pushing them again into silence.
There have been hundreds of female TikTokers and YouTubers who left Somalia as a result of harassment, abuse, and threats they experienced online that led to fear for their safety. More than 6 were killed or disappeared, while dozens forced into rehabilitation centers by their parents.
Apart from these immediate effects, it is obvious that the consequences of online GBV exacerbate women’s digital exclusion and further contribute to the greater digital gender divide, with Somali women and girls having less access to technology and the internet compared to boys and men. While there is no data exactly showing the level of access to technology and the internet of different groups in Somalia, a report published by Bareedo Platform’s Digital Help Desk in 2021 indicates that 90 percent of the parents worry about girls more than boys. In some instances, they even link their concern to the growing offline sexual violence against women and girls in Somalia.
Several UN resolutions recognize the online GBV in the international human rights framework on women’s rights and violence against women. In view of these, the government of Somalia, all levels either federal or state level and other concerned actors in Somalia need to take this matter seriously and act quickly towards establishing and safeguarding an online environment that is safe and conducive to engagement for all and to meaningfully address gender-based harassment against women and girls. Wider dialogues and discussions that bring the government together—tech companies, civil society organizations, digital rights experts, and women groups—should be organized to increase collaboration and partnerships toward solving online gender-based violence and abuse in Somalia. The investment in women’s digital literacy and their equal access to technology and the internet should be promoted and be a paramount in all development strategies, policies and plans.
The public awareness rising on safe use of the internet should be put on high priority to increase public knowledge toward understanding and eliminating threats and abuse targeting women and girls in online spaces. Schools need to include digital safety lessons and awareness-raising activities in their teaching programs to educate children and young people on the risks they may encounter when using the Internet and how they can deal with them.
What is also important is the simplification and translation of the tools and resources that can help women and girls with knowledge and information to minimize, prevent, and handle many different forms of online harassment. Particular and appropriate digital security resources and trainings. The particular needs of the most vulnerable groups, such as women in media, women in movements, human rights defenders, activism, public work, and so on, should be addressed. Trainings and rapid responses targeting these groups should be prioritized to increase their awareness and knowledge to mitigate digital risks and protect their information, data, devices, and communications against digital security risks.
Online gender-based violence is deeply rooted in discriminatory social norms and gender inequality and is often connected to prevalent offline gender-based violence in Somalia, which is one of the highest in the world. The same patterns that girls and women face offline are replicated by perpetrators online, turning the lifeline of the internet into a hostile environment for women and girls in Somalia. Some of the threats and risks targeted at women and girls include hacking, impersonation, surveillance/tracking, harassment/spamming, and the malicious distribution of intimate photos and messages.
Online GBV has been on the rise in Somalia, up to 71% by 2022. While online violence is common in Somalia, women and girls are uniquely targeted because society in general is patriarchal and offline gender-based violence is already widespread in Somalia. Popular women, such as those in social media, media, human rights, activism, and public positions, are often disproportionately targeted with online abuse, which risks further silencing their voices online.
The problem of online GBV has been out of hand and has been increasing rapidly in recent years as a result of a number of reasons, mainly the increased use of internet and technology in Somalia, further sparked after COVID-19, the high prevalence of digital illiteracy and limited digital security knowledge among women and girls, limited public awareness on safe use of the internet and the problems of online violence, and less focus on this matter by the decision-makers. The problems of online GBV resulted in severe consequences and challenges that prevented many women and girls from experiencing the benefits that the internet can offer and further exacerbated women’s digital exclusion.
In view of these, the decision-makers, civil society, tech companies, and all other concerned parties in Somalia should work toward establishing a safer internet for all. Increased knowledge on cybercrimes and how to deal with them through public awareness-raising, inclusion in school curricula, and targeted trainings are needed to effectively address online GBV in Somalia.