Raising youth awareness and seeking support for “policies that favour a feminist internet”: Taking back the tech with CITAD

CITAD members discuss online gender based violence on Rahma TV.
Nigeria-based Take Back the Tech! campaigner Centre for Information Technology and Development (CITAD) organised a number of activities, both online and offline, this year, including workshops for young women in secondary schools and radio and television segments on digital rights and risks online. They even developed a lexicon for online gender based violence. We caught up with CITAD Program Assistant Maryam Ado Haruna about the campaign highlights and evolving public conversation around violence online in Nigeria. 
 
Take Back the Tech: One of CITAD's main activities during the 16 days was a series of workshops and outreach activities at secondary schools in the area to raise awareness about online gender based violence and the need to create safer online spaces for young girls in Nigeria. Can you tell us more about these presentations?
 
Maryam Ado Haruna: The goal of the outreach was for female students in secondary schools to have an adequate understanding of the concept of online gender based violence (GBV) as well as its effects and prevalence in Nigeria. It was also meant to help students know how to respond to online GBV when it occurs or is likely to happen by better protecting themselves from victimisation online. In the presentations, students were told about the need to safeguard their online accounts and all other online behaviours. Online safety and security tools were presented to them.
 
The presentations were divided into different sessions. The first presentation focused on understanding online GBV and the second on online safety and security tools. 
 
TBTT: What kind of questions did the girls ask? 
 
MAH: In Abuja, some of the comments and questions included:
  • "How can we reduce this online violence against women and girls?”
  • "We need you to encourage our parents on the importance of the internet to us”
  • “Please guide us more on how to make positive use of our phones and not just for chatting“
In Kano, most questions were asked in the local language as students were less confident of their English. Here are some of their questions:
  • "Why is it that girls have to face this serious challenge of GBV online?"
  • "My dad didn't want me to use social media because according to him, it will expose me to a lot of immoralities. He used to say the internet isn't important to me at all."
  • "I use social media such as Facebook and WhatsApp, so many times, some guys would want me to be having dirty chat but I don’t want to. How do I protect myself from them?"
  • "This presentation is really important to us especially us girls who are vulnerable to such things. I hope myself and other girls around will utilise what we have heard here effectively."
The engagement exhibited by the students from the beginning of the presentations to the end showed their interest in the topic. Some of them expressed that they would adopt the tools they learnt from the workshops and utilise the internet for self-empowerment as well as teach the lessons they had learnt to other girls who could not attend: This presentation is really important to us especially as we girls are vulnerable to such things. I hope myself and other girls will utlilise what we have heard here effectively.” This was the nature of outreach across the four schools we visited.
 
TBTT: Why do you think this kind of education is so essential for young people and students? What are some of the common issues facing Nigerian youth when it comes to gender norms and gender based violence online?
 
MAH: The usage and influence of social media among students of secondary and even tertiary schools is so visible in our society. Most of these students are provided with these devices without any orientation on how to use them or training around online protection tools to prevent cybercrime and online GBV. Most of them use [these devices] only for entertainment, especially chats and games. This has made so many girls victims of gender based violence online since they do not know how to protect themselves. Similarly, many boys or young men have become perpetrators of online GBV without understanding its negative impacts on girls and even society at large. Some of them perpetrate GBV subconsciously. Women in Nigeria, especially in northern Nigeria, are also expected to appear less online. This has made so many men and boys jeopardise women or girls who have an online presence, especially those in the public domain. Thus, many gendered hate speeches and other forms of online violence are perpetrated against women and girls in Nigeria. These have been the gender norms online in Nigeria for a very long time. This therefore demands and calls for more sensitisation and education of both young male and female Nigerians, especially students, on the concept of online GBV, the harm it can cause and how to counter it. Our understanding of the issue is based on findings from various research projects carried out by CITAD.
 
TBTT: Does CITAD also conduct workshops with young men, or is this something that you plan to do in future? 
 
MAH: Although it wasn't a part of the 16-day campaign, CITAD has in the past involved men and boys in online safety and security training and explained the role they can play in countering gender violence online. We also involved men/boys in focus group discussions and surveys to find the reasons men perpetrate online GBV since our research has shown that men are mostly the perpetrators. 
 
TBTT: Could you tell us more about your research on online gender based violence? Where could we find these reports and findings?
 
MAH: Some of our research is still undergoing validation processes and I will provide links to these findings when they are due for distribution. Here are some links to published outcomes of our research projects: Towards a Gender Digital Inclusion Agenda for Nigeria, Promoting Greater Access to Internet for Female Students of Secondary Schools, Internet for Men? The Digital Marginalisation of women in Northern Nigeria, Overcoming Gender-Based Digital Exclusion in Northern Nigeria: a strategy document.
 
TBTT: CITAD also participated in a number of TV and radio programmes under the theme "Countering Gender Violence Online: Towards a Gender Digital Inclusion in
Nigeria." What were some of the most interesting moments of this initiative? Why did you choose to talk about these issues through radio and television programs?
 
MAH: Let me start with the radio programme. There were many calls and text messages read aloud during the show, and the most interesting moment was when callers started to express their opinions about online GBV. Their comments and questions showed that the general impression of this issue has started to change, in the sense that the audience has begun to cultivate an open mind to countering online GBV. Before, most audience members who called in during our programmes would reveal a lack of awareness around the whole concept.
Many people perceived that we were just trying to subject women and girls to the negativity happening on the internet. Back then, during our earlier efforts to combat online GBV and campaign for digital inclusion, many people thought that we were trying to expose women and girls to indecency online, especially because virtue is so strongly attached to women and girls. But now, the perception has started changing, as indicated by their comments. However, awareness around the importance of the internet to women and the negative impacts of GBVO on women and girls is still low, but at least we are seeing some changes. 
 
After the TV programme aired, many people left comments for us showing their support for the campaign. We got a lot of commendations from people, verbally as well as on Facebook and WhatsApp, as a result of our programmes both on TV and radio. Actually, this has been the most exciting part of our campaign - to see that our efforts are making a positive impact, no matter how little. We assume that we reached at least one million people through the radio programme, and we can’t tell exactly about the TV programme. We chose to discuss this issue on the TV and radio because of the capacity of the two mediums to reach audience at different levels, and help set the agenda for people to support digital inclusion as well as counter online gender violence in Nigeria. 
 
TBTT: What role do you think the media is playing or should play in promoting women's empowerment and safety online? How would you describe the public conversation in Nigeria around gender-based violence online (and offline)? 
 
MAH: The media is key because it has the voice to reach people at both top and grassroot levels, and the capacity to create awareness on a particular issue - either to clear up common misconceptions, sensitise about its negativity or share its importance. This has made the media so important in this campaign. We solicited the support of journalists in our various activities during the #TBTT campaign and do hope the support will be sustainable. Media should, through daily news reporting and other special programmes, set an agenda and make online GBV a public discussion until the society fully understands this risk and the government starts providing policies or laws that will properly tackle this issue. The media can do more by pressuring all relevant stakeholders to take action to counter online GBV in Nigeria. The media should initiate a number of campaigns targeted at men specifically, aiming to challenge traditional concepts of masculinity associated with violence. 
 
For women, online GBV has become an issue of discussion and concern, especially for those who have been victims of this menace in one way or another. Some women see the internet as a weapon that can destroy them, while some have embraced the internet. By raising the level of awareness on this topic, we believe perpetrators will stop harassing women online and offline. People are not fully aware of the importance of the internet to women, especially in relation to societal development. They don't know how women can utilise technology for self-empowerment, so they don't support women's internet use. Online GBV is at times also committed subconsciously, without perpetrators realising the negative impact it has on women and girls. We believe that with adequate awareness, perpetrators will put an end to these acts and stop harassing women online and offline.
 
TBTT: Are there any existing policies around this issue right now? How is online GBV dealt with from a political or legal standpoint in the country?
 
MAH: There are not any specific policies around GBV online. Prosecutors rely on the 2014 cybercrime act which does not directly and specifically address this topic.
 
TBTT: One of the other initiatives CITAD developed during the 16-day campaign was the creation of a lexicon to document the most common terms used to perpetrate violence online. Can you explain how the project worked? Where can we find this tool online? Why is CITAD interested in developing a clear vocabulary around gender-based violence? How do you think this could help with advocacy and activism?
 
MAH: The document is still undergoing validation and review processes. CITAD will provide the GBV online Lexicon when it is due for publication. The lexicon is an important document and a step towards combating online gender based violence. It consists of commonly used terms, words, phrases or entire statements that are considered to be offensive or harmful to women and girls on the internet. The lexicon also explains why the term is offensive, which are most frequently used, the degree of offensiveness, etc. We think this will greatly help activists or advocates working to create a safer internet for women and counter violence against women online.
 
TBTT: Are there any particular issues CITAD is hoping to focus on this year? What can we expect to see in terms of advocacy around online gender-based violence and how do we keep up with your activities? 
 
MAH: As CITAD has already come up with a National Digital Inclusion Agenda, we will focus on working with various responsible stakeholders in Nigeria to garner support for policies that favour a feminist internet in Nigeria. We want to advocate for policies that will protect women's digital rights and support their participation on the internet as well as laws that would punish perpetrators of online gender based violence..
 
TBTT: Thank you for telling us about your campaign, and all the best with your upcoming advocacy and activities!