Your Voice Matters

On this day, back in 2010, I had the honor of speaking about how feminists in Kenya were using social media to drive change in Kenya, at the University of California, San Francisco. Prof. Wanjiru Kamau Rutenberg had discovered me through my feminist activism on twitter, read my linkedin profile, and decided she liked what she saw online. The following year, I was invited to speak about the same issues on a #FemTech panel at South By South West a.k.a #SXSW in Austin Texas. These were exciting times. I saw how women were taking back technology and using it in incredibly powerful ways. I was proud and inspired to be a part of this change. I wanted to keep learning and sharing and packing my tech box with all the digital tools I’d need to forge forward. I still do. The only thing is, the very tech spaces and tools we are using to build movements, influence policy, and advocate for changes in the lives of women offline, are now being used to perpetuate and in fact magnify the violence that women experience every day. In some ways, having experienced both sexual violence offline, cyber violence can feel like you are being raped by thousands of invisible gremlins and there’s absolutely nothing you can do except wait until they are all bored, tired, or have moved on. As if that isn’t enough, there isn’t a digital rape recovery center available for you to get therapy. So everyone just says, “Shhhh, don’t talk about it in public; you don’t want the rapists to come back.” Are we listening to ourselves? Have we not moved past the “Don’t tell anyone your uncle raped you; nobody will believe you and it will destroy the family”?

In some ways I think my experience was a real blessing. It is creating spaces for dialogue and women are speaking out. Thank you once again Niara GreySwan for making a contribution to the dialogue. I long for the day that you no longer have to write using a pen name, and that you are safe enough to engage in public spaces. Your presence at the African Development Bank session on creating safe cyber spaces for women would have been invaluable. In the meantime, just remember that your voice ALWAYS matters. Let’s #MakeITSafe and cultivate responsible digital cultures in Kenya and in Africa.

Zawadi Nyong’o

 

Happy International Women’s Day!

As a day dedicated to all women, my wish is that one day we will get to celebrate our world and no longer have to plead. Plead for fairness, equality, respect, humanity, freedom or opportunity.

This year’s theme is gender parity, which means: Empowering the woman to ensure equality. Empowerment is essential to gender equality and achieving parity is a step closer to this ambition.

People browse the Internet daily and it has become an essential part of everyday life. I would like to focus on the misuse of, and effects on individual rights and how it directly undermines the transformative power of economic, social and political advantage brought about by new technologies that should be greatly improving the lives of women.

I stand today as a victim cyber gender based violence. I was a direct target of a misguided individual who published a scandalous article about me that went viral. This article, later picked up by mainstream media propelled my life dream into a nightmare. The media house and blogger practiced no due diligence to support their claim let alone approach me for clarification/comment before publishing the allegation. This was a clear act of character assassination, and a classic example of the trend adopted by journalists/bloggers of putting speed ahead of the basic principles of accuracy and verification. As a result, I have been forced into a life of recluse. Understand that this isn’t about me cowering from life but it is a necessary act for the sake of my sanity and wellbeing.

Currently, I have several matters in court and under mediation which again force me to remain very anonymous and also very cautious about what I discuss due to the potential impact on my ongoing legal matters.

Why do I choose to write and advocate on this issue? Because, Digital Ubuntu has offered me a safe place where I can adequately use my voice and share my experience and knowledge.

In the face of this onslaught – which hasn’t been limited to harassment, humiliation and abuse – I have missed out on great life opportunities and milestones. Hence the reason I clarify that this issue needs to be addressed at a policy level as hugs and kisses do not remedy the trauma. It has severely interfered with my ability to work, to socialize and to engage online which are all necessities in life as a whole.

FACT: According to a 2009 Microsoft study, more than 80% of employers rely on candidates’ online reputations as an employment screen. Common reasons for not interviewing and hiring applicants include concerns about their digital footprint “lifestyle” “inappropriate” online comments and “unsuitable” photographs, videos and information about them.

This interference with ones economic and social advantage is nothing short of criminal. My situation made me acutely aware of how ignorant the society at large, law enforcement and even the legal fraternity not forgetting some bloggers in Kenya are when it comes to cyber harassment/violence.

I have experienced firsthand how law enforcement, attorneys and judges struggle with social media or digital evidence in cases of harassment, bullying, stalking, defamation and invasion of privacy. The struggle is largely due to the fact that, there are no laws in Kenya against this behavior, especially for private individuals.

Yes, if you have been defamed then your matter may be handled in a civil court. Sue for defamation. This is the standard response and retort from many bloggers, general public and media houses. This however, is a “Band-Aid” remedy since most of the targets that I speak with including me, cannot afford to spend the thousands/millions of shillings required to litigate such an action.

To put things into perspective, I am now a year into litigation and down 2,850,000.00 and counting to just get the process STARTED on ONE case and into court. This situation could’ve been avoided by one phone call to me and fact checking the story presented by the source.

Sadly, I have seen many individual users, bloggers/media houses routinely re-publish and re-tweet a hot scandal “because if it bleeds it leads” – they then assure their readers that they’re trying to confirm or corroborate the story. Well, thanks, but how does that mitigate the damage of publishing an article or tweeting something without clear, factual accuracy. Shouldn’t a story be balanced? Shouldn’t the subject of inquest contribute? Publishing rumors and gossip leads to harassment, humiliation and other unspeakable can of worms. It is nothing short of criminal negligence.

They should know the cost of a libel suit. They should understand the age old process of due diligence and mostly, they should be held accountable when callous pieces lead to damage career and relationship damage.

I fully support the right to freedom of speech and expression. However, we need to understand that with rights and freedoms comes responsibility, this is clearly outlined in our constitution. Free speech is not protected when it involves threats to the emotional or physical safety of anyone. The same constitution protects and states that every Kenyan has a right to a reputation.

My story offers an opportunity to transform the conversation around cyber harassment/violence. Together we can transform society’s response to gendered online abuse and harassment. I urge you to use your private spaces and public influence, to educate others about this issue and be a catalyst for real change.

In my next article, I will share what needs to change.

By

Niara GreySwan

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