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Un-Social Media: Online Spaces Are Just As Gendered And Hostile To Women

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Online abuse is any type of abuse that takes places on the internet, and can occur on any device that is connected to the web like computers laptops, tablets, and mobile phones. This article discusses how increasingly the social media spaces are becoming vulnerable for women, while online abuse is being normalised on the one hand and is going unchecked by policy regulators, on the other. The effects of online abuse often leave long lasting impact on the psyche of the individual; the abuse can be in the form of text messages, emails, online chats, or trolls.

Gauri Lankesh was shot in September 2017 and she had faced social media threats.

Pew Research Center (2017) identifies six forms of online harassment, that is, offensive name calling, purposeful embarrassment, physical threats, sustained harassment, sexual harassment and stalking. Trolls are organised and work in well ‘networked’ ways. The online abuse can be contextualised within the context of polarisation and hatred in contemporary society, indicative of the tendencies which are increasingly becoming intolerant towards the opinion of the ‘other’ person. The trolls are targeted and weaponised to suppress criticism, opinions, beliefs, and opposition often conducive of social hierarchies and inequalities.

Online abuse can be experienced by all genders but for women, is symptomatic to larger patterns of gender-based violence, embedded in systematic structures of inequality and hierarchies. The Digital Hifazat conducted a survey of 500 women and people of other marginalised genders, and 57% of respondents had faced cyber violence and trolls were targeted to feminism, politics, and religion.

While we argue for a democratic space, we also understand how online spaces are gendered and access is not equitable to women across social, economic, and political categories. In the past few years, rather under the current political regime, many academicians, intellectuals, comedians, policymakers, authors, poets, film-makers, journalists, even politicians have been subjected to online trolls.

Amnesty International with the help of 1912 Decoders from 82 countries and 26 states in India analysed 114,716 tweets which mentioned 95 women politicians in India over a three month period around the 2019 General elections in India and revealed that 13.8 % of the tweets were abusive. On an average, each woman politician received 113 abusive tweets every day. Muslim women politicians received 94.1% more ethnic or religious slurs as compared to women from other religions. Caste-based abuse accounted for 59% as compared to women from General caste.

Samiksha Koirala studied 48 female journalists’ experience of online harassment in Nepal and argued that the attempt is to silence and threaten the press freedom, and a significant number of incidents of abuse go unreported due to culture of shame as well as ineffective legislation. Indian female journalists have been vocal about their experiences of online abuse.

Rana Ayyub, a journalist and an author argues that the abuse is constant and a routine for her, in one such attempt her face was morphed on a pornographic video and was sent to her relatives, parents and neighbours. Barkha Dutt is a senior journalist; her mobile number was shared on multiple online platforms urging people to send abusive and threatening messages. Gauri Lankesh was shot in September 2017 and she had faced social media threats. A study by Trollbusters and the International Women’s Media Foundation had found that 40% female journalists they interviewed had stopped writing about stories that would be followed up by online abuse.

The recent case, which once again brought the discussion in the public sphere, highlighted by the media was of Agrima Joshua, a comedian based in Maharashtra. However, for many women, it is an everyday experience. Another research study conducted in-depth interviews of 109 bloggers who identified themselves as feminists in Germany, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States and revealed that 73.4% had negative experiences involving abusive comments included stalking, trolls, rape threats, death threats, and unpleasant offline encounters.

Women trolled online
They are treated in isolation, and not associated with how it expands misogynistic public attitudes in an online community.

Historically, we have seen how gender-based sexual violence against women has been used to silence the women. In social media, the attempt and the intent is much similar, to threaten and silence her. The marks of physical injuries are always visible, the intent of pain or sufferings can be numerically measured, but the impact of trolls is psychological, injuries are invisible, pain or sufferings are immeasurable and the attack can be repetitive. Online abuse is seen or discussed outside of the paradigm of gendered violence. They are treated in isolation, and not associated with how it expands misogynistic public attitudes in an online community.

There is under reporting of crime and violence against women in general, there is fear in addition to the trauma attached with police’s and judiciary’s response. In Bihar’s district Araria, it’s been 20 days and we witnessed one of the peculiar attempts by a civil court where the gang rape survivor was sent behind the bars for ‘obstructing the proceedings of the court.’ The survivor could get the bail on July 17 after the intervention was made by 400 lawyers, 7000 individuals and 500+ organisations from 24 states, however the two social workers, Kalyani Badola and Tanmay Nivedita from Jan Jagran Shakti Sangathan, have been denied bail.

The reporting of hate content or trolls over social media is extremely low. Individualistic ways of dealing with trolls have been blocking the person or the social media account. Though in order to file a complaint, one is advised to keep the evidence such as screenshots, report the abuse immediately to the online platform, complaint to cyber cell, and seek immediate support from mental health professionals, if the threats are serious in nature, file a complaint with local authorities. To look out for useful online contents, reports, manuals, toolkits to combat online violence, check here.

Should we be afraid of the trolls? Isn’t it the same fear for which our families ask us not to open a social media account, or not to upload our ‘skin revealing’ pictures. Instead we need to provide it a social context, consider it as a social problem. We need to recognise how trolls for women are always sexualised, instead of feeling sorry for raising an opinion; we need to reclaim our spaces, online as well as offline.

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  1. Atul Sharma

    Very nicely articulated and researched article. Well done author 👏👏

    1. Twinkle Siwach

      Thank you for reading!

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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