Nakuru, Nakuru County — The rise in gender-based violence assisted by technology – including cyberbullying, cyberstalking, doxxing, hate speech, and gendered disinformation – is a continuation of offline violence, driven by negative social norms and inequalities.
Young people embraced digital avenues for civic participation in the run-up to the Kenya general elections in August, but this opened them up to greater personal risk of online sexual and gender-based violence.
“In times of crisis such as political unrest, women and girls are at higher risk of gender-based violence,” said UNFPA Humanitarian Specialist John Wafula.
Kenya has an internet penetration rate of 82 per cent, a strong culture of online content consumption and active use of social media spaces. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the shift to online spaces grew was reinforced by restrictions on physical gatherings.
Gender-based violence and harmful practices targeting adolescent girls and young women are the most pervasive barriers faced by young people to achieving their full potential.
“For many girls on campus, the shame associated with sexual violence stops them from speaking out. Many are victims of both online and offline violence, but they remain quiet and [are] afraid to seek help because they don’t want to be labelled as sexually immoral, or to experience further public embarrassment,” said Alice Mueni*.
Said Grace Kithure: “Some young women and girls may not even have the knowledge to identify gender-based violence when it happens to them, because it has been normalized by society. We need to work harder to sensitize communities via multiple platforms, including through radio, community events, and digital campaigns.”
These two young women joined a youth engagement forum in the lead-up to Kenya’s 2022 elections, to learn how to prevent technology-assisted gender-based violence, with a strong focus on rising incidences on social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.
“By sensitizing young people in locations identified as potential hotspots for this kind of unrest, UNFPA hopes to equip them with the necessary tools to identify, prevent and respond to acts such as abuse, harassment and hate speech, in online spaces that are targeted at others based on their gender identity,” said Mr. Wafula.
The training forum was organised by UNFPA in partnership with Healthcare Assistance Kenya (HAK 1195), the Gender Violence Recovery Centre, and the Collaborative Centre for Gender and Development.
Youth as agents of change
At the forum in Nakuru county, young people were encouraged to develop innovative and sustainable solutions to the challenges of digital violence. They were trained on online safety, as well as strategies for cultivating positive digital norms on social media platforms, where a majority of the youth are present.
“It starts with making sure we have the right kind of leadership and political will to address illiteracy, poverty, and lack of agency among the youth,” said Robert.* Having experienced gender-based violence online and offline due to his sexual orientation and gender identification, he works with young people to address discriminatory social norms and gender stereotypes that drive violence.
Healthcare Assistance Kenya highlighted the national GBV helpline 1195, a service that helps survivors of gender-based violence cope with Internet-based harm and abuse. The helpline offers free psychosocial support and referrals.
UNFPA works with government and civil society to advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, girls, and young people, and to address the causes and consequences of gender-based violence, especially its effects on sexual and reproductive health. In emergency contexts, UNFPA advances efforts to integrate gender-based violence risk mitigation and support for victims and survivors in humanitarian response, to ensure all spaces are safe and free from violence.
*Names withheld to protect privacy.