In Bangladesh, like many other middle-income countries of global south, women are targets of systemic inequality and patriarchal dominance in almost all layers of the society. Bangladesh has seen rapid rise in Information Communication Technology (ICT) infrastructure and usage over last 10 years. With present trend of technological advancements, women have difficulties to cope up with digital world facing a number of challenges every day. In 2017, it was reported that, 73% of women internet users in Bangladesh had experienced some sort of cyber/ digital harassment which took a hike of 80% in 2021. The number increases every year in almost similar pattern if not more. According to United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), Technology-facilitated Gender-based Violence, or TFGBV, is an act of violence perpetrated by one or more individuals that is committed, assisted, aggravated and amplified in part or fully by the use of ICT or digital media, against a person on the basis of their gender. It may occur online but also manifests in physical spaces, including femicide, killing of a woman or girl, in particular by a man and on account of her gender.
At present, there are more females than males in Bangladesh, according to 2022 census (83.34 million female and 81.71 million male). While both the Prime Minister and the leader of opposition are women, majority of decision-making positions are held by men. Though female participation has been increasing in public and private sectors, digital space is largely dominated by male chauvinist users who do not find it offensive to initiate TFGBV against women. However, there is a clear discrimination of treatment experienced by mainstream women, ‘other’ women and non-binary people in terms of digital justice and empowerment. While basic human rights are almost ignored for Dalits women, Bede women, Hijra/ ‘third gender’, female sex workers, women from ethnic and religious minority, etc., rights to be protected from TFGVB seems utopian for these underserved and historically marginalised groups. Again, non-binary community in Bangladesh is suppressed but gradually exposing, which faces TFGBV equally and remain unrepresented in mainstream media.
Digital harassments vary depending on women’s religion, caste, occupation, position in the status que, and access to avail internet on regular basis. According to USAID, while there are legal frameworks and programs currently in place to address the issue of TFGBV, there are notable gaps and barriers to implementation such as a lack of awareness on this issue and the need for increased capacity to prevent and respond to violence in the form of TFGBV. These include anti-gender backlash, targeted attacks on women, gendered disinformation, non-consensual distribution of intimate images, and intimate partners using technology for invasion of privacy and violence.
The consequences are more complexed and severe than the crimes themselves. In 2017, only 3% of cases relating to all sorts of violence against women including rape resulted in conviction. In spite of weak institutional protection, women do file formal complaints of harassment, abuse, stalking, etc. originated by TFGVB. Often nonconvention of cyber-violence and other gender-based offenses lead victims to take their own lives because of social stigma and such suicide attempt rate per year is 11 in Bangladesh. On the other hand, ‘other women’ and non-binary community do not have capacity or rights to complain. Therefore, the unfairness and plight of these people do not even catch any attention from the policymakers, law enforcers or people at large due to insufficient reporting.
Mainstream women who are educated and have basic knowledge about digital rights and safety, are in fact a small number while majority neither has adequate education nor digital awareness. Though their backgrounds do not protect them from being targets of TFGBV, there is a significant shift of behaviour and treatment observed while seeking for legal aid and policy support to resist the offenses. Additionally, because of Penal Code of Bangladesh section 377, non-binary community does not feel protected online or on-ground and refrain from pursuing support for fear of outing and backlash. ‘Other’ Women and non- binary community (i.e., Dalits, Bede, Hijra/ ‘third gender’, sex workers, etc.) are almost non-existent while it comes to protecting their digital rights but are equally harassed by TFGBV like the mainstream women.
Where is the end of this? How can we address the issue more pragmatically?
As a young country in the path of digitisation, Bangladesh needs more preparations, awareness and sensitivity about digital rights, online safety, data protection, privacy and their intersectionality with gender and diversity issues. Developing sense of social bond, morality, acceptance, tolerance and understanding the value of fundamental human rights from an early age are very crucial for a society like ours. In-depth data-driven knowledge about gender issues, diversity and inclusion along with appropriate digital literacy in curriculum could come as handy in this respect. Rigorous public awareness programs need to be conducted involving social influencers/ celebrity endorsement from national level.
Another way of addressing TGBV is vouching for an ‘ideal feminist internet’ which has been an emerging topic for the development world in recent years. A dedicated group of feminist internet researchers from around the world are committed to set the tone of a safe digital space for women and non-binary people with relentless work and has established feminist principles of internet combined with ethics of care. Complementing the idea with local context, the first step is to produce authentic data-driven knowledge products which will depict clear situational analysis of TFGBV in Bangladesh and the underlying social constructs. Only with substantial data in hand, appropriate measures to tackle TFGBV could be tailored as per the requirements of individual groups of women and non-binary internet users.
There are a number of existing works on Bangladeshi women’s historical backwardness in socio-economic, political, educational participation but, digital apprehension, especially, TFGBV and necessity of a feminist internet with equal participation of all women and non-binary community have not been explored enough previously. Public-private partnership could amplify the results while initiating nationwide interventions related to media literacy. Additionally, international development partners could invest more on the ever- emerging agenda of eliminating all sorts of gender-based violence and put special efforts for this relevantly new topic of TFGBV.
Women in general and non-binary community, regardless of so-called status que labels, should feel safe while using any technology or digital facility and should be equipped to resist all form of TFGBV. On the other hand, policymakers should have clear idea about the entire situation, get sensitised, and be able to stand up for women-friendly policies to combat TFGBV. Media and civil society organisations should generate more conversations in the public domain that will resonate constructive communal awareness to protect women and non-binary people being violated online. Therefore, a comprehensive approach is needed from people of all levels of the society to stop TFGBV and establish holistic harmony, tolerance and peace.
The writer is the Deputy Director, Programmes VOICE, a human-rights-based Civil Society Organisation, can be contacted through [email protected].