Millions of women in Bangladesh, including media personalities, rights activists and journalists use social media platforms.
According to NapoleonCat, in January 2022, out of the 5,27,13,900 Bangladeshis using Facebook, 68% were men and 32% were women. And according to Plan International Bangladesh, 53% of women using the digital space have faced some form of violence. These include (but are not limited to) sexually-explicit comments, remarks on personal choices, name-calling, etc.
While female media personalities use the platforms mostly to promote their work, others, especially women's rights activists, journalists and free-thinkers use the platform to share their views, opinions and thoughts on different matters, and hence they face backlash, mostly from men and from some women.
Despite widespread digitalisation and access to the internet at a low cost, according to data gathered on social media use, there is a huge gender disparity when it comes to access to the internet and digital spaces in Bangladesh.
Patriarchal and religious norms—like those centred around women's mobility, access to resources, and honour and shame—not only hold women back generally but are also largely responsible for the gender disparity in the digital space. And the "backlash" women face in the digital space in the form of verbal attacks further disincentivises women's presence in social media.
Research has shown that women are at a high risk of facing backlash in the digital space, especially those who speak about feminism and women's rights and build awareness through their posts. Furthermore, women who challenge social and religious norms are subjected to severe backlash including threats to their lives.
The inflammatory backlash has been on the rise in recent times. It could be a reaction to women's increasing participation in social media, it can also be attributed to the growing religious extremism in the country.
However, the lack of legal protection offered to women facing violence in online spaces is making matters worse for those who wish to express their ideas and opinions online.
The government enacted the Digital Securities Act (DSA) 2018 to protect people in the digital space, but the law is yet to play a significant role in curbing cyber harassment and bullying of women.
While authorities have little control over the religious and social beliefs of the public, they can still control online violence against women by reforming the Act to include specific provisions targeted at curbing this phenomenon.
Authors of a recent working paper titled "Tracking Gender-Based Violence and Backlash Against Women's Rights in the Digital Space: Cases from Bangladesh" by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) have suggested that DSA 2018 could be an effective tool to reduce online sexual harassment against women if the cyber-criminal law was used for this cause as much as it is used for political campaigns and interests.
Section 23(1) of the Act states that fraud by using a digital or electronic medium is a punishable offence. Such fraud includes changing, deleting, adding or tampering with any information on any digital device or social media platform for the purpose of diminishing or causing harm to another person.
Additionally, an offence is committed under section 25 if a person intentionally or knowingly transmits, publishes or propagates any offensive, false or threatening data information to annoy, insult, humiliate or malign a person.
Section 29 of the act also makes it an offence to publish or transmit any defamatory information as described in section 499 of the Penal Code.
Although all of these provisions could be used against those who abuse, threaten or degrade women in the digital space, authorities often do not use this law against online abusers the way they use it for political matters.
Many women do not file cases under the DSA 2018 as they believe the law enforcement agencies will not take any action against their perpetrators.
A survey by Cyber Awareness Foundation found that among the women who faced online backlash, 30% did not know where and how legal action can be taken, and another 25% believed that no action will be taken if they do file complaints.
There are other laws dealing with sexual harassment. Cases of sexual harassment can be filed under the existing provisions of the Women and Children Repression Prevention Act 2000 (amended 2003), the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) Act 2006 and the Pornography Control Act 2012. However, there is no comprehensive law or section adequately dealing with sexual harassment on social media and other digital platforms.
Legal protection of women experiencing online sexual harassment is not only a matter of their human rights, it is also about protecting their civil right to participate in social dialogue, voice their opinion on issues and express themselves.
To safeguard women in the digital sphere, bringing necessary reform to the relevant laws including the DSA 2018 and more importantly, implementing the laws for women's protection online is extremely important.
Sumaiya Zaman is a Content Editor at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.