Safe and secure Internet for females

Mai Samih , Tuesday 25 Jun 2024

Al-Ahram Weekly investigates efforts to raise the awareness of females and their families about the risks of digital violence against women.



The UN defines digital violence against women (DVAW) as “any act of violence that is committed, assisted or aggravated by the use of information and communication technology (mobile phones, the Internet, social media, computer games, text messaging and emails) against a woman because she is a woman.”  

There are five known forms of cyber violence practised against women, according to a UN Fund for Population Activities 2022 report: non-consensual sharing of images, online impersonation (creating a fake account of a girl for malicious purposes to damage her reputation), cyber bullying, sharing sensitive information, and cyber stalking.  

According to a 2023 study conducted by Deraya (Realisation), an independent think tank working in Egypt, 58 per cent of females in Egypt are subjected to cyber violence, while 24 per cent of girls subjected to online harassment do not feel physically safe. Forty-two per cent suffer from psychological and emotional stress and lose self-respect and self-confidence. Eighteen per cent face educational (acquisitional) problems at school.

To end cyber violence practised against women in Egypt, many initiatives, governmental and non-governmental, have been launched. In 2018, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi issued an anti-cyber crime law that slaps hefty fines and prison sentences for hacking state information systems and crimes via information systems and technologies. It also aims at combating terrorist cyber attacks. The law included articles concerning cyber harassment of females.

In 2020, the National Council for Women along with other partners launched an anti-cyber harassment campaign, Amani (My Safety) while the International Organisation for Migration and the National Telecom Regulation Authority launched Salamat. The Safer Internet campaign was launched by the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood to stress the importance of protecting children and adolescents in cyber space.

The most recent of these initiatives was launched in February by the Cairo Foundation for Development and Law (CFDL) which opened the Facebook page Salama wa Aman (Safety and Security) to help raise awareness about digital violence and protect females. They also focus on the role of the family through training with young women and their daughters so that they are there for them whether online or offline.  

“The CFDL is an Egyptian NGO that works to advocate the rights of women who are particularly marginalised, especially those who come from the poorest backgrounds,” said Entessar Al-Said, a lawyer at the Court of Cassation and head of the board of trustees of the CFDL. “It is for this reason that our headquarters is located in Imbaba, which is mostly populated by the poor. We work with women in violence-related cases. And accordingly 80 per cent of our work is related to domestic violence; the rest is related to sexual violence,” she says, adding that they also work on fighting discrimination against women in the workplace as in employers giving females lower salaries and of women subjected to violence who come from all over Egypt.

“We also present women with hundreds of free legal consultations via our hotline service. On a parallel level, we work on safe medical care for women so we work with medical service providers and work with the women themselves by raising their awareness about medical issues during seminars we hold and in the videos we produce,” Al-Said says, adding that they also train those who work in providing such services like lawyers and doctors.

They have also been working online to combat cyber violence against women, and to maintain cyber safety for women on social media. “We realised from our work in past years that many women were subjected to violence both online and offline at the same time. In the last 10 years there has rarely been a woman subjected to physical violence by her husband or any other male relative who was not also subjected to cyber violence after it,” she says.

“There are cases in which the husband hacked his wife’s account or stole videos to blackmail her after altering their content. There are cases in which an outsider who is not from a girl’s family sends her a link and tricks her into hacking her phone and stealing her personal data like her photos and then photoshops them. In some cases, they may be acquaintances.”

Al-Said analyses what usually happens in the many cases of girls who were blackmailed and ended up committing suicide. “There was no support for these girls. So our role is to tell families to stand by their daughters and support them and at the same time we say ‘tell your daughter not to be afraid as she is a victim, so she should not feel ashamed; it is the perpetrator who should feel that way.’”

As for the reasons behind the increase of cyber violence against girls, Al-Said says that with time crimes have increased. “The Internet and especially mobile Internet is part of our daily lives and this is the power of social media which goes hand in hand with its challenges too,” she said.

Al-Said believes that there are misconceptions that need to be fixed and which are also barriers in the way of abolishing cyber violence. “There was a case in which a man divorced his wife because his daughter went to fix her mobile and videos of herself and her mother and sisters dancing in a wedding were stolen and posted on the Internet for everyone to see after she was blackmailed. The husband instead of supporting his family against blackmailing believed the incident brought him shame,” Al-Said says.

“For this reason, we work on raising the awareness of females through digital clinics we established in the foundation. Their phones are checked to make sure they have no harmful programmes or applications. We are also working on changing some articles of Law 75/2018 that deal with cyber violence and giving female survivors of cyber violence more support,” she says.

Experts believe that a loophole in the current law in cases of extortion states that victims need to provide either written evidence or two witnesses if the threat is verbal. If the victims cannot provide either, their cases are dismissed.

“As for Salama wa Aman we decided to build a network of more than eight NGOs that work in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said, as well as governorates in Upper Egypt. So we have been raising the caliber of these NGOs to work with people and discuss these issues,” says Al-Said.

They are currently working with NGOs that are members of the network to make sure that Egypt is cyber violence-free and to end this type of violence against women. “The main aim of the network is to end cyber violence against women in Egypt and to build the capacities of the members of the network in terms of technical and psychological support,” Al-Said says, adding that the NGOs working with them are Moanas Salem, Kahila in Port Said, Teeadari (You Can) in Alexandria, Set Aman (Women in Safety) that works with women farmers in Assiut, Amena (Safe), Merit, Gameyat Tanmeyat Al-Mogtamaa (Foundation for Society Development) in Sohag, and Gameyat Tanmeyat Al-Seyaha (Foundation for Tourism Development) in Dahshour.  

They are working with experts in cyber safety to train their staff first before training the girls. “There is a counsellor for cyber safety working with us on training the whole team especially the person in charge of cyber safety here.”

“She is now training the members of the network and the trainees,” she adds.

“We are targeting NGOs that directly work with women who work in places hard to reach. In Assiut I was told that they also work in villages where fugitives live. Most of the people we target are youth,” says Al-Said, adding that they mostly train female staff and there is a ratio of eight women to one man working in their initiatives.

They plan their activities based on what the preferences of the trainees and the inhabitants of the districts they are working with are. So far, they have organised a blogging event for the family, a championship for girls in technology, and a campaign. “We chose these events on family day to send a message to families that it is important to back their daughters so they know the role of the family which is one of the main aims of the initiative, helping females in real life and online,” she says.

“We are sending a message that females have the right to use the Internet safely and securely, hence the name of the network. We also held a training course outside Cairo in which we gathered trainers in all our partner initiatives and organisations to teach them about cyber safety,” Al-Said adds.

So far, they have held four sessions for women to raise their awareness, two training courses, and four meetings with members of the network in which they trained the members of the team in their headquarters. They also produced 12 videos to raise awareness among women about cyber violence, according to Al-Said.

The topics they deal with include cyber safety measures, protection for women and girls, challenges of cyber security for women and girls, and the tools for cyber security for women, girls, and foundations, says Al-Said.

Al-Said lists the obstacles they face while working. “The biggest is that people do not have enough awareness about cyber violence practised against women and girls and that there are culturally inherited traditions in society that could cause a girl to commit suicide like the female student in Arish University,” she says, referring to the death by suicide of a 19-year-old in March this year after she was threatened by two colleagues to expose personal information about her.

Al-Said adds that there is also the fear most females subjected to cyber violence have of lodging an official complaint in a police station, which is a huge challenge. “For this reason we are calling for a unified law to criminalise violence against women that includes cyber violence,” she says.

“There are some loopholes in the current law that help perpetrators escape punishment. We are also calling for a law to protect witnesses and victims as this is a main reason behind girls not resorting to the police because they fear that the perpetrator would come to threaten them in their homes or tell their families, for instance,” she says, adding that there should be more publications of hotlines that help girls and women deal with violence that are affiliated to the Ministry of Interior and to the safe houses sheltering girls surviving violence, affiliated to the Ministry of Social Solidarity.

To this end, they are preparing handouts to inform people about cyber and non-cyber violence against women and girls and what this leads to. They also present examples of women who are subjected to blackmailing online and who end up paying the price on the familial level. “In some cases, the person who blackmails a woman is her husband who abuses their private videos and sells them. There are some people who do not have the awareness to delete their private photographs and videos when they send their phones to maintenance centres and in some cases their pictures are stolen and photoshopped and used for blackmail,” she says.  

The Salama and Aman network will be working with their partner initiatives during the next three months on the idea of building capacities in cyber safety. They will be jointly organising awareness seminars about cyber safety for girls who survived cyber violence. They will hold five training sessions for lawyers in Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said, Assiut, and Sohag.

Al-Said gives youths some tips to avoid cyber violence. “Any girl should take care of her mobile phone by using safe applications and anti-virus programmes. She should not open any link she receives that may steal her personal data. She should have strong passwords for her phone. She should never write her password on paper and put it in her wallet. She should not surrender to blackmailing or give anyone money. She should resort to the law.”


CONTINUING CYBER EDUCATION: Head of the Cyber Safety Department at CFDL Dalia Fekri discovered that most blackmailing instances practised against girls are a result of using the Internet. “As a journalist I saw cases of cyber violence first-hand and I was always interested in researching the topic and to know how to protect myself as a journalist. I was subjected to cyber theft of my personal information and blackmailed. I had to know how to answer questions about it,” she says. “Since cyber security is a large field, I decided to take courses to be more specific when training others,” Fekri adds.

“There are many ways cyber blackmailing occurs. First, cyber blackmailing could be perpetrated by an anonymous person or even somebody we know, the latter representing most cases we see. It may occur because a victim is ignorant in dealing with technology,” she says, adding that it may be because a girl failed to protect her page properly because she did not have a strong password. In the second case, it may be a person who is acquainted with the girl or even her husband or fiancée who steals her password, pictures, and videos and starts blackmailing her with them whenever there is a dispute between them. In the third case, women may not know how to use technology like their phones and mistakenly send their private videos to others or post on social media, Fekri says, adding that she was able to convey the information to her students more efficiently after the training courses she took.

“Through our workshops we brainstorm with our students and this helps us while we are working on a law for cyber violence. We are calling for the change of concepts that exist in the law on cyber crimes. So we need rephrasing of these laws so we are able to face cyber violence against women via social media.”

Mai Mokhtar, head of the social media and graphic department at CFDL, says statistics and numbers “tell us a lot about what is currently going on. For instance, 85 per cent of over 300 girls were subjected to cyber violence most of which was through social media. This concerned us,” she says, adding that they started to send different messages to different generations. “You have to first raise the awareness of those who are working in teaching this. So after I took the cyber security training sessions I gained awareness about many things. For example, the content of cyber security is better transmitted when you understand it than reading about it and then lecturing. The same goes for the precautions people should take.”

Mokhtar lists her aims in the courses she teaches. “Our main aim is to raise peoples’ awareness about the issue. As long as people are ignorant of an issue they will not be cautious about it. Many people subjected to cyber violence and blackmailing don’t understand what they are. They are unaware of the existence of laws that protect them. This is the role of the lectures — to link all these ideas and concepts together so a trainee sees the issue and can avoid it and when it is known to all, it can be abolished once and for all,” Mokhtar said.

Psychological expert Mariam Ghattas afforded some details about the psychological training she provides trainees and how she psychologically prepares them to deal with cyber harassment. She trains both lawyers and harassment survivors.

“We teach survivors how to deal with themselves when a problem arises and how to face it,” she says.

“We raise their awareness about the concept of psychological support. So we teach them to spot signs of depression, when to seek help, and how to release guilt they may feel since what happened to them was not their fault,” she says, adding that since there are also children victims of cyber harassment they also help their parents spot the psychological signs or changes that appear in their children’s behaviour that suggest they are being subjected to blackmailing and to see how to help their children.

Ghattas list the drawbacks they face while working with cyber harassment victims. “A victim, especially female, is always afraid to tell anyone that she is being harassed. She feels shame and that the society will put the blame on her for what happened to her,” she says, adding that there is also a lack of support for these girls from her family which increases her sense of shame. However, if a girl is subjected to a problem, it makes a difference that someone is there for her.

“A girl must be certain that she has no control over the behaviour of others; she did nothing wrong. She must know that she is not the problem. On the contrary, it is the fault of the harasser. A girl should not isolate herself from society and give in to these feelings. Instead, she should bounce back and start living her life. She should talk to an expert and play sports. She should do some breathing exercises to get rid of negative feelings.

“To avoid cyber blackmailing girls should not trust anyone online. They should deal with the Internet as if it is a screen they do not know what lies behind. Never send your private information to anyone. Do not open any link that someone sent you even if you know the person. Trust no one.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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