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‘It’s all sextortion and revenge porn’: the woman fighting cyber abuse in Pakistan

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With women in Pakistan suffering increasingly lurid and dangerous forms of onine harassment, Nighat Dad is leading the battle to make cyberspace safer

After the killing of Qandeel Baloch last summer, Nighat Dad reached breaking point.

Visiting colleges and universities across Pakistan, Dad had been building quite a reputation for herself and her work. She was spreading the word about the Digital Rights Foundation she established in 2012 to help Pakistani women deal with the new phenomenon of online harassment.

But when Baloch, a famous social media celebrity, was murdered by her brother, there was a spike in the number of young women in Pakistan who said they felt increasingly unsafe online and wanted to do something about it. More and more women began seeking out Dad to relate terrible stories of online harassment, revenge porn and men doctoring photographs of women in order to extort money from them. She felt herself struggling under the weight of responsibility.

I reached my limit, where I was like, I dont think that I can deal with this, she says. It was impacting on my emotional health. The guilt I felt that if Im not going to respond to this call or the message which Im getting in the middle of the night, maybe this person will lose their life or maybe there is a fear of violence.

Recognising there was an urgent need, Dad expanded her operations and launched Pakistans first cyber harassment helpline. Now, Dad and her team of 12 including a counsellor field up to 20 calls a day.

The cases range from women wanting advice on social media security settings to more serious problems. Every single day we are resolving these issues. There are issues of identity theft, blackmail, there are women filmed being raped and then blackmailed to prevent it going online, says Dad.

Technology is ever changing, so violence in the online spaces has also increased. It has become doxing, sextortion and revenge porn. Its massive.

In 2015, more than 3,000 cybercrimes were reported to Pakistans Federal Investigation Agency. About 45% of the women targeted were using social media. In May, Dads team commissioned a study that found 70% of women were afraid of posting their pictures online lest they should be misused; 40% had been stalked and harassed on messaging apps.

These figures are no surprise to Rabia Mehmood, a Pakistani technology journalist. Harassment is a significant issue for women with access to technology in Pakistan, and has been so since the days of landlines, she says. Unfortunately, the transition to better connectivity, more user control of platforms and devices, has not eradicated the online abuse and violence for women [it has] only made the issue much more stark.

In Pakistan, outspoken women have received rape and death threats, smear campaigns run against them, and their contact information has been shared on social media. We have seen a transitioning of violence and harassment of women from the offline world to online spaces.

There is little help available. A trust deficit between the authorities and women exists in Pakistani society, says Mehmood. Women believe justice will not be served, there is fear of being shamed and judged, and finally, not knowing the right procedure of seeking help.

In 2015, Dad was contacted by a group of young women studying at Edwardes College in Peshawar. Someone was posting their Facebook page photos alongside their names and phone numbers stating they were prostitutes.

It emerged that two men had been successfully blackmailing Peshawars female students for several years by threatening to release digitally doctored nude picturesof them unless they were paid.

Most women, fearing for their reputations, felt forced to meet the demands.

However, with Dads help, a number chose to fight back. The women reported the blackmail as a crime and the men were arrested.

As the images posted were not nudes, and were written entirely in the Pashto language, they were not found to be in breach of Facebooks community standards guidelines. This was because the text could not be understood by Mark Zuckerbergs organisation.

Dad began to lobby Facebook. We found a gap in Facebooks mechanisms, says Dad, who finally succeeded in having the posts removed.

As a result of what happened in Peshawar, Facebook has expanded its operations to include more native language speakers to review content.

Online violence against women is a global issue, its just that the consequences are different in Pakistan due to culture, religion, societal norms, patriarchy and also the lack of awareness, says Dad.

She is optimistic. Mostly, women actually fight back now. There were times when women would just detach themselves from technology but thats not a solution. We really want them to reclaim these spaces by knowing how to fight back, and I think change is happening. Its slow, but its happening.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2017/jul/17/sextortion-revenge-porn-woman-fighting-cyber-abuse-pakistan-nighat-dad-qandeel-baloch

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