Cyber-bullying is a form of bullying or harassment that uses the electronic media for targeting victims. It is also known as online bullying, and has proliferated enormously in recent years among the younger generation in keeping with rapid expansion of the digital world. And like domestic violence, cyber-bullying of women has also exacerbated during the Covid-19 pandemic. There are laws and rules in Bangladesh for deterring it, and provisions for punishment are also quite stringent. Even then, the litigation process often turns out to be excessively long-drawn or cumbersome. Besides, dearth of awareness on the issue and slow-moving trials cum delivery of verdicts are still huge challenges. These facts were highlighted at a round-table discussion held in November 2021 in Dhaka on the occasion of International Fortnight to Resist Violence against Women.
Rapid rise in internet usage has been a consistent trend in Bangladesh during the past decade. But it is also believed to be fuelling a rise in harassment of women due to the dominance of patriarchal attitude and norms in society, as well as inadequate legal protection. According to a survey sponsored by ActionAid Bangladesh, 50 per cent women among those surveyed in the country complained about online harassment. Over 62 per cent among the victims were below the age of 25 years. Interestingly, the victims cited Facebook as the dominant platform where they suffered maximum harassment. About 25 per cent women among these victims did not seek remedial measures against the perpetrators of this harassment; and 76 per cent women suffered from mental problems like depression and anxiety due to these troubles. Around 48 per cent victims felt lodging complaints would not yield any benefit, while 52 per cent did file complaints in the cyber-crime investigation department of the government. About 30 per cent women did not know where they could lodge any complaint.
Online engagements by students have increased manifold during the pandemic. Fake accounts are often opened in the social media platforms by collecting photographs of the victims. Many accounts are also hacked, and objectionable materials are uploaded for public view. But most students do not know how to maintain online security, and have scant idea about cyber-bullying or online harassment. Orientation and training sessions on these issues for all stakeholders by relevant institutions could do a lot in minimising these online hazards. Alongside students, the parents and guardians should also be involved in the process, as parental control and supervision can play a positive part in preventing or rectifying online harassment.
An ILO Convention was approved in 2019 on eliminating violence and harassment in the world of work, which defined gender-based violence including sexual harassment. But the definition of sexual harassment is still unclear in the legal framework of Bangladesh. The roles of teachers and guardians are undoubtedly important in ensuring safe internet use and safety of students in the worldwide web. We certainly do not want our children to refrain from using internet on the ground of cyber insecurity. Therefore, steps should be taken for generating and raising awareness of all stakeholders on the issue. Due importance should also be attached to the subject by both the public and private sectors. Apparently, the issue of online sexual harassment has been ignored by the relevant laws. Measures should now be taken for facilitating and encouraging women to file cases and utilise technology-based remedies in case of such harassments.
Online harassment can be even more harmful than offline violence. According to a research in North America, children commit suicide in greater numbers due to cyber-bullying compared to bullying in their schools. Online incidents can spread like wildfire. Besides, many offline problems subsequently find space in online platforms. For example, girls are sometimes attacked on these platforms when male overtures are rejected by them. Counselling is often required for such victims of online predators. The National Helpline-1098 set up by the Government of Bangladesh extends support services to victims on a continual basis. The helpline is also working ceaselessly for making women mentally strong through counselling. Social workers or local teams of the department of social services are despatched if direct help is needed. Even the families get counselling and guidance for follow-up actions when required.
In the overall context, social transformation is needed for improving the situation - including creation of healthy entertainment options, sex education etc. For bettering the situation, there is no alternative to removing obstacles and hindrances like parochial social outlook and lack of digital knowledge, as well as adoption of proactive initiatives by law enforcement agencies. The whole process should also be made female-friendly as women account for a majority of these harassment cases. It is often found that removal of objectionable posts and materials is more urgent than punishing somebody. There is therefore a clear need for enhanced interactions and frequent dialogues with various social media platforms for resolving such issues.
The Pornography Control Act, 2012 may also be applied in Bangladesh for combating online harassment, but many stakeholders do not even know about its existence. On the other hand, most people are aware about the Digital Security, 2018. But this law along with the Prevention of Cruelty against Women and Children Act, 2000 are sometimes used in personal and political conflicts, often leading to violations of human rights. The concerned parties should therefore remain cautious about upholding human rights while applying these laws. Bangladesh Police has set up an online-based service outfit styled 'Police Cyber Support for Women', where complaints are received directly from female victims. Officiating members of this outfit are also females because women are comfortable with them. The Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of police also has a Cyber Police Centre where details of such cases are kept. However, there is need for better coordination within the police force as well as among different government departments and agencies for prevention and mitigation of online harassment against women across the country.
Transformation of prevailing mentality is essential for curbing cyber-bullying and harassment of women. There are no pills, anti-biotic medicines or injections for treating this malaise. The only remedy is harmonious partnerships between men and women in all strata of the society. What is urgently needed is a strong social support system, where women can get prompt assistance from in case of online harassment. Besides, a global movement should be waged for ensuring accountability of online platforms like the Facebook and TikTok. Collective and comprehensive endeavours including massive awareness-generation campaigns are also required for curbing cyber-bullying and rectifying the situation for greater good of society and nation.
Dr Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former Editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.