As people started staying home and getting physically isolated from their peers, relatives, and other human contacts, it has become evident that internet usage gets exponentially increased amidst the lockdown caused by the pandemic.
It has been 20 years since the United Nations Security Council has passed the landmark flagship resolution 1325 on 31 October 2000 on women, peace and security. However, a detailed gender analysis is often missing from preparedness and response mechanisms to any kind of global human security and humanitarian challenge. COVID-19 has not only affected women but has also affected men and non-binary people differently. The long-term impact of this crisis will continue to aggravate and reproduce all forms of gender inequalities across the world. The short-term and long-term implications of the pandemic on gender get further compounded and complex, especially in conflicted humanitarian settings.
Though there have been various studies and counter mechanisms to end all kinds of harassment, especially in terms of gender, there has emerged a blind spot in the counter-activities towards addressing humanitarian violence midst the COVID 19 pandemic, which is “CYBER-BULLYING & HARASSMENT.”
India has enacted its first-ever Information Technology Act in 2000 and further amended it in 2008 to combat cyber-crimes, including cyber-bullying. However, issues related to online sexual abuse towards women and children remain untouched in ground reality. Though various factors are attributed to the victimisation of women and children in cyberspace, most victims are for sexual purposes. Cyberbullying can often be witnessed in the form of cyber-pornography or cyber- obscenity. The victim might either be exposed to pornographic content or get their pictures and profiles hacked and morphed and distributed on the web with obscene postures or write-ups. The victim might also get messages in very filthy language. Though any of the genders or ages are not safe from this devil, unfortunately, the most extensive victim base is women and children (girls in particular).
As people started staying home and getting physically isolated from their peers, relatives, and other human contacts, it has become evident that internet usage gets exponentially increased amidst the lockdown caused by the pandemic. People have started working from home, attending online classes, turning up for telemedicine, increased streaming on various Over-the-top (OTT) platforms for entertainment and most importantly, started getting addicted to various social media and communication applications during the global pandemic. According to OpenVault’s Broadband Insights Report for the first quarter of 2020 1, average broadband consumption has increased to 402.5GB, from 273.5GB during the same time in 2019—a 47 per cent increase. This exponential increase in internet usage has paved the way for cyber-bullies to get their work done.
As per the United Nations Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Violence against Children 2, “Cyber-bullying involves the posting or sending of electronic messages, including pictures or videos, aimed at harassing, threatening or targeting another person. A whole gamut of social platforms, including chat rooms, blogs and instant messaging, are used in cyber-bullying.” Unlike the physical bullying that often happens at school or the workplace, cyber-bullying often causes profound harm, as it can have an immediate effect on the victim anywhere and anytime, especially if the victim is a child.
Though the United Nations General Assembly Resolution A/C.3/73/L.25/Rev.1 of 9 November 2018,
on the ‘Promotion and protection of the rights of children: Protecting children from bullying’, calls upon the member states:
“To adopt and strengthen, as appropriate, clear and comprehensive measures, including, where relevant, legislation, that seek to prevent and protect children from bullying, including cyber- bullying, and provide for safe and child-sensitive counselling and reporting procedures and safeguards for the rights of affected children; and to develop parenting and other skills programmes for parents, legal guardians and family members, together with social protection interventions that help to promote a nurturing family environment, reduce the risk of social exclusion and deprivation, prevent family stress and tackle negative social norms that contribute to violence against children and bullying,”
Almost none of the prescribed resolutions are being implemented in the ground reality, except for on papers. It only gets people into trouble, especially in vulnerable times like the current COVID-19 pandemic.
According to a report published by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI),
“Of the overall Internet population, 433 million are of the age of 12 years and above, and 71 million are in the age bracket of 5-11 years who access the internet on the devices of family members, which constitutes about 14% of the countries’ current internet base. In rural India, the number of accessing the internet daily had grown by 30 million from March 2019.”
With an exponential increase in internet usage among people, especially among women and children of rural India, it becomes much easier for bullies to harass women and children, especially girls- children, sexually.
Two of the very narrowly interrelated horrors under this banner are catfishing and child predating.
So what is catfishing? It is about deception to the core. It capitalises on the basic fundamental need of a human being, which is about being wanted. The catfish creates a fake online identity to lure his victim(s) by using fake personal information and pictures to make it seem real. The most probable intent in committing to such a kind of activity is to drain the victim financially, exploit it sexually, or take revenge from someone. Though intentions of draining the victim financially get executed on common social media applications such as Facebook or Instagram, there has emerged a plethora of new ways where the catfish can exploit the victim(s) sexually. One such kind of platform is the concept of “online stranger chatrooms”. This is one such gateway to hell, where all the genders get into the trap of the service provider, where young teenagers in especial are sexually triggered and lead to victimisation of both the genders in different ways. For example, one such chatroom on the internet claims:
“Stranger chat provides an excellent platform for online chatting with strangers. Here you can talk with stranger, make new friends, chat with girls, chat with stranger, chat with stranger around any corner of the world. Strangers Chat provides you with a better connectivity experience with strangers online. You get to know different people from different parts of the world….”
These sites trigger young teenagers in myriad ways, and it often tends them to get cyber-bullied sexually, especially by a paedophile (someone attracted to children). Unfortunately, there are numerous chatrooms on the internet, along with some sites promoting them.
A very similar kind of strategy is owned in the process of child-predating, where the predator randomly sends in connection requests to unknown strangers, especially young girls, get close to them and exploit them financially, sexually, and whatnot. The predators are more often proven out to be paedophiles, where they try to victimise innocent teenage kids who have access to gadgets with proper internet connectivity.
There have been various social experiments done by various individuals and organisations to show to the world the ill effects of possession of non-monitored, uncensored and non-parental controlled usage of gadgets that have proper connectivity to the internet and yet, these kinds of social ills are remaining unaddressed by any law and to that matter of fact, even by many parents who are in the Panglossian bubble that the world is out of ills. A couple of the social experiments carried out were: https://youtu.be/6jMhMVEjEQg and https://youtu.be/dbg4hNHsc_8, where the social experimenters changed their identities and tried to portray how child predating is an issue of the utmost serious concern.
Now because of this rapid exponential rise in internet usage in the lockdown caused due to the current COVID-19 pandemic, as explained earlier, it makes innocent people, especially women and children/teenagers from a rural background who are unaware of such kind of malicious happenings on the internet, more vulnerable to fall into the traps of cyber-bullies. The current COVID-19 pandemic hence has given rise to such malicious and ill-minded cyber-bullies over the internet. It has increased their probability of things getting worked out to a different level. This has also been substantiated by Ms Rekha Sharma, Chairperson of the National Commission for Women (NCW), when she mentioned that since the outbreak of the pandemic, cases of reported online harassment had seen a five-fold increase.
Call for Action
There is no perfect solution to cyber-bullying until we have the ill mindset cleared from all. However, there are some ways to control the issue, especially for the parents/guardians.
Parental control of the cyberspace used by their lads is the most crucial factor to be considered while addressing the issue. All the parents need to be cognizant of all the peculiar sites their children are using and their activities henceforth. The parents must inquire about all the intricate details of their ward’s cyber activity.
The second of the lot is about proper communication. Parents must always speak to their children and acquaintances and take a reappraisal of what sorts of communication their ward is having online. Parents must be thorough with all the acquaintances of their wards and check if they are in proper acquaintances, both online and offline. Parents must also give their wards the space to open themselves up freely without fear in front of their parents. All of this must be done, alongside giving them the necessary personal space they need.
Apart from all these, cyber-bullying must be taught to every child as a part of their curriculum. Explanation in the form of stories or comics will help the student understand them better. For example, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has an entire portal of resources in various forms, including comics, board games, and video games, including the concept of cyber-bullying, which can be checked out at https://fun-corner.unodc.org/e4j-fun-corner/index.html?lf_id=.
All of this is not possible without the active involvement of the state, whose involvement becomes highly crucial in universalising a plan of action against (cyber) bullying, especially in directing educational institutions to educate the students and parents/guardians. For example, through its Anti-Bullying Act of 2013, the Republic of the Philippines legislates 7 “ALL ELEMENTARY AND SECONDARY SCHOOLS TO ADOPT POLICIES TO PREVENT AND ADDRESS THE ACTS OF BULLYING IN THEIR INSTITUTIONS”, including cyber-bullying. It further mandates to educate both students and parents/guardians on the dynamics of bullying, anti-bullying policies of the school, redressal mechanisms and reinforcement of such policies at homes.
We, humanity as a whole, must consider this as a global issue and try to address such issues as soon as possible before any innocent life becomes a scapegoat to any such perpetrators. We must resolute to bring in safe cyberspace, free of any sorts of crimes and let humanity prosper.
(The writer is a 5th-semester student of Integrated MA in Sociology from the College for Integrated Studies, University of Hyderabad)