With the rise in internet users, the problems associated with it are also rising. Increased cyber harassment in Pakistan and all over the world is becoming a growing concern. Women, especially, suffer at the hands of this new crime wave. Most women have been victims of cyberbullying like stalking, physical threats, name-calling, and sexual harassment. “As helpful and useful digital platforms are, I think they have created more space for women to face harassment and threats,” shares Ayesha.* “I get so many messages for ‘friendship’ and proposals of marriages in my DMs. Sometimes I get photographs as well. There are times when I take a break from social media because I get scared,” she adds.

Online harassment is a form of violence against women and includes cyber harassment, threats of rape, sexual assault and even murder and revenge porn. The perpetrators can include partners, ex-partners, schoolmates, colleagues and strangers. It is unfortunate but online harassment is a real and serious issue for women across the world. Women, particularly in countries like Pakistan, face harassment, and online platforms seem to have given more space and access to harass them without fearing their IDs being revealed.

Saima* relays that she never uses her own picture as a display picture and uses her husband’s photograph. This was because she had heard horror stories from her friends and family about how women’s pictures are stolen and misused. “My husband said if I wanted to be on social media platforms, I shouldn’t use my own pictures, post any photos or anything about myself,” informs Saima. “Despite taking such precautions some people send me weird messages in my DMs.”

There are many reasons that women don’t talk about the harassment mainly because it is too much stress to deal with the response they get. Both Ayesha and Saima agree that they don’t want to attract the negative reaction that women usually get when they speak up about harassment.

Like Ayesha and Saima many women experience different forms of harassment and borderline threats online. Online harassment adds to the harassment they already encounter offline regularly. Commenting on this, Ayesha says, “No one gives a solution and instead we are generally asked to keep quiet about it and not create a fuss. It is too much stress to deal with harassment and then receive negative responses from others when you decide to speak up.”

Can you blame women to keep quiet about online harassment – they have been trained to keep quiet about harassment all their lives? And online harassment is no different from offline harassment. A lot of their personal information is available online which makes it easier for people to use it against them.

The added anonymity that social media gives to harassers helps them to be bolder than they would have been offline and therefore can be more dangerous. Online predators target women and children as young as 12, luring them into their trap. Sometimes the crime spills into real life and the targets are forced or coerced to concede to any and every demand made to them. Most of the online criminals obtain dangerous and sensitive information and data like photographs and videos to use as leverage over the victims.

DRF’s cyber helpline has received a total number of 11,681 cases of harassment in its five year’s existence. In 2021, they received 4441 total cases with an average of 370 cases per month with a significant rise between March and September. Out of the calls received by the helpline, 68 per cent of the calls received were by women while 30 per cent were by men and 1 per cent were by gender minorities.

Like offline violence and harassment, cyber violence and harassment have adverse effects on the victims, they feel vulnerable and may even become anxious. To protect themselves women, tend to decrease digital participation; restrict or censor online activity, or in extreme cases leave social media platforms altogether. Online abuse and harassment may also cause women to suffer from self-esteem or loss of self-confidence and even anxiety or panic attacks.

According to data available on DataReportal’s website, Southern Asia has a large offline population – a third of the world’s “unconnected” living in the region. There are 145 million people (63.7 per cent of population) in Pakistan who do not currently have access to the internet. The numbers are no better in Bangladesh where 67.9 per cent and India 53 per cent of the countries’ population are unconnected.

DataReportal further reveals that at the beginning of 2022, Pakistan’s internet penetration rate was at 36.5 per cent of the total population.

Right now, the number of women who own a mobile phone and are connected to the internet in Pakistan and South Asia is quite low. According to statistics the percentage of women connected online is ‘only 62 per cent of women own a mobile phone in South Asia and around 201 million women are unconnected’. In Pakistan, only 52 per cent of adult women own a mobile phone, and ‘21 per cent use mobile internet’.

In Pakistan, there are many women who are dependent on their husbands for phones and are often using their devices, and that too under supervision. They do this to protect themselves from blank calls, online threats and harassment. Maryam who works as a teacher helper at a Montessori school in Karachi said she does not carry a phone because her husband doesn’t allow it. “My husband lets me use his phone when he is home to make calls to my parents and family. I use his social media accounts.” Maryam explains.

And by this Maryam means her husband uses his social media accounts and she watches him. She has no social media presence of her own. “Women are very vulnerable online,” describes Maryam. “We hear such horrifying stories of how women are kidnapped, murdered and all sorts of things because of the internet,” she adds. She feels safer using her husband’s device and gives out his number if she is asked for contact information.

“My husband tackles phone calls that are not safe. He allows me to use the phone only if it necessary,” she reveals.

Maryam is not the only woman to use her husband’s phone and internet connection. According to a report released by Media Matters for Democracy (MMfD) in 2021 titled “Women Disconnected: Feminist Case Studies on the Gender Digital Divide Amidst Covid-19”, six women out of ten face restrictions from their families to use the internet.

The report also reveals that only 32 per cent women are allowed to use the internet and only for specific reasons like taking classes or connecting to family members, and many of them – 33 per cent – are ‘allowed to use the internet only for a restricted period’.

Despite a low percentage of women using mobile phones and connected to the internet, the ones who are online face a high percentage of online harassment and violence. According to Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), its cyber helpline has received a total number of 11,681 cases of harassment in its five year’s existence. In its annual report based on findings from 2016, DRF states that WhatsApp closely followed by Facebook is frequently used for harassment.

It further reveals that ‘in 2021 the helpline received 4441 total cases with an average of 370 cases per month with a significant rise between March and September. Out of the calls received by the helpline, 68 per cent of the calls received were by women while 30 per cent were by men and 1per cent were by gender minorities.

DRF’s report also stated that 893 complaints received on the helpline in 2021 were of blackmailing and 727 cases were of the non-consensual use of images.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Nighat Dad, the Executive Director of DRF, said, “The pace at which the cases of cyber harassment are increasing is alarming and must serve as a wake-up call for us to take appropriate action to make the internet a safe and equal space for everyone. Unless all key players take the measures for structural change, we will continue replicating the same discriminatory behaviours against vulnerable groups that we see and experience offline.”

Taking this forward, DRF’s cyber harassment Helpline Manager Hyra Basit pointed out that, “Along with the rise in engagement with digital spaces, we are also witnessing a rise in harassment that reflects its patriarchal and misogynistic roots in the offline world. Greater emphasis needs to be placed on awareness-raising and proactive reforms to maintain a safe environment for all minority communities so that they continue to benefit from the many advantages that the online world has to offer.”

If women decide to leave social media platforms and restrict their phone usage due to online threats and harassment, they will be deprived of yet another basic human right. The UN General Assembly declared “internet access a human right” in a non-binding resolution in 2016. Under this, women have as much right to the safe use of the internet and social media platforms as anyone else and it is the responsibility of the government to ensure this. However, this may take several years to be implemented because society and even many women themselves may not comprehend the importance of the right of women to use internet. We have a long distance to cover as far as women and human rights are concerned in the country.

With cases like Dua Zehra emerging, many parents are blaming the misuse of the internet and online games. And they are probably right to be suspicious of these online platforms. However, instead of banning online activities, it would be better to train parents and children why it is important to be careful online. To take simple yet important steps to curb online exploitation and harassment, organisations like DRF, Media Matters for Democracy, Bytes for All and others are working on making the internet accessible and safer for all. However, the government and people need to understand the problem and find workable solutions that will benefit all. Let’s give everyone access to internet but also ensure safety online especially for women users.

*Names have been changed to retain privacy.

How can you report cyber harassment in Pakistan?

File A Complaint Through FIA – In Pakistan, the National Response Centre for Cyber Crime (NR3C) by FIA has made a systematic procedure for filing a complaint against a cybercrime. To report cyber harassment, you can fill out the online complaint registration form and provide as many details as you can. Also, if you have any pieces of evidence, send those too. FIA’s crime wings are in over fifteen places to register complaints. These places include Karachi, Quetta, Peshawar, Lahore, Abbottabad, and Gwadar. You can visit the wing to register a complaint in person. FIA also has a helpline number, 9911. It operates 24/7 and accepts complaints about cyber harassment in Pakistan.

Report Cyber Harassment In Pakistan Through CPLC: Another best way to report cyber harassment in Pakistan is through CPLC. The Citizens-Police Liaison Committee (CPLC) deals with women’s harassment problems all over Pakistan. They have an exclusive woman’s complaint cell to lodge cyber harassment reports.

Call The Digital Rights Foundation Helpline: The Digital Rights Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation working to make the internet a safer place. It advocates the protection of privacy and freedom of expression. This organisation provides a service to report cyber harassment through its helpline. You can call the toll free number of DRF to register a complaint. The cyber harassment helpline number is 0800-39393. It is working to provide psychological counselling, legal advice, and referral to cybercrime victims. Their portal remains open from 9:00 A.M. to 5:00 P.M., Monday to Friday. Further, they protect the privacy of the victims and keep their information confidential. Once the case closes, they delete all the private data of the cybercrime victims.

Report On Madadgaar National Helpline: Madadgaar is another organisation working for human rights for the last 19 years. It provides legal aid, counselling services, and referral to victims of abuse and violence. So, the victim can lodge a complaint of cyber harassment on their helpline number, 1098.