Sophia Nalumba (not real name) sits in an Internet café beaming with excitement. She does not even seem to notice the people around her who are wondering what had made her happy.
Without hesitating, she beckons one lady to loudly read out the email in front of her and everyone joins in the frenzy as they discover the source of Sophia’s happiness.
She has been offered a job in a hotel in Europe!
But little did Sophia know that that was the begging of a dangerous encounter.
Upon arrival in Europe, Sophia’s beaming smile vanished as the jovial and friendly man she had been communicating with over the job became cold and unfriendly.
He gave her a low down of his demands, which include sex and pornography and before arriving at the house she was promised, reality soon dawned on her.
She had been trafficked.
Sophia is not alone.
Hundreds of women are unknowingly trafficked every day to various countries through use of the cyber space.
As Zambia joins the rest of the world in commemorating the 16 days of gender activism, it is necessary to appreciate the role that the cyber space plays in fueling sexual violence against women and girls.
In this digital age, many forms of trafficking incidences are taking place through cyberspace with sex and labour trafficking, child pornography, selling of babies and trafficking in organs taking center stage.
According to law enforcement agencies, some trafficking offences usually start by offenders meeting their potential victims on social media, such as Facebook and other platforms.
They lure these victims into trusting them by expressing love and admiration of the victim, promising them money and a better future in a new home.
Some victims are job seekers who are promised good jobs.
But soon, they meet the harsh reality of having been trafficked when they arrive at the destination promised to them by the offender where they are mistreated immediately upon arrival and their movements are restricted.
Communication with people at home for the victim is also cut and they are normally beaten until they adhere to the demands of offenders.
Last week, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the Southern Africa Development Community (SADC), with support from the European Union (EU), organized a training programme on cybercrime for law enforcement officers.
The five-day programme attracted investigators and prosecutors whose work is related to sexual violence against women and girls and other serious forms of violence in Southern Africa.
Deputy Inspector General of Police Dorris Nayame said there is need to address issues on how the Internet has increased the vulnerability of women.
She said the training programme was properly scheduled as the world was going towards celebrating 16 days of gender activism.
“As new technology is being introduced, it is also showing how the cyber space is unsafe for women and girls who suffer sexual violence, including human trafficking,” she said.
Ms Nayame said human traffickers demand for money in exchange for the dignity of their female victims.
She said in 2018, a Zambian girl was repatriated from Turkey where she had been trafficked through cyberspace.
She further said according to data from the Victim Support Unit (VSU), about 79 per cent of people who suffer GBV are women and girls while 21 percent are male victims.
“To counter this problem, laws to protect women continue to be effected and more laws need to be enacted to protect women and girls, among them the anti-gender law,” she said.
The VSU and inquiries section of the police service have also been improved to ensure that GBV victims are treated with dignity and provided with the necessary support.
Speaking through SADC secretariat representative Barbra Muchenga, SADC Head of Police Thanyani Gumede said the organization is determined to support all efforts aimed at upholding peace and security in the region.
SADC is also determined to build the capacity of law enforcement officers to fight cybercrime related sexual violence.
“There is need for more collaboration to fight this vice and assist to prevent and combat cyber crime,” she said.
A UNODC representative observed that marginalized women and girls are the hardest hit when it comes to sexual violence against women and girls.
The organization said the problem is that cybercrimes against women and girls are hard to track because the offenders hide under fake online names.
It said the victims of the cyberspace crimes experience a lot of trauma.
The organization said it is necessary to ensure that the victims of the said crimes are not harassed by the perpetrators or their families.
“Some pieces of evidence that these victims have may be very embarrassing and so as law enforcement officers, let us just be patient with them,” the UNODC representative said.
In other reports, the UNODC said women are disproportionately subjected to various forms of online abuse in various parts of the world, especially women of specific religions, ethnic or racial groups, economic status, and those with disabilities.
In 2017, a poll by Amnesty International revealed that approximately one-fourth of the 4,000 women surveyed in the United States (US), United Kingdom (UK), Denmark, Sweden, Spain, Italy and Poland experienced some form of online abuse like cyber harassment atleast once.
About 41 per cent of the affected women, who experienced online abuse, feared for their personal safety because of the abuse and harassment.
Women have received intimidating messages, threats of violence and sexually explicit text messages, emails, images and videos via dating, social media and other online platforms, as well as in chat rooms and instant messaging services.
The report further said the women and the girls are more likely to experience cyberstalking and cyberharassment as well as threats of sexual and physical violence, along with sexist, misogynistic, discriminatory and prejudicial comments have been communicated to the women and the girls via Information Communication Technology (ICT).
This has created a hostile environment for them online.
In Ghana, women face extensive online abuse.
This includes not only the distribution of sexually explicit images and videos, but also hateful, abusive and offensive comments that are directed at the women.
Women’s rights activists and organizations, as well as feminists and feminist organizations around the world, have also been subjected to cyberharassment and cyberstalking.
A feminist organization in Colombia, Mujeres Insumisas, has reported incidents of sexual violence, harassment and stalking against its members both on and offline.
Further, research has shown that simply being a female public figure can result in experiences of threats of physical and sexual violence, as well as misogynistic comments.
Women have also been the predominant target of image-based sexual abuse (IBSA), often referred to as ‘revenge porn.’
This is a form of cyberharassment which involves the “non-consensual creation, distribution and threats to distribute nude or sexual images “to cause” the victim distress, humiliation, and/or harm them in some way.
Images and videos of victims can be taken from online websites and social media accounts and used in ways to defame or humiliate them.
For instance, a victim’s face or head can be superimposed on the bodies of others for defamation or pornography, a process known as morphing.
The morphed image can be obscene in nature and is intended to cause reputational harm to the victim.
Face-morphing software programmes, which uses a machine-learning algorithm to replace the faces in videos, has been used to create fake pornographic videos of victims which are distributed online.
Other types of cyber space crimes as explained by UNODC, include sexting, which is a type of “self-generated sexually explicit material.”
Sexting is the most common type of self generated sexually explicit material involving children.
Some research has shown that girls feel pressured or coerced into it more often than boys.
From the above and as observed by Ms Nayame, it is clear that the Internet has increased the vulnerability of women and girls and everything needs to be done to protect them from sexual and other forms of violence.