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While gender-based violence has always been a great concern and struggle in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), there are few to no studies that focus on online gender-based violence compared to offline gender-based violence. The missing link in most studies is how gender-based violence impacts the way women exercise freedom of expression (FoE) and freedom of association and assembly (FoAA), particularly in the online space. Most often women are subjected to online gender-based violence while exercising FoE and FoAA, leading to unequal participation of women in key structures.

The research study, “The Holistic Approach: Exploring Women’s Online Freedom of Expression and Freedom of Assembly in the Democratic Republic of Congo”, supported by the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN), will be released in the second quarter of 2023. The research project aims to understand the existing inequalities that hinder women from fully exercising their rights to freedom of expression and assembly on the internet as well as to close the knowledge gap on online gender-based violence (OGBV) in the DRC. 

The research reveals important facts, such as how more interventions are focused on offline GBV rather than OGBV and how that affects FoE and FoA for women online. Moreover, the digital space provides a conducive environment for perpetrators to act without being held accountable, since the focus is on physical aggressions. The research brings to light that gender-based violence is often treated as a consequence of certain acts tagged “unethical or unbecoming” for women to engage in. This is also viewed from the perspective of the history of the Democratic Republic of Congo since its earlier years with the struggle for independence and civil wars raging in the country.

The role and work [of women] has always been silenced by patriarchy and systems that gave men more avenues to fully exercise rights like freedom of expression than women.

The story of Congo is often synonymous with the struggle for independence led by African patriotic leader Patrice Lumumba, but what most people don't know is that behind this struggle were some strong women such as Andrée Blouin, hardly publicly spoken about. Blouin was an anti-colonial activist who was deported a few days before Congolese independence in June 1960, and while on her way to the plane bound for Rome, she was carrying a plan for the liberation of the DRC. She had hidden a critical document to Congo's independence “in her glamorous chignon hairdo, a damning political document that bore the signatures of Congo’s nationalist leaders.” Despite her efforts towards the independence of the DRC and many other African countries, Blouin was rumoured to have had an affair with Lumumba and was tagged “the woman behind Lumumba”, instead of being known for her struggle for African liberation. What this is telling us essentially is that women are often marginalised despite their active role in the movements, their contributions are disregarded, and they receive backlash for their work.

The Democratic Republic of Congo has always had women like Blouin shaping the civic space; however, their role and work has always been silenced by patriarchy and systems that gave men more avenues to fully exercise rights like freedom of expression than women. 

We evoke the story and political struggles of Blouin to make the connection with the unchanged fate of women activists and politicians in the country. Over the years, amidst the Congo wars that have torn the country apart, aside from the patriarchal structure of society, women have been silenced and suppressed by wars and crime as well. They are often the targets of violence and oppressive practices such as rape being used as a weapon of war and women being used as objects to achieve a means to an end. Women in the DRC are often put in a position where they have to struggle for their rights and work to assert their role in society. Notably, as observed in one research study conducted in the DRC, “Women's power… it is really invisible. And it is mostly due to tradition.” Tradition plays a significant role in silencing Congolese women’s voices, and a culture of violence and suppression of women as a weaker sex leaves little room for equal participation of women.

This trend has now transferred from the offline world into the online world, where women are often seen working in the shadows. When they are outspoken, they are accused either of being rude or uncouth or, even worse, their character is put to question, followed by public shaming.

While technology is supposed to give women more access to use digital platforms to freely express themselves and play an active role in their communities, it has been used instead to stifle their voices and replicate oppressive offline practices. The internet is providing a space for movement building among women, as well as visibility and amplification of their voices often not accessible in the physical world due to oppressive existing structures. However, these tech platforms that women find refuge in for exercising their rights are marred with vices such as exposing them to different forms of violence in online spaces. Due to this online violence, many women chose to shy away from the use of this powerful tool, further marginalising them instead of liberating their equal participation. This article reflects on some of the findings from the data collected in DRC.

Women unconnected and unequipped for the digital space

Connectivity to the internet and digital technology are crucial for women to exercise their rights to freedom of expression and assembly online. However, for most women in the DRC, access is a rare commodity. It comes at a high cost, with digital devices being unaffordable and internet bandwidth being unstable in most cases. The majority of women interviewed in the research study “The Holistic Approach” reported having little to no access, hence their freedom of expression and assembly in online spaces is restricted. While the majority of women in the DRC could benefit from avenues like social media in many areas, such as politics, and in their personal lives as well as professionally, the lack of connectivity hinders them from having the opportunity to make use of tech platforms to not only grow on different spheres, but also freely express their views and work towards collective purposes.

Our research shows that the gaps that exist in digital skills among women in the DRC are a limiting factor for their participation in online spaces and practising of their key rights. The research also shows that the majority of women use social media platforms for personal communication, and during focus group discussions it was revealed that this is due to the fact that many women in the DRC are lacking the necessary skills to make use of social media platforms for movement building as well as amplification of critical areas that they want to push for. This lack of digital skills not only included inability to use digital platforms but also unawareness of digital security, which is critical to their safety on such platforms.

Currently, in areas like Ituri where the war is ongoing, women use social media such as WhatsApp to communicate about impending dangers, such as attacks in neighbourhoods. This is also applicable in areas that face insecurity. For example, communities mobilise against systematic robberies through the use of social media communities such as WhatsApp groups. They also make use of these platforms to share lived experiences and communicate on avenues of redress, such as organisations that provide psycho-social support to victims. Women activists in these areas have spoken out against violence through platforms such as Facebook and faced backlash for doing so.

Who is the target?

While social media has proved to be an effective alternative providing a civic space for women's movements, it has also been weaponised to make it difficult for them to freely navigate the space. Often platforms like this are also used to belittle women, attack them and spread misinformation targeting them, which further marginalises them into withdrawing from its usage. In efforts to understand the inequalities and hindrances to the enjoyment of freedom of expression and assembly online by women in the DRC, a couple of things came to light about the realities of online gender-based violence and how it limits equal participation for women online.

It cannot be ignored that the online violence impacts not only their online activities but also their mental and physical well-being and safety as well, with effects of the abuse felt in how they experience their day-to-day life.

Women at the forefront of civic spaces such as activists, journalists, politicians and human rights defenders are routinely attacked and abused online for their work. This is often because of the nature of the work they do that requires them to speak out against injustices, violence and crime in the community, leading those who oppose them to attack them with hate in an attempt to silence their voices.

OGBV: The elephant in the room

While all of the above are critical factors to why women fail to fully exercise their key rights online, OGBV still negatively affects women who do have access to digital technologies and is a limiting factor to enjoyment of FoE and FoA for women online. In our research, most women did not know what OGBV is and how it manifests itself. As a result, even when they do face it, they are in the dark about how to deal with it. For those who knew what OGBV is, they are often subjected to a difficult decision to stay online or go offline, and we found that most chose the latter. The research notes that OGBV was very common amongst women who used social media in their daily work, like politicians, journalists and women human rights defenders. 

While OGBV is experienced in its many forms, the majority of women in the DRC surveyed for the research “The Holistic Approach” reported that bullying, account cloning, non-consensual use of intimate images, sexual harassment and sexist comments top the list, and often in these cases, victims feel stigmatised and change how they interact with and on social media platforms. The effects of such violence are not merely skin deep, as most face depression and withdraw even from the offline community and social gatherings. It cannot be ignored that the online violence impacts not only their online activities but also their mental and physical well-being and safety as well, with effects of the abuse felt in how they experience their day-to-day life.

The national constitution of the DRC enshrines freedom of expression and association and protection of women as fundamental rights, whereas the Criminal Code as amended and supplemented by Act no. 06/018 of 20 July 2006 criminalises violence against women, especially sexual violence such as rape and sexual harassment. Similar to other African countries, the DRC has also ratified and signed several international conventions on gender-based violence, but the laws do not reflect or harmonise with these frameworks. The current legal provisions and frameworks on violence against women are not sufficient to safeguard women online, as there are no specific laws that address OGBV. To this end, women internet users in the DRC reported that where the law was present, they were unaware of these laws being put in practice. There was also an expression of concern among participants in the study regarding how women report incidents of OGBV and if they even do report them, since there are no legal mechanisms that specifically respond to online gender-based violence. Furthermore, there is a knowledge gap among judges and lawyers on how to prosecute on such matters, hence the need for more capacity building among law enforcement departments and institutions.

Government response to OGBV

The government has also not given OGBV its due, as they leave it in a multipurpose docket dubbed “cybersecurity”, ignoring the fact that the lived realities of women online are very different from those of men. This also is attributed to the fact that more efforts are being made by the government to curb offline gender-based violence, especially sexual violence, as seen in war-torn areas where rape is used as a weapon of war. As GBV has been a huge problem in the DRC, the government has developed mechanisms such as accountability frameworks to address GBV, including national protocols for case management and a database of incidents. However, these protocols and mechanisms only respond to gender-based violence in the offline world; none touches on online gender-based violence.

Often more than not one’s expression is one's freedom.

Some other measures that the government of the DRC has taken include the National Strategy Against Gender-Based Violence (2009-2010), which provides a strategic guide of how the country will address GBV but doesn't touch on OGBV. Another measure was the establishment of the National Agency for Eliminating Violence against Women and Adolescent and Very Young Girls, which aims to combat impunity, ensure protection and prevention, implement security sector reforms, provide assistance and gather data. Despite these government efforts, none addresses online gender-based violence, leaving room for a lot of work to yet be undertaken to ensure women can use the online space for FoE and FoA without facing OGBV.

Are we there yet?

Addressing online violence in the DRC will require the state to counter online gender-based violence on the policy level as it also actively addresses offline GBV in the wake of the war that led to a surge of sexual harassment and violence in the country. In addition to policy reforms, the government will also have to take measures to increase the participation of women in digital spaces by raising capacity building and awareness around digital literacy and skills required to proactively and constructively engage online. The prerequisite for this participation and exercise of freedom of expression and assembly is meaningful access to technology and the internet, which the government of the DRC has to devote efforts and resources to.

Often more than not one’s expression is one's freedom. Fast forward in this day and age, while we have many outspoken women in the DRC who are taking up spaces, building movements and speaking out for their country, the struggle for equity and equality in online and offline spaces still leaves much to be desired. It gives fewer opportunities and avenues for women to exercise freedom of expression and assembly in the wake of increasing online gender-based violence, which makes it difficult for women to make use of technology to the best of their interest and development.

The question at this point that ought to be on the mind of stakeholders in the space is, are we there yet? Does the DRC have the avenues to make room for women to exercise freedom of expression and assembly online? Is there recourse they can seek for their safety? How can we make online spaces holistically safe and accessible for the women of Congo? More questions than answers, but as we find the answers we will uncover the way forward to say women have a voice, both online and offline.

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