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Instances of online gender-based violence pile up in Kenya

On March 27, a heated debate ensued on Kenyan social media about utterances made on-air by three radio hosts during a breakfast show. The hosts were discussing an ongoing court case involving Eunice Wangari, a woman who was pushed off a 12-floor building by a man with whom she was on a date.  

On Twitter, angered Kenyans lashed out at the presenters Shaffie Weru, Joseph Munoru, and Neville Muysa for their remarks on the case of alleged gender-based violence, and called out the hosts’ victim-blaming.

The case divided online users as a section of citizens took sides with the hosts. Although the trio was fired by the radio station, it brought to the fore how hostile the Kenyan online space has become for women.

There are about 21.75 million internet users in Kenya, or 40 percent of the country's population, according to 2021 data by research firm DataReportal. Around 11 million of those use social media, an increase of 2.2 percent compared to 2020.

According to another report by Global System for Mobile Communications (GSMA), while mobile phone ownership is almost equally matched between men and women — with only five percent more men than women owning or having access to the gadget –, only one in every three internet users in Kenya is a woman.

As an online minority, women in Kenya are often targets of cyberbullying. And although in 2018 the country passed a law against cyberbullying – which defines the behaviour as interacting with others in a manner that “is likely to cause […] apprehension or fear of violence to them or damage or loss on that persons’ property” — with penalties of up to 10 years in prison, mass online trolling still runs rampant.

Below we'll describe two other prominent cases of the past 12 months in which social media served as a platform to harass women in Kenya.

COVID-19 patient

In March 2020, Brenda Ivy Cherotich became Kenya's first COVID-19 patient. After fully recovering, she came forth to speak about her journey just as the world was beginning to understand the new virus.

But Cherotich didn’t receive the warm welcome she may have anticipated. After doing media interviews in April 2020, she was subjected to online harassment and backlash from Kenyans on Twitter (or famously #KOT, a term often used to describe the collective of active Kenyans online known to rally against various causes or personalities) who sought to discredit and question the truth behind her story.

Other online abusers poked into her personal life, and her private conversations and photos were widely shared, probably after being leaked by a friend or acquaintance.

Angered by this, Kenya’s Health Minister Mutahi Kagwe came forward to defend Brenda, calling for the arrest of the abusers and terming the trolling as a “shameful bid to undermine the government efforts to combat COVID-19.”

That wasn't the end of it, as another victim soon fell to #KOT attacks: TV personality Yvonne Okwara was targeted for defending Brenda and backing the minister’s advocacy for the arrest of online abusers.

Okwara called out the abusers for targeting women. She pointed out that Brian Orinda, the third Kenyan who fell ill with COVID-19, and who was present giving his recovery journey alongside Brenda, didn’t receive the same treatment. This stirred the itchy fingers of the keyboard warriors who had a field day on Twitter trolling Okwara.

Earlier in 2021, State House Spokesperson Kanze Dena also fell victim to Kenya's cyberbullies. As she gave a press briefing to journalists at an event, online abusers body-shamed her over her weight. 

It quickly became a social media debate, with a section of Kenyans and media personalities coming to Dena's defense.

 

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A post shared by Emmy Kosgei (@emmykosgei)

An article by The Elephantone of Kenya’s foremost digital publications, noted that online social network spheres in Kenya and globally have turned to be the frontiers for toxic expressions and harassment.

There is no gainsaying that social media has become an important tool for social and professional advancement, more so for women. Many women have built their businesses online and, in the process, have learned how to connect with others. Many find clients to buy and sell their products online. Others find platforms to incubate ideas, leading to hundreds if not millions of social enterprises that not only spur economic growth but directly empower young men and women economically. They have also learned how to improve their entrepreneurship skills online. No doubt then, social media has emerged as a great space to do business. This is important for women’s economic empowerment and visibility. – Source: The Elephant

It seems that for women to participate in meaningful online conversations about topics that directly affect their lives, the internet must become a safer place than it is now.

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