In the absence of governmental structure and with a trust deficit about data protection, advocacy organization Digital Rights Foundation continues to support victims of cyber crimes and harassment. Five years after its launch of its Cyber Harassment Helpline, which now operates 24/7, the organization has released a report documenting its work supporting survivors and navigating inconsistent governmental responses.
The report revealed that the DRF Cyber Harassment Helpline received a total of 4401 cases, out of which 4310 were related to online harassment. The others that dealt with domestic violence and physical and sexual harassment were connected to appropriate resources.
Nighat Dad, the founder of DRF, believes that it is crucial to think, at the governmental level, about the structural ways to improve law enforcement in this regard.
“Is the FIA really our only option? Or can we see how existing mechanisms can be equipped to deal with cyber harassment cases?” she asked.
According to the report, 32.5% of cases reported in 2021 were from a city without an FIA office. This, according to Nighat, was another problem with the existing mechanism and structure.
“Women are already hesitant to seek support in cases such as these, how can we expect women and girls to travel miles and miles to seek an FIA office,” asked Nighat. She said that alternatively, police stations existed in almost every city and township, and therefore it was worth exploring if they could be utilised.
According to the report, the month of July received the highest number of cases, and it said that although the data was inconclusive, it is possible that the increased number could be attributed to two significant cases of violence against women that took place in July, that had received extensive media coverage, referring to the murder of Noor Mukadam.
In 2012, the organization was overwhelmed with messages from women experiencing harassment and not knowing what to do. Nighat was burned out. The influx of messages could not have been handled by one individual.
This is is when the idea of an independent cyber harassment helpline came to her. Nighat immediately materialized the idea when she won the Dutch Tulip Award in 2016.
Inconsistency in governmental response is a grave issue, Nighat points out, adding that a structural framework to deal with these issues can help address these contradictory policies.
In the five years, the number of cases that the DRF Cyber Crime Helpline receives have significantly risen. Nighat attributes the increase in cases being reported to the increased internet penetration as well as awareness and change in attitude.
“More women have mobile phones than they did 10 years ago,” Nighat says.
But citizens are still hesitant to trust the authorities. Inconsistent response to the complaints is the major reason for this trust deficit, Nighat says.
Just a few days ago, when she got a call from a girl who was being harassed by a blackmailer based abroad, Nighat offered to take her to the FIA. But the girl said she did not trust the agency with her data.
She says “The government has no answers for how it stores, transfers and destroys the evidence it receives from the survivors of cyber crimes. There is no proper data protection framework either.”
With such structural inadequacies, word of mouth about one bad experience can lead to other victims feeling discouraged.
She questioned whether the lack of proper framework and structure was due to laziness or lack of political willpower.
In 2017, then minister Ahsan Iqbal who is now back at the ministry for planning and development, gave the FIA Cyber-crime Wing massive resources, to resolve the pending cases.
Despite the governments’ apparent willingness to engage with advocacy groups like the DRF, the authorities are still unable to effectively protect women and gender minorities against online harassment.
Nighat says the perpetrators of online abuse are easily able to get bail, even though these are non-bailable offences.
Khadija Muzaffar is the culture editor at The Friday Times. Previously a Fulbright scholar at NYU, she enjoys writing about society, culture, music and food. She tweets at @khadijamuzaffar, but is far more interesting on Instagram.