‘My ex-boyfriend posted my nudes online:’ The heavy toll of tech-facilitated GBV

Queentah Wambulwa, an author and GBV activist.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • UNFPA in 2021 launched the Body Right Campaign, which calls on policymakers, technology companies, and social media platforms to take image-based abuse and online misogyny as seriously as they take copyright infringement.
  • The UN agency is working to strengthen efforts aimed at documenting, preventing, and responding to technology-facilitated GBV.

Queentah Wambulwa was a second year student at the Technical University of Kenya in Mombasa when something that would entirely change the course of her life happened.

The year was 2018. On that fateful morning, she received thousands of notifications on her Facebook account. She could not at first figure out what was the issue.

However, it shortly thereafter dawned on her that someone had published naked photos and videos of her in their local village Facebook and WhatsApp groups.

These, she says, were pictures she had shared privately with her ex-boyfriend over the course of their long-distance relationship, dating back to 2016.

“This realisation was devastating. I felt deeply ashamed and devastated that I had let myself and everyone around me down. The guilt, anxiety, and worry overwhelmed me as the images spread on Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and on local blogs. I didn’t know where to turn for help and contemplated suicide just to end the pain,” Queentah tells Nation.Africa in an interview.

And because the Facebook and WhatsApp group members were friends, relatives, and neighbours from their home village, she reveals that it did not take long for the photos and videos to be shared with her parents.

This ordeal, she adds, saw her sink into depression. She also turned to alcoholism and drugs to end her pain. Things got worse, culminating in her being admitted to Kenyatta National Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

“I can say that it took the hand of God for me to recover. Through the help of counsellors, I was able to heal and recover from the traumatising experience. As a result, I decided to become an advocate for mental health and wellness at the university and beyond. While on my hospital bed, I decided to do something about mental health wellness.”

Queentah attributes the release of her nude pictures and videos to what, in technology circles, is referred to as revenge porn, usually released by a jilted lover.

She says things took this dramatic turn after she broke up with his boyfriend over infidelity.

“My ex-boyfriend refused to take the break-up lightly and decided to share my nudes, which I had been sharing with him online as a way of revenge.”

Queentah’s experience is not an isolated case. Many more female students are increasingly experiencing similar treatment at the hands of jilted lovers, mostly after break-up.

Many of such cases have been witnessed in institutions of higher learning where break-ups are rampant.

Study

A new study has lifted the lid off the extent of technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TF-GBV) in Kenya’s higher learning institutions.

The study, which was released last month, was conducted by the Collaborative Centre for Gender and Development (CCGD), in collaboration with the University of Nairobi Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE) Hub and supported by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). 

The study shows that female students are disproportionately impacted, with 64.4 per cent of them having experienced at least one type of online violence, as compared to 35.5 per cent of male students.

Female students are the primary targets of online attacks such as online defamation and non-consensual pornography, with a lasting psychological, social, and economic impact on those affected.

Forms of TF-GBV

The most common forms of TF-GBV witnessed and experienced were online defamation (21.9 per cent), cyberbullying (19.1 per cent), and non-consensual pornography (17.8 per cent).

Online defamation (34.4 per cent) and non-consensual pornography (24.4 per cent) are the most common forms of TF-GBV against female students, while male students mostly experience online defamation (43 per cent) and cyberbullying (39.4 per cent).

Male students (78.6 per cent) were identified as the top perpetrators of TF-GBV, followed by female students (11.5 per cent) and male teaching staff (5.4 per cent).

TF-GBV was most prevalent on social media platforms such as X (formerly Twitter at 18.4 per cent), WhatsApp (17 per cent), Facebook (16.8 per cent), Telegram (14.2 per cent), Instagram (14.2 per cent) and Tik-Tok (13.7 per cent).

The study indicates that nearly 90 of young adults enrolled in Nairobi’s tertiary institutions have witnessed TF-GBV, with 39 per cent having experienced it personally.

Victims of TF-GBV, according to the study, often seek social support, intervention from digital platforms, and legal support, but a notable number take no action.

Gender, economic vulnerability, physical appearance, limited digital safety measures, and sharing of personal information online, among other factors, were listed as aspects that increase individuals’ vulnerability to online violence. 

“Female students are the primary targets of online attacks such as online defamation and non-consensual pornography, with a lasting psychological, social, and economic impact on those affected,” said CCGD executive director Masheti Masinjila.

He adds that the triggers of TF-GBV range from personal conflicts and revenge to perceived anonymity of online interactions.

Tertiary institutions surveyed reported the existence of disciplinary, legal, and supportive measures to combat TF-GBV.

However, low awareness among students of these measures, coupled with failure by many to recognise online violence as a specific form of GBV has impeded efforts made by the institutions to address the issue.

Qualitative data collected from officers within the country's justice system, including the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (ODPP), the Directorate of Criminal Investigations (DCI), the police, and the Judiciary show that law enforcement and justice institutions are struggling to keep up with the evolving forms of TF-GBV, mainly because of serious resource limitations.

“Digitisation is a global megatrend with great potential for achieving the development goals. We are, however, concerned that the online world is quickly becoming a new frontier for gender-based violence, and it is, therefore, imperative that we work together to make technology and digital spaces safe and equitable for all,” said UNFPA representative Anders Thomsen. 

To curb this emerging menace, Mr Thomsen reveals that UNFPA in 2021 launched the Body Right Campaign, which calls on policymakers, technology companies, and social media platforms to take image-based abuse and online misogyny as seriously as they take copyright infringement.

The UN agency is working to strengthen efforts aimed at documenting, preventing, and responding to TF-GBV.

Digital literacy

Carol Murgor, the UNFPA GBV/gender adviser, underscores the need for digital literacy to help tame TF-GBV. She decries that Kenya lacks a policy to fight against this emerging problem.

“The findings are just a tip of the iceberg. There is a need that Kenyans know about report mechanisms to combat this vice and learn from other countries how to fight it,” says Ms Murgor.

Zetech University student leader Zetech Kaku tells Nation.Africa that being a leader, she usually gets a lot of complaints from female students who have been victims of TF-GBV.

“A lot of female students come to me complaining about cyberbullying, online stalking, sextortion, and revenge porn. Many of them tend to withdraw from their colleagues and even studies. Their self-esteem and confidence also goes down, which affects them even in their studies,” Ms Kaku notes.

Jackline Njagi, from the Office of the Director Public Prosecutions (ODPP), concurs that a lot of sensitisation is needed to allow the people know what the law says about TF-GBV and other forms of GBV.

University of Nairobi WEE HUB Research Fellow Valarie Udalang says the findings from this study underscore the urgent need for targeted interventions to protect young people from TF-GBV.

“We are committed to leveraging this research to advocate policies and programmes that effectively address TF-GBV within our higher education institutions,” Ms Udalang says.

Queentah notes that survivors of this form of violence face a lot of frustrations from law enforcement agencies in their quest for justice.

“Access to justice is expensive. We need to have pro-bono lawyers for the survivors of this form of violence paid up by the state. It is also paramount to have digital literacy introduced in schools to help curb the vice,” she notes.

The researchers spoke to 728 respondents between October and December 2023. The respondents were drawn from the University of Nairobi, Zetech University, and Kabete National Polytechnic.