After photoshopped images of her went viral, Rutendo's life was turned upside down. Today, she has an action plan to put an end to cyber violence.
There is a lot at stake when we are made to feel unsafe and when we are pushed out of online spaces.
On a Monday morning in November 2015, I walked into a lecture room at my university. To my surprise, everyone was staring at me. Of course, I had been late for the lecture, but that wasn’t anything new. I quickly realized that some students were laughing at me, while others were looking at me in disbelief.
I couldn’t concentrate, so I made my way out of the room before the lecture ended. Just as I was leaving, a close friend of mine followed me outside. She opened a Facebook page where students at my university gossip and post the latest social news.
Something shocking caught my eye. I was the subject of the headlining story on that page. My pictures were posted, but they had been photoshopped in a degrading manner. At first, I thought I was dreaming. I pinched myself and realized it was real.
The pictures included a caption: “If you want bronclere or marijuana you can contact the lady in the picture in room 229… university campus.....she is a whore, she goes around sleeping with man and spreading H.I.V on campus, SO BEWARE OF HER."
My heart sank. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The photos went viral on WhatsApp, and within a few hours everyone on campus had seen them.
That same day, the Central Investigation Department of the local police took me into custody to investigate. My room was searched for drugs; of course, they didn’t find any. I cried, and I could feel hate to the bone. None of the claims were true, and yet I was beaten at the police station because they wanted me tell them the “truth” about the drugs I was rumored to be selling on campus.
I spent two days in the cells. This was the most horrible experience of my life. To tell you the truth, the conditions of these cells are not favorable to human health.
After my parents were called, they came to the police station to see me. They were so angry and did not believe me when I explained. My dad said that I was a disgrace to the family, and he decided to stop paying my tuition fees for the following year. He said it was better for him to invest his money somewhere else because I was not focused. I tried to explain to him that this was not true, but he said, “There is no smoke without fire.”
I was released after two days at the police station, but my life took a very wrong turn after that experience. I had to return to school to finish that semester, and it was not easy.
My parents, my friends, and my boyfriend rejected me because of the reputation I acquired due to online abuse. My boyfriend and friends were shy to be in my company. They were embarrassed. People threw insults at my boyfriend because of my so-called behavior. Eventually, he broke up with me because he didn’t want to be associated with a “whore” who is HIV positive.
No one was there for me, and I wanted to commit suicide. I felt useless, and I became bitter and fearful of social networks. For months, I was afraid to go on the Internet. I deleted WhatsApp and Facebook from my phone. I lost trust in people because I had no idea who was behind the photoshopped images and allegations against me.
I began to isolate myself from other students on campus. I had low self-esteem, and I was demotivated. I lost confidence as people looked down on me and talked ill of me. My class performance deteriorated because I was lonely. I stopped attending group discussions.
My personality changed. I developed anger, depression, and I became withdrawn. I stopped going to parties at home, and even gave up volleyball, which angered my family.
I felt I’d lost everything due to online abuse. In 2014 and 2015, I was crowned as the representative of my university. The committee decided I was unfit to represent the university. I was devastated to lose this title because of lies.
My father went through with his decision to not pay my tuition fees, and I had to defer my studies in 2015. I still haven’t managed to resume my schooling.
They say time heals, but I am still finding it hard to recover from these events. Online abuse and harassment is real. It negatively impacts lives for the long term.
What happens when women are silenced online
Sadly, my experience is not unique. Women are harassed online every day. And there is a lot at stake when we are made to feel unsafe and when we are pushed out of online spaces.
Social media presents opportunities for women to make a difference in the world. Women are able to connect and build relationships across all sectors of the economy and the world through Internet access. Technology empowers women through online courses, membership institutions, and access to information on various subjects, including career development. I myself have benefitted from online courses, online communities, and membership to international associations.
Safe Internet access is vital to the economy. In Zimbabwe, women are primarily responsible for purchasing household goods, and companies rely on social media and online marketing strategies to generate profit. If women are unsafe online, we are less likely to purchase from businesses that rely on online advertising. This has economic impact on local economies and the gross domestic product.
When women cannot safely utilize the Internet for fear of harassment and online abuse, equality suffers. Women in my country and countries like it will have difficulty choosing career paths and advancing their education from the comforts of home. If online spaces become a battleground, women’s empowerment will stall. More women will have low self-esteem and high stress levels that demotivate them, as I experienced.
What it will take to create a safe Internet
It may take generations to make the Internet safe for all women. To ensure women do not go through what I experienced online, we need a change in laws, policies, attitudes, perceptions, and even technology itself.
Change will not take place in a day. Eradicating online abuse will be more than a lifetime’s worth of work.
It will take targeted strategic planning and commitment to create a safe Internet for women. We must focus on education and awareness, government involvement, and technology upgrades to realize this vision.
We cannot close our eyes to the fact that willingness to change comes when people have been educated on the subject. To that end, I envision awareness campaigns aimed at educating and empowering individuals to take action. We could start with radio and talk shows about online abuse. Victims could be invited into the studio to share their stories, and the audience could call in to the show to share their own accounts.
I would also love to see a film or feature documentary focused on the subject, with stories of victims of online abuse and interviews with lawyers and advocates knowledgeable about the topic. We could also take advantage of arts festivals, such as the Harare International Festival of the Arts, to get the message out through plays, drama, and paintings. Novels and magazines could be freely distributed in schools and public spaces such as hospitals and shopping centers.
I also believe the Ministry of Education should introduce cyber crime as a compulsory subject in primary, secondary, and tertiary education curriculums. In my mind, this will go a long way in preventing the contamination of online abuse and harassment in the next generation. It would also help to promote zero tolerance to online abuse and promote respect of everyone in online spaces.
Thereafter, governments could formulate goals and strategies to eradicate online abuse and harassment of Internet users, especially women. Governments must be committed to ending online abuse, and they must work with partners across sectors. Ministries, donors, institutions, and private businesses could all be involved. Coordination is vital for transparency and effective delivery.
Currently, this is partially underway. The Zimbabwean government is drafting laws to protect Internet users. Baxton Sirewu, Acting Director of Postal and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority, said the government is working with other stakeholders in the security and information and technology sectors, as well as other ministries, to come up with laws to protect Internet users.
In addition, we must train police officers, lawyers, and judges on how to handle online abuse cases. While the efforts underway to enact laws in Zimbabwe right now are important, enforcing these new laws will be a challenge. This is because the difference between freedom of speech and abusive comments remains unclear. Therefore, it becomes difficult to prove whether a comment is abusive or not. Currently, anyone can post anything online without fear or relevant punishment.
And it is the responsibility of technology companies to address this social threat as well. I believe Internet, software, and computer manufacturers must unite to upgrade technology to catch cyber criminals. For example, I imagine a system whereby one opens an account and is given a card to use whenever he or she wishes to go online, similar to a bank account. This would help get rid of the issue of Internet anonymity, which is what protects most online abusers from being recognized.
It will take a lot of cash and many years to make the Internet safe for women. But online abuse and harassment is a real threat that affects women’s lives in negative ways. It is high time we take action as global citizens.
Everyone can play a role in eradicating online abuse. If we come together, online spaces can be a refuge and place of opportunity for women.
This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.
How to Get Involved
Rutendo is working to launch a campaign to put an end to online harassment, and she needs your help! She is currently seeking volunteers with the following expertise:
Editorial: Rutendo would like to write a novel or magazine addressing harassment online. She is looking for an editor to support her project.
Acting and Theater: Rutendo has plans to produce a play or drama on the topic of cyber violence to be displayed at the Harare International Festival of Arts. She is looking for volunteer actors or support from a local theater group to make this vision a reality.
Fine Arts: Artists can support Rutendo by helping her to create paintings or sculptures depicting the story of online abuse survivors. She hopes to display these pieces to raise awareness, and to sell them to fund additional campaign initiatives.
If you are interested in supporting Rutendo as a volunteer or mentor, please contact her by leaving a comment on her story, or you can send her a private message on World Pulse.