Combatting cybercrime and online gender-based abuse in East Africa

It was the use of “hate radio” to incite ethnic hatred in the 1994 Rwandan genocide that convinced Alice Munyua of the need for improved governance in East Africa’s information and communications technology sector.

Munyua, currently a director on Kenya’s regulatory communications commission, worked in a Tanzanian refugee camp in the aftermath of the genocide. She managed a UNHCR-funded radio project called Kwizera.

“The aim of Kwizera was to counter the negative impact radio had had in the Rwandan genocide,” says Munyua. “The station focused on refugee experiences, helped people seek forgiveness, preached peace, broadcast health and educational programs, helped reunite children with their parents, and informed refugees about the repatriation process.”

Munyua has since been a vocal advocate for harnessing the benefits of technology. With financial assistance from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) she has had the opportunity to research these benefits as well as examine how technology needs to be governed appropriately to ensure that the new opportunities it creates are widely and fairly spread.

The need for ICT governance

Africa is rapidly bridging the technological divide between itself and the rest of the developed world. However, new submarine cable systems like SEACOM and EASSy mean that more African nations now have access to high speed Internet, and social media sites like Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter. More than 20 million people in Kenya alone—half the country’s population—own a cellphone.

Munyua warns that such swift technological advances come with an increased need for governmental accountability and responsibility.

Munyua’s IDRC-funded research examined how increased Internet use has witnessed a simultaneous rise in cybercrime, which particularly targets women.

“Cybercrime is a very shameful topic. It takes me back to the era of when women could not talk about ethnic violence,” said Munyua. “Most of the women from our focus groups are happy to talk one-on-one, but they don’t want to admit to being abused openly.”

Addressing online gender-based abuse

Munyua’s research has found that women in Kenya are only now accessing the Internet for the first time and are unaware of its potential dangers. Many have been victims of fraud, abuse, stalking, and sexual harassment on online social media and dating sites.

Munyua suggests that using the Internet is a Catch-22 for women in Kenya.

“The Internet is considered a safe place for women to communicate but at the same time, the same anonymity, the same safety is also offered to those who abuse women.”

Her research revealed how the psychological and emotional effects of online abuse caused one woman to quit her job.

Munyua underlines that cases like these justified the need for legislative change. She also argues that the use of text messages to organize and incite violence after the 2007 Kenyan elections made lobbying the government to take action that much easier. Kenya’s 2009 Communications Amendment Act decrees that people can now be prosecuted for sending abusive text messages or emails.

The role of KICTANET (Kenyan ICT Action Network) was instrumental in initiating these changes in legislation. The organization, co-founded by Munyua, is supported by IDRC and includes stakeholders from both the Kenyan government and the media. KICTANET aims to improve the livelihoods of Kenyans by ensuring accessible, efficient, reliable, and affordable ICT services.

Empowering women

Despite the increase in online gender-based abuse, Munyua argues that, ultimately, ICTs can be agents of change. Women in Africa can use ICTs to empower themselves, whether through a village mobile phone business, Internet, or new career opportunities.

“Women are beginning to build businesses using the Internet…others use it to access reproductive and educational information, communicate with other women, and report abuse,” says Munyua. “Interacting with other women online or via phone gives them a perception of safety when discussing issues of domestic or Internet-related violence.”

ICT and the “youth problem”

Going forward, Munyua wants to continue exploring ways in which the Internet can be used for social justice. She hopes next to launch research into how African youth can take advantage of ICTs to enhance their entrepreneurial skills by innovating in e-services sectors such as health and banking.

She states that Kenya faces a problem because nearly half of the country’s population is between the ages of 15 and 30. Although many are well-educated, they face high levels of unemployment.

“This is why it’s so easy for them to be drawn in by any politician to pick up stones and machetes, like after the 2007 elections,” warns Munyua. “This is why many African governments are dealing with this ‘youth problem’ from a political and development standpoint.”

The rapid expansion of ICTs in Africa offers unprecedented new opportunities for economic growth and social innovation. Munyua’s continuing research, however, has shown the need for responsible governance to monitor both the risks and rewards during this exciting transition.