Abuse against women is a tale as old as time itself and is taking on many different forms. Abuse is not limited to physical actions anymore and online abuse is on the rise due to technological advancements and a widespread increase in the use of social media.
Online abuse includes a wide range of behaviours and acts committed in the digital world, such as doxing, cyberbullying, harassment, cyberstalking, revenge porn and so on. Although online abuse is a concern for all genders and all sexual orientations, the unfortunate reality is that online abuse has a disproportionate effect on women. This article briefly explores some of the forms of online abuse against women and the possible ways in which they can address it and protect themselves.
Doxing refers to the act of revealing private or identifying information about a person online without their consent. Doxing can also include the publishing of a woman's contact details, residential address or employment details online without their consent in an attempt to humiliate or expose them to victimisation. For example, John falsely accuses Mary* of owing him money and posts her contact details on social media while asking everyone to help him get the money from Mary.
While there is no legislation that specifically prohibits doxing, the act of doxing violates a number of legal provisions. One of these legal provisions is the right to privacy in terms of the Constitution and The Protection of Personal Information Act 4 of 2013 (“POPI”), especially in the case where the information was not publicly available before the act of doxing.
Revenge porn refers to the non-consensual sharing or distribution of nude or sexually explicit images or videos of a person with the express purpose of humiliating them or getting revenge. The photograph or video can be shared via e-mail, pornographic websites, or social media platforms. Revenge porn can have a devastating effect on the mental health of a victim and is a violation of the victim's constitutional right to dignity.
The Films and Publications Act 65 of 1996 prohibits and criminalises revenge porn. This means that women who are victims of revenge porn can lay criminal charges against the perpetrators and that the perpetrators may face jail time of up to two years and/or a fine of up to R150 000.
Other types of cyberbullying
Both doxing and revenge porn can be said to fall under the umbrella of cyberbullying or cyber-harassment. Apart from these two specific types, there are other types of cyberbullying that can occur. Generally, cyberbullying refers to when a person is bullied by another through the use of electronic devices. This can take the form of posting offensive images or comments of another person on social media that negatively impacts that person's dignity. Another example is where one person sends another person threats of violence either on social media or text.
The president signed the Cybercrimes Act 19 of 2020 into law in 2021 and many parts of it have since come into effect. The Cybercrimes Act defines many new cybercrimes and prescribes penalties for such crimes.
There are other crimes which are incidental to cyberbullying and women who have been the victims of these acts can report such crimes, for example:
> Crimen iniuria: this refers to where the dignity of the victim is injured, for example, inappropriate and humiliating images of a woman have been published without her consent.
> Extortion and intimidation: this refers to threatening someone to obtain something from him/her, for example, where a person threatens to publish pornographic images of another if the person does not pay an amount of money.
> Criminal defamation: this refers to the intentional and unlawful publication of a matter concerning another person which damages his/her reputation, for example, posting lies about someone on social media for everyone to see.
What recourse do women have against online abuse?
As mentioned above, women can lay criminal charges in instances where the acts of online abuse are criminal offences. Women can also rely on a number of civil law remedies, such as instituting a claim for damages she suffered as a result of the online abuse.
Apart from these remedies, a victim can also apply at a Magistrate's Court for a protection order to prevent the perpetrator from committing any further online abuse. Magistrate's Courts are also empowered to order an electronic service provider to remove or disable access to the message or image, for example, an order to hide a social media post.
It does happen that the online abuse is sometimes committed anonymously and the identity of the perpetrator is unknown. In such cases, the internet service provider may be compelled to provide information on the identity of the perpetrator.
It is important for women who have been victims of online abuse to keep evidence of such acts. For example, take screenshots of the offensive posts or messages. Any direct messages or e-mails linked to the online abuse must also not be deleted. This will ensure that the victim can provide evidence of the abuse when legal action is pursued.
The digital environment continues to evolve, and this both presents opportunities and challenges to safeguarding women's rights. South Africa's laws have come a long way and continue to develop in order to address the new challenges faced by women online.
Did you know…Victims of revenge porn can lay criminal charges against the perpetrators, who may face jail time of up to two years and/or a fine of up to R150 000.
The use of any names is fictional and for illustrative purposes only.