Sarah Kuponoyi is an ImSafer Instructor, Center for Clinical Care and Clinical Research, Nigeria
I’ve come across lots of girls who have experienced online harassment, abuse, or exploitation, particularly via Facebook. A girl starts chatting to someone online, they communicate for a while, have private chats, and she thinks they’re in a relationship. Guys say sweet words, especially to girls who are vulnerable and in need of a job or money. Sometimes they make plans to meet in person and she ends up being raped.
Another very common problem is intimate photographs being leaked or used to blackmail someone. Nigeria has a law against nude pictures being posted without consent but in most cases, the victims are too scared to report when it happens.
There are also cases of girls being trafficked after they have been tricked online. Frequently they are offered jobs, sometimes outside of the country, and then are coerced into prostitution.
Online abuse is a problem everywhere but the situation is worse in urban areas where there is more access to the internet. Wherever it happens, the culture of victim-blaming is prevalent and responsibility is generally placed on the woman or girl. People say, “Why did you do that? What were you thinking? What is so special about your body that you are trying to report something?”
Experiences like this can have a big impact on a victim’s mental health and often it affects their academic performance. It damages how they view the opposite sex and they feel like they can’t trust anyone anymore.
A girl can’t go to the police because most officers won’t listen to her. They say it should be a parent who reports it. The police also think that sexual harassment is normal. I have been to a police station to report a sexual assault case and the officer said, “Why don’t you just let the matter die down, it was only touching.”
Another challenge is that police will ask for a filing fee and this frustrates whoever goes to report. As a social worker, you have to use your own money to pay when you are reporting a crime on behalf of a victim. Most people get discouraged with the justice system and rather than go through the stress of reporting, they would rather keep things to themselves.
The police don’t understand the nature of online abuse and I don’t think it is something they are thinking about. There also isn’t much awareness within the government or schools. NGOs are doing a lot to teach girls about how to protect themselves from sexual abuse, and are providing awareness training for police. But unfortunately, I am not seeing much change in the wider society and the fact that boys and men know they aren’t going to get caught encourages them.
We need more awareness and better systems in place to punish perpetrators. When someone comes to report a case of online sexual abuse, they shouldn’t be invalidated by the police or made to feel like it was nothing. They should feel confident that it will be taken seriously and something will be done by the authorities.
This interview was shared as part of our 2021 report, Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards.