Nepal lacks adequate laws to deal with increasing violence and harassment of women in cyberspace
When Sima Thapa started receiving inappropriate comments and pictures on her Facebook page, she tried to delete the comments. But every time, a new stalker would spring up.
When one heckler repeatedly took to sending her lewd messages, Thapa contacted the police in hopes that the matter would be resolved. But the police ridiculed her predicament.
“They told me these things happen when you are young and pretty, can you believe it?” said Thapa, who is a law and psychology student. “It was me who had to lecture them on civil rights and their responsibility to take any action.”
The police finally acted and caught the offender, who was asked to apologise to Thapa and touch her feet. “What is the point if he still doesn’t realise his actions were wrong?” asks the 25-year-old.
What happened to Thapa is not an isolated case. Every day, up to ten complaints of online stalking and harassment are lodged with the police in Kathmandu alone, all of them from young women. There are nearly as many from other parts of the country.
According to Nepal Police’s Metropolitan Crime Division, most of the cases involve perpetrators creating fake IDs on social media to blackmail victims for money and defamation. More often than not, the offenders are people victims already know.
According to advocate Pabitra Raut, most online violence cases are settled out of court, and the perpetrators are rarely punished.
“Online violence has implications on the psychology of the victim. If the security personnel handling the case takes them seriously, it helps to alleviate their pain to a certain degree,” says Raut.
The growing reach of the internet and social media has inflicted harm on women and girls even in rural areas. According to the Deputy Superintendent of Police, Krishna Prasad Koirala, (see box) sexual abuse via the internet has become common because of the proliferation of cybercafes and smartphones.
“A lot of cases have come in where they first become friends through social media, develop a relationship, take and exchange nude photographs, and later are blackmailed for money or sexual favours,” Koirala explains.
Many concede that cyberspace is not a friendly or safe place for women, but Nepal’s laws seem ill equipped to deal with it.
Says Raut: “Nepal lacks clear laws to deal with violence on social media. The accused is charged under the Electronic Transaction Act and Defamation Act but with the technology moving as fast as it is, we need a separate law for this.”
Under the current Act, handheld smartphones are not included in the definition of ‘computer’, and in 90 per cent of the complaints, proof is hard to come by.
Internet crime, stalking, and identity thefts are common because of the proliferation of cybercafes where users often don’t log out. The large Nepali diaspora has also led to the rapid spread of social media with more than 5 million users in Nepal. It is a problem apprehending offenders who are not in Nepal.
“Even with computers it is hard tracking down the IP addresses, when it comes to phone you need to save the evidence and have it printed out,” says Raut.
The law also states that a report must be filed within thirty-five days of the occurrence of the offence, leaving many cases of online violence unreported. Moreover, victims outside of the Valley are more at risk, since cases of cyber crime are only handled by the Kathmandu District Court.
There is also concern over the vagueness of the punishment for online violence. A person who commits a computer related crime is liable to a fine not exceeding Rs 50,000 and/or imprisonment not exceeding six months, depending on the degree of the offence.
“There needs to be clearer definition regarding the crime, the degree of punishment and liability,” says Raut.
A potential solution to many of the cases, however, is as simple as strengthening the privacy settings on social media accounts.
Says Raut: “Following simple steps like not accepting requests from strangers and not sharing passwords go a long way.”
With more people going abroad for work, many left in the villages have started using social media to keep in touch with their loved ones. And as the number of users grows, cases of cyber crime have spiked in recent years. Most of the victims are lured into friendships and relationships through social media and are coaxed into sharing nude photos, which are later used for blackmail.
Police in the eastern district of Panchthar for instance, have started training secondary and higher-secondary students and family members of migrant workers on internet safety.
“It was important to start this campaign since criminals started using mobiles, computers and social media for criminal activities like fraud, rape and blackmail,” says DSP Krishna Prasad Koirala (pic) of Panchthar.
Having worked in the Criminal Investigation Directorate and the Crime Investigation Bureau, Koirala developed the framework for the media literacy course himself. Participants are trained on what the internet is and how to use it properly, learn about privacy settings and the advantage and disadvantages of using social media.
Students in 20 schools in the district have been trained, and Koirala hopes to reach all 37 VDCs in Panchthar.
Laxmi Gautam in Panchthar
Trapped in the Net, Rubeena Mahato
The gender agenda, Anurag Acharya
#GenderViolence, Trishna Rana
Right fight, International Women's Day Package
Taboo no more, Ayesha Shakya