Social media is a battlefield that can perpetuate sexual violence and cyber-bullying

21 September 2018 - 17:11 By Kgaugelo Masweneng
Gender rights activist Mandisa Khanyile‚ says people tend to lack responsibility for what they say online because they have a sense of safety behind the screens of their cellphones.
Gender rights activist Mandisa Khanyile‚ says people tend to lack responsibility for what they say online because they have a sense of safety behind the screens of their cellphones.
Image: ARUN SANKAR / AFP

Rape culture and cyber-bullying are dominating the spaces students at higher-education institutions find themselves in.

The South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) in collaboration with the University of Johannesburg held a dialogue in an effort to unpack the causes and solutions to the challenges of rape culture and cyber-bullying at universities.

Giving a feminist perspective‚ Mandisa Khanyile‚ who formed part of the national #TotalShutDown steering committee‚ says people tend to lack responsibility for what they say online because they have a sense of safety behind the screens of their cellphones.

“They think they can do whatever they want. People’s lives are ruined when we think we can make jokes about them or shame them. We need to develop a culture that respects people’s dignity‚ privacy‚ their sexuality and decisions. People have made it okay to bully others because they can‚" said Khanyile.

“Social media is an unregulated space‚ and that should stop. We should find a middle ground.”

Khanyile used the example of “Black Twitter” – a term used to describe Twitter users who are black and who focus on the interest of black communities – which was both “great and horrible”.

“It’s great when we spread awareness about people who have‚ for example‚ made hurtful racial comments and we unite to find them. It’s great when we are outing people who do wrong. But the same tool and unity can be misused. I can accuse someone of rape and put it on social media but beyond that no one else has the evidence‚” said Khanyile.

She added that there needed to be a balance between activism and defamation. She said she knew of a case where a man killed himself after he was called out for his cyber-bullying.

“I belong to a social media group of feminists and during the #MenAreTrash campaign a woman found the space to be relevant for her to speak about her ordeal. She said that she had a miscarriage after some violence from a man. Then this man came and started slut-shaming the woman and saying she probably had an abortion and so forth‚” Khayile said.

After the comments‚ people followed up and tracked down who the man was. He was identified and‚ later‚ lost his job.

“Two weeks later he committed suicide. And this is where activism can sometimes lead to harm. We need a balance‚” she said.

Khanyile said that issues like revenge porn‚ outing and sharing of harmful content and rape have permeated into student social spaces.

“People are killing themselves over all of this. Safety in campus is still an issue; not much is done to ensure that students are safe. When they come out and report their cases are mostly not taken serious‚” she added.

Palesa Setsubi‚ 21-year-old student at the university‚ said something needed to be done to make sure they were safe.

“I was a victim of sexual assault myself‚ but I had to work through it and now I am a survivor. Rape culture in universities is rife and in our society it’s still something we shy away from discussing. But with a bit of love and support a lot can be done‚” Setsubi said.

She said that abusers should stop objectifying women’s bodies.

“It’s not something you can take out your frustrations on. As students we go through the most and we don’t even talk about it. I know women who have been raped but they are scared to come out and report it because they fear no one will believe them. Let us be there for one another‚” she said.

Phineas Rikhotso from Campus Protection Services said the biggest challenge in dealing with violence at the institution was that students seldom reported the cases.

“We would like to urge students to come to us with these issues. We have also identified that most of these things occur at parties and residences‚ especially outside campus‚" Rikhotso said.

“Another pressing issue is bullying; students bully each other so much.”


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