Tag Archives: harassment

The use of mobile devices for sexual harassment in Pakistan


Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) continue dramatically to change our lives.  This is especially true with the rapid expansion of mobile devices connected to the broadband in many of the poorer countries of the world.  Whilst this can bring very many benefits, there is also a darker side to their use; ICTs tend to act as accelerators, both of good and of bad things.  With the  corporate ICT sector wishing to highlight the positive contribution that it can make to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the negative impacts of ICTs usually receive far less attention.  There is, though, now a growing body of evidence that in some contexts these may well outweigh their positive impacts.

In the course of qualitative research in 2016 with Dr. Bushra Hassan (formerly of the University of Sussex, and now at the International Islamic University in IslamIdentity construction 2 copyabad) on the use of mobiles by young people in Pakistan as symbols shaping their identity (published in Information Technologies and International Development earlier in 2017), we discovered a striking level of concern over the use of mobile devices for sexual harassment. The commentary below on Mobilink’s controversial advertisement at the time of our research, for example, highlights some of the tensions in what is widely seen as being a tightly constrained society with very traditional values.

Mobilink

We therefore decided to explore more about the use of mobiles for sexual harassment in Pakistan, and enlisted the help of Dr. Akber Gardezi (COMSATS Institute of Information Technology).  Together, we constructed and distributed a largely quantitative online survey in Pakistan in November and December 2016, and submitted a paper summarising the outcomes of this research early in 2017 to a special issue of ITID on Gender, Mobile and Mobile Internet.  At the time, we considered this to be one of the largest and most rigorous studies of the subject in Pakistan, and indeed few other studies have been as comprehensive anywhere in the world.  Subsequently, important new research has also been published about Pakistan especially by the Digital Rights Foundation.  The peer review process associated with academic journals meant that we could not release any of our results at that time.  We had hoped, though, that the full paper would have been published in time to coincide with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on 25th November.  Given delays in the production process, we are delighted now therefore to have received permission from the editorial team to release some of our most salient findings.

More than 2000 people opened the survey, and we had 530 completed responses from people from all walks of life in Pakistan.  The survey itself explored both perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment through the use of mobile devices in Pakistan, and we were able to disaggregate and analyse the data in terms of a range of socio-cultural characteristics including age, gender, ethnicity, religion, occupation and place of residence.

Some of our most important findings are as follows:

  • Mobiles are mainly used to harass women sexually, although men are also harassed; 48% of women and 18% of men in our survey had been sexually harassed through their mobile devices.
  • Direct messages and phone calls are slightly more frequently used than online social media for sexual harassment: 17.5% of respondents who were harassed claim to be receiving daily text messages harassing them sexually, and 11.9% receive daily phone calls doing likewise.  It is therefore crucial to note that surveys that only focus on online harassment miss more than half of the ongoing sexual harassment that exists.
  • There is considerable uniformity in the perceptions about and experiences of sexual harassment through mobile devices among people from different socio-cultural backgrounds.  Only about 10% of the many statistical tests that we undertook showed significant differences, and where there were differences these were usually relating to the gender, occupation or location of the respondents.
  • One of the most striking findings from our research concerns blame attribution: 54% of all respondents thought the when a women is sexually harassed through her mobile device she is always or sometimes to blame.  Only 38% of respondents thought that a man was to blame when he is harassed sexually.
  • The impact of sexual harassment through mobile devices on people living in Pakistan has a terrible cost: 53% of respondents claimed that they knew someone personally who had tried to commit suicide as a result of sexual harassment through their mobile devices; and a shocking 52% of respondents claimed to know someone who had been killed because of a loss of honour as a result of sexual harassment through mobile devices.  Blackmail is widespread.
  • Four main reasons were cited to explain why mobile devices are specifically used for sexual harassment: it is easy to send multimedia content using mobiles; mobiles can be used to target people at a distance; it is quick to use mobiles to harass people; and the perpetrators can easily hide their identities.  Our paper goes into much more depth as to how social and cultural factors influence such harassment specifically in Pakistan; women much more than men consider that patriarchy is particularly important in causing such harassment.
  • The three most important ways through which such harassment can be reduced were considered to be: requiring social media companies to monitor and delete users who sexually harass others; increasing penalties for sexual harassment; and requiring mobile operators to provide a free reporting service.  With respect to the last of these, it was great to see the Digital Rights Foundation opening a toll-free hotline (0800-39393) in December 2016 for victims of online harassment and violence.

Almost half of all respondents also provided detailed qualitative responses to many of the issues we raised in the survey, and we are immensely grateful to all those who took the time to reply.  For the full paper, which provides very much more detail on all of the above, do keep an eye open for the next issue of ITID (Hassan, B., Unwin, T. and Gardezi, A. “Understanding the Darker Side of ICTs: Gender, Sexual Harassment, and Mobile Devices in Pakistan”, Information Technologies and International Development, in press).

We are now undertaking directly comparable online surveys in the Caribbean and in India to examine how perceptions and experiences of the use of mobiles for sexual harassment vary across the world.  Please share the links below with people you know in these regions to encourage them to contribute to the survey so that we can get as diverse and large samples as possible:

It is time that all of us combine our efforts to reduce sexual harassment through mobile devices.  Such harassment is a horrible form of violence and abuse, and it particularly affects women.  Men especially therefore need to take greater action to influence each other in changing their behaviours so that the full benefits of ICTs may indeed be experienced by women across the world.

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Filed under 'phones, Ethics, ICT4D, mobile phones, Pakistan, Sexual harassment, social media

Perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment through mobile devices in Pakistan


Together with Dr. Bushra Hassan, and building on my research earlier this year on how people in Pakistan use mobile devices to express their identities, we have developed a survey on people’s perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment through mobile devices in the country.  This is a sensitive and difficult subject, and we are eager to have responses from as many people as possible.  I do hope that readers of this post will share the details through their networks, and if they are Pakistani will complete it themselves. The survey is available until the end of November 2016 at https://rhul.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/sexual-harassment-through-mobile-devices-in-pakistan.

survey-pakistan

Thanks so much in anticipation.

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Filed under 'phones, Ethics, ICT4D, Inequality, Pakistan

Sexual harassment at international ICT events: a call for action


I have become increasingly saddened and dismayed in recent years at the level of sexual harassment, and what I see as inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour by a surprising number of men at the ICT conferences and exhibitions convened by some international organisations.  This ranges from generally loutish actions by some groups of young men, to what can only be called predatory behaviour by some older and more senior figures in the sector.  Until the last couple of years, I had thought that such behaviour had largely disappeared, but from what I have witnessed myself, from what I have heard from women in the sector, and from what I have read, it is clear that action needs to be taken urgently by all those in the sector, and particularly those who are organising conferences and events.

ITU maleThe ICT industry has for far too long been dominated by men, much to its disadvantage, and it is good that an increasing amount of publicity is being shed on the sexism that has come to dominate the sector more widely.  In 2014, the Guardian newspaper ran an interesting series of reports on the subject, one of which was entitled “Women ‘belittled, underappreciated and underpaid’ in tech industry“, and in 2015, the BBC also featured a report on “Sexism in Silicon Valley and beyond: tech wake-up call” following the case brought by Reddit boss Ellen Pao against her former employer, venture capitalist Kleiner Perkins.  However, this is the tip of the iceberg.

UN Women Watch has defined sexual harassment as “Unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature”, and has provided an excellent detailed document describing this in more detail and giving example of verbal, non-verbal and physical sexual harassment.  Such behaviour can certainly be by both men and women, but the vast majority of perpetrators are men, and it is high time that concerted action is taken to stop it.

ZTE.jpgAs a first step, I am issuing this call for all international organisations in the field of ICTs to issues guidelines on expected behaviour at their events.  I prefer guidelines to codes, because codes generally require policing, and the imposition of penalties or sanctions should anyone be found guilty.  In practice, this is extremely difficult to implement and enforce.  Guidelines, instead, reflect expected norms, and should be acted upon by everyone participating in an event.  If someone witnesses inappropriate behaviour, it should be their responsibility to take action to ensure that the perpetrator stops.  In far too many cases, though, people at present do not take enough action, especially when the harassment is by someone senior in the sector.  This has to change.  We must all take collective responsibility for bringing an end to such behaviour, so that everyone can participate equally at international ICT events without fear of being harassed because of their gender or sexuality.

DohaTo be sure, there are very complex cultural issues to be considered in any such discussion, but the fundamental aspect of harassment is that it is any behaviour that someone else considers to be unacceptable.  Hence, we must all consider the other person’s cultural context in our actions and behaviours, rather than our own cultural norms.  Just because something might be acceptable in our own culture, does not mean that it is acceptable in another person’s culture.  Despite such complexities, some international organisations have indeed produced documents that can provide the basis for good practices in this area.  Some of the most useful are:

  • The UN’s Standards of Conduct for the International Civil Service, which has a useful paragraph (21) on harassment: “Harassment in any shape or form is an affront to human dignity and international civil servants must not engage in any form of harassment. International civil servants have the right to a workplace environment free of harassment or abuse. All organizations must prohibit any kind of harassment. Organizations have a duty to establish rules and provide guidance on what constitutes harassment and abuse of authority and how unacceptable behaviour will be addressed”
  • The Internet Governance Forum, has a short and straightforward code of conduct, which begins by stating that participants must “Treat all members of the IGF community equally, irrespective of nationality, gender, racial or ethnic origin, religion or beliefs, disability, age, or sexual orientation; all stakeholders of the IGF community should treat each other with civility, both face to face and online”.  This could be more explicit with respect to harassment, but it is at least a start.
  • One of the clearest and most detailed documents is the conference anti-harassment policy template, developed by the Geek Feminism Wiki.  This has useful suggested texts of different lengths, with the  shortest being “$CONFERENCE is dedicated to a harassment-free conference experience for everyone. Our anti-harassment policy can be found at: [URL for full anti-harassment policy]”.  It goes on to give medium and full length policy templates, as well as suggestions for actions that participants and staff should take.

I look forward to the day when all international ICT conferences do indeed have such guidelines on sexual harassment, and hope that this will begin to create a better, safer and happier environment where we can all work together more effectively to reach appropriate decisions about these important technologies and their use.

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