The Gambia
The Gambia
© Ndey Ngoneh Jeng

A few years ago, I published an article on my blog titled “Men Are Trash”. It looked at the origins of the use of the phrase, its global spread and the various forms of violence faced by women and girls in Gambian society. An online magazine shared bits of the article.... It attracted attacks from thousands of followers on their Facebook page, which continued for two or three days straight.*

The comments were directed at my looks, my intelligence, my sexuality, my parents. Commenters called me names, made false accusations, posted images of guns. Some blamed me for the attacks because I should not have “insulted men.” I stopped reading after a while...

I felt helpless. I was worried about the attacks against my parents and how they would react to it. Gambia is a small-knit community where everyone knows someone who knows someone, so information spreads easily. I had to do some form of damage control by informing my dad about what was going on before he heard from someone else. Fortunately, he expressed support for me. Talking to friends and family about my feelings and their constant reassurance also helped.

"Words hurt. It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard and say horrible things."

I had always felt free to share my opinions. Now, I have reservations about sharing some of my unpopular opinions online. I am still working on this and have gotten better at it in the last couple of years. I still get triggered whenever I come across the post so I don’t know if I have fully made peace with it.

At the time, I had just graduated from university and was waiting to go to law school. Today, I am a lawyer working for a human rights institute. I had already made up my mind on the area of law I wanted to practice, but the incident further strengthened my resolve. I’m still very active online, although my presence on Facebook has been reduced significantly since then.

A few commenters supported and defended me. I felt seen by them – it showed that there were people who cared enough to find [my original] blog post and make their own conclusions. Some even shared the link so others could read it, too, and decide for themselves. I was tempted to take it down, but I realized that would deny people interested in learning a chance to do just that. Plus, my dad told me to stick to my opinions no matter the consequences, as long as my conscience was clear.

Photography used for representational purposes only
and the does not depict the story’s subject

CYBERMOB

Scroll down
© Dylann Hendricks
Cybermob

A large group of online attackers who threaten, insult and verbally abuse a target, often in an organized and coordinated manner.

Ndey Ngoneh Jeng
© Ndey Ngoneh Jeng

I understand the difficulty in protecting online spaces as there is a very thin line between controlling what is said online and violating a person’s right to freedom of speech and expression. However, there should be methods of ensuring that persons who are unfairly targeted online can use the law to protect themselves. At best, you can sue for defamation. We don’t have laws against online attacks or revenge pornography.

There are still some people who “jokingly” call me the one who hates men. This experience has reinforced that words hurt. It’s easy to sit behind a keyboard and say horrible things to someone who shares a contrary opinion. In disagreeing with people, we should care enough to not cause harm just because they hold opposite beliefs. We forget the people getting attacked or doxxed have feelings and have to live with the mental effects of those attacks for a long time. For some, there may be no moving on. 

*Many readers thought her original blog post was man-hating, which it was not. Along with better online behaviour by individuals, Ms. Jeng believes factual and accurate representation are essential to ensuring online spaces are safe. “I’m willing to share my name because many women are bullied into silence for sharing their views on the lives and safety of women,” she said. “It’s time to change that narrative.”

47%

of young women and adolescent girls face online backlash because they speak out about issues on politics, feminism or sexual and reproductive health and rights.

– Plan International

View the next story

WHAT CAN I DO?

For everybody

do more

For technology companies

do better

For lawmakers and law enforcement

do right
Disrupt digital violence

Take Action

A virtual world free of violence is possible. UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, supports the right of all women and girls to live without fear of gender-based violence or abuse in all spaces, including online. Everyone plays a role in making this more than a hope but a reality.

WHAT CAN I DO?

For everybody:

DO more

Anyone who shares another’s intimate images without her consent – even if a sharer is not the original perpetrator – is committing violence against women. Let the disruption start with you. See people attacking, bullying or threatening someone online? Don’t join in. Post positive messages to counter the negative. Report the abuse to the technology platform. One cybermob attack survivor said she felt seen and supported by people who defended her.

For technology companies:

DO better

UNFPA joined the World Wide Web Foundation in its call to Facebook, Google, TikTok and Twitter to prioritize the safety of women online, holding them to the pledges made to do so during the 2021 Generation Equality Forum in Paris. But there are many more platforms. In the words of Thorn, which works to end online child sexual abuse, “We won’t achieve the goal of building an Internet that is safe until every platform with an upload button has adopted proactive detection measures.”

For lawmakers and law enforcement:

DO RIGHT

According to the Economist Intelligence Unit, “In 64 of 86 countries, law enforcement agencies and courts appear to be failing to take appropriate  corrective actions to address online violence against women.” Lawmakers need to recognize the pervasive and prevalent nature of the violence and support legislative and regulatory responses that meet the needs of women and girls, including creation and resourcing of independent monitoring and regulatory bodies. For example, Australia’s Office of the E-Safety Commissioner is serving as a model for countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom in addressing online safety. Seeking justice should not have to be another traumatizing experience.