Bangladesh has begun training thousands of school girls to protect them from being blackmailed or harassed online following an alarming rise in cybercrimes.
Government officials recently finished conducting a pilot project in which female students from urban areas were taught how to keep themselves safe if faced with online threats.
“Most of the victims of cybercrime in our country are young girls. So, we decided to spread awareness among the girls first," said Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister of the Information & Communication Technology (ICT) Division of Bangladesh’s Ministry of Post, Telecommunication & Information Technology. "In this pilot project, over 10,000 girls from 40 schools and colleges took part in our workshops and we got a massive response. Now we have our target to take this campaign across the whole country involving 40 million students in 170,000 schools and colleges.”
Bangladesh has experienced a double-digit growth in internet use every year in the past 15 years and almost half of the social media users in the country are women and teenage girls, but authorities say they make up about 70 percent of cybercrime victims.
Mishuk Chakma, a cybersecurity expert of Dhaka Metropolitan Police said the boyfriends of the Facebook-using girls often trick them into posing for intimate photographs or videos.
“Later, when their relationships are on the rocks, their former boyfriends post the photos and videos in the social media to emotionally blackmail the girls. Such photos and videos often trigger troubles in the lives of the girls after they get into new relationships or get married,” Chakma told VOA. “In such a situation many marital relationships are getting into troubles and even in a few cases the girls are taking extreme steps like attempting suicide.”
Sahana, a 15-year-old who took part in an ICT-organized workshop, said she feels she has benefitted from the training.
“I shall verify one’s identity in many ways before I accept his or her Facebook ‘friend request’ now. Now I have also learned that I should not disclose much of my personal information on Facebook,” she said. “Also, I am quite confident now that none can harass or blackmail me on Facebook.”
Sometimes the criminals are superimposing faces of the girls, who are known to them, onto the bodies of nude models or adult film stars to blackmail and defame the girls, Chakma said.
“Cyber harassment of girls and women can be effectively curbed if the spread of awareness among the social media users increases,” he said.
ICT hired cybersecurity consulting agency Four D Communications to conduct the recent training of the 10,000 girls.
Abdullah Al Imran, managing director of Four D Communications, said apart from learning how to defend themselves online, the girls also learned how to bring cyber criminals to justice.
“Very surprisingly we found that as much as 93 percent of the girls who participated in the training did not know that Bangladesh already has an ICT Act to help cyber harassment victims. We also taught them where and how they would seek help in case they were harassed or blackmailed online,” Imran said. “Girls mostly from urban areas took part in our pilot project. I am sure, in smaller towns and rural areas the Internet literacy level among girls is even lower and they are more vulnerable there.”
But lawyer Tureen Afroz, an advocate in Dhaka’s Supreme Court, said the government should tighten or update laws to deal with the growing cybercrime.
“Indeed it's a good initiative that the government is trying to educate the girls and raise awareness among them about the growing trend of cybercrimes. But, the government also needs to revamp the judiciary to achieve higher rate of success in fight against such crimes,” she said. "We are still unable to make the best use of smarter electronic evidences to pin down the cyber criminals in the court of law."
Senior officials say the government is keen to spread cyber safety awareness across the whole country.
Abul Mansur Mohammad Sharf Uddin, who heads the government’s cyber safety awareness campaign, said his department is busy on a blueprint to expand the campaign.
“For the students, the contents on Internet literacy, which will be included to the national curriculum, will be ready soon. We want to introduce the course not just in schools and colleges, but also in over 100 universities of the country. We will also raise teachers across academic institutions of the country who will conduct cyber safety training classes for students locally,” Sharf Uuddin said.