ISLAMABAD - One victim was so afraid of an intimate video being shared online she was blackmailed into being gang raped. Another woman, known for her political views, was the target of online rape and death threats. After her address was spread on social media, someone tried to shoot her. A third victim was accused online of blasphemy and also threatened with death and rape. Rather than go to the police and risk being charged herself, she managed to dismantle her online presence.
Such is the treacherous landscape of Pakistani social media as detailed in a report this week by the rights group Bytes for All, Pakistan. One of the authors of Technology Driven Violence Against Women, Gul Bukhari, said "all kinds of media are used in Pakistan to harass women. It's not unique to Pakistan and it's a worldwide trend."
But the combination of cyberthreats and a society where honor killings and other violence against women are still prevalent is proving an especially dangerous combination.
Researcher Gul said Pakistan also differs from other countries in that "Pakistan has no proper cybercrimes law and that is why there have been no arrests." She notes there are separate case studies which show that domestic law enforcement does not take interest in such cases.
Women's rights activist Farzana Bari calls for urgent legislation and effective implementation mechanisms to curb the growing trend of online threats to women. "Obviously the new technology has its own hazards. People can easily threaten others on Twitter using very abusive language. I have personally noted that women are often the target of abusive language on social media in this country," she said.
Statistics are hard to come by. There is no breakdown by gender available in the slim data on social media crime. But activists say their research indicates the cases are on the rise. Women rights groups have called for protecting the digital workplace and equipping women with the right tools to counter Internet-based harassment. Others have suggested that raising awareness about social media ethics among youth is key.
Bytes for All's Bukhari also calls on such online giants as Twitter and Facebook to move more forcefully against cyberviolence. The report notes Facebook was helpful in aiding one of the victims mentioned in the report to "disappear" online. Twitter also recently improved its anti-violence protection policies.
Bukhari says Pakistan itself needs to do more, including signing on to international treaties that would allow it to better track cyberviolence.
And public denunciation might also help. Last year politician Imran Khan took a stand against his supporters sending threats to Khan's political opponents through Facebook and Twitter. Observers hope that similar calls against online violence toward women might have a similar effect.