Imagine discovering private – and perhaps intimate – photos of yourself online. Strangers are posting humiliating comments, with personal details, making you identifiable to the world.
This is increasingly a reality for women and girls in Nepal – with little response from the government.
The Kathmandu Post recently alleged that some social media groups were specifically targeting Nepali women and girls for abuse. The newspaper article claimed that group members circulate and discuss images, often obtained from victims’ social media accounts and shared without consent, but also through hacking, coercion, or blackmail. The article alleged that groups have hosted abusive images, including child sexual abuse material and depictions of sexual violence. One notorious group has 4,500 members.
Online gender-based violence is a growing problem globally, and the shift online caused by the Covid-19 pandemic is adding fuel to the fire. Nonconsensual sharing of intimate images can have a devastating impact on victims, harming their mental health, reputations, relationships, and access to education and employment – even exposing them to physical violence.
Nepal’s laws do not sufficiently protect the rights of women and girls. The existing law does not address online gender-based violence. And because the existing law does not consider the issue of consent around the distribution of images, victims could face charges alongside abusers.
The government plans to replace the Electronic Transaction Act with a new Information Technology Bill. The new bill is deeply problematic on free expression grounds, but does prohibit online “sexual abuse.” The government should revise the bill to protect free expression while strengthening provisions against online gender-based violence. Such provisions should be defined clearly and protect both free expression and everyone’s right to privacy.
The Nepal government also needs a comprehensive approach to online gender-based violence, including aiding victims through providing legal assistance, counseling, and assistance removing images from the internet and developing rights-respecting practices for law enforcement. Internet companies should take seriously their responsibility to prevent gender-based violence on their platforms, act swiftly to remove abusive images, reduce their spread, and provide remedy to victims, including by cooperating with law enforcement’s efforts to take action against abusers.
The most important steps to tackle the deep gender inequality underpinning abuse are measures like comprehensive sexuality education and improving the status of women. Under international human rights law, Nepal has an obligation to protect the rights of women and girls – it’s time they took it seriously.