Online harassment rife but largely ignored as system fails to recognise itNepal Police has a bureau to deal with the cases, but a lack of sensitisation among officials is leading to victimisation.
When Sangita first received a threatening message, she was 18—during her last year of high school.
Then it continued.
Some read like ‘when you turn twenty-five and that’s when we will meet for the first time,’ she said. And it had a warning also.
“You are going to be mine and I will ruin your life if you even think of being with anyone else,” the messages read.
Hoping that the letters would stop if she ignored them, Sangita paid no heed to those, only to be cyberstalked and harassed for six years.
“The intensity of the harassment changed and gradually worsened over time. In the beginning, the letters and Facebook messages described what he liked about me. And when I didn’t respond, he started threatening to kill my family,” said the 24-year-old medical student whom the Post is identifying as Sangita to protect her privacy. “Over the years, he’s called me persistently, sent me messages from multiple fake Facebook accounts calling me names and using derogatory languages, and also has threatened me with rape and death.”
The mental anguish that Sangita had to go through isn’t an individual experience.
Threats of physical attack. Explicit and pornographic photos. Body shaming. Explicit messages. Cyberstalking. Hate speech. These are the kinds of abuse and harassment girls are often subjected to.
Young persons cannot be expected to deal with such trouble without support. But there’s some sort of help available now.
“Mostly 17- to 22-year-old young girls have reached out to us seeking support and pro bono legal consultation to deal with online harassment,” said Dipasa Bista, 24, lead of the #NotAnymore campaign.
#NotAnymore campaign, started in 2020 by a group of friends who recognised the pervasiveness of online harassment among their circles, has received over 500 complaints so far. It is a social campaign to stand in solidarity against online sexual harassment.
To address such online threats and harassment, the Nepal Police has set up Cyber Bureau, but many say approaching the bureau itself comes with a risk of further victimisation.
Nonetheless, the bureau does receive complaints.
In the fiscal year 2020-21, as per Cyber Bureau data, 55 percent of the victims of online harassment were females, 39 percent males, and 6 percent were identified as others.
Around 5 percent of the victims were below the age of 18.
In the last three months, from mid-August to mid-November, 1,268 cases of online harassment have been filed at the Cyber Bureau, which comprises 44 percent of the total cases filed last fiscal year.
At this rate, the total cases of cybercrime registered by the end of the fiscal year 2021-22 will see a 76.4 percent increase from the last fiscal year.
While this indicates an increase in the occurrence of online harassment, many cases also go unreported.
Many are unaware of the help they can seek while others are not quite sure—or lack the confidence—whether they should report the case.
Anusha, 24, was harassed by her teacher in college. From inquiring about her virginity and sexual behaviours to sending her nude images through Facebook messenger, she became a victim of online harassment.
Anusha found herself without any help or resources to deal with the situation and was unable to take any legal action against her teacher because she wasn’t aware of the help she could seek.
“I knew what was happening was wrong but the teacher-student dynamic put me in an extremely difficult position, and I didn’t know where to go or who to talk to. I was so lost and traumatised. I hadn’t consented to any of such advances or such messages,” said the graduate of Social Work, whom also the Post is identifying as Anusha to protect her privacy.
“There were no resources available—neither in college nor at home—teaching us what harassment is, how it manifests online and what we can do.”
In a research study conducted by Body and Data, a digital rights organisation, participants reported experiencing online violence in various forms.
According to Body and Data, 52 percent of the participants faced receiving unwanted sexually explicit messages, 46 percent had experienced abusive comments; 45 percent name-calling; 39 percent hate speech; 36 percent abuse and/or shaming a woman for expressing views that are not normative, for disagreeing with people and also for refusing sexual advances, and 13 percent had received direct threats of physical or sexual violence.
Only 10 percent of the respondents had reported such violence to a legal system.
Cyber Bureau in Nepal, however, only looks into cases of online harassment governed under Section 47 of the Electronic Transactions Act, 2063.
For a case to be registered at the Bureau, according to the Act, the content displayed or published in the electronic media should “violate” the prevailing law, or may “be contrary to the public morality or decent behavior,” or may “spread hate or jealousy against anyone or which may jeopardise the harmonious relations subsisting among the peoples of various castes, tribes, and communities.”
According to legal experts, Nepal’s legal system isn’t legally and socially equipped to handle the gravity of criminal cases that take place in cyberspace. They identify three major issues within the whole makeup of the Bureau—lack of sufficient infrastructure to conduct investigations, legal shortcomings, and a lack of sensitivity in handling issues.
“Firstly, the Bureau lacks sufficient infrastructure to conduct proper investigations. Secondly, all cases of harassment are grouped under one broad umbrella, that has a greater potential for injustice,” says Rashtra Bimochan Timalsena, assistant director of National Law College.
Thirdly, said Timalsena, the statute of limitations comes as a hindrance, which has been set at 35 days.
Victims are unable to process their experiences in the given timeframe, say legal experts, according to Timalsena.
“The thirty-five day timeline is extremely limiting. Most of the crimes take place through social media which means we need to reach out to the headquarters of the platform—Facebook, Instagram, Viber—for further information. It takes about 15-20 days for them to respond, and once we get the IP address, then we start to track. And not all cases can be solved by then,” says Inspector Buddhi Subedi at the Cyber Bureau.
A minimum of three months is necessary for any cyber crime investigation, according to Subedi. “The Bureau has been constantly raising this issue at the Police Headquarters and the Home Ministry,” he said.
In addition to a non-victim-centric legal system, there is a lack of an emotionally supportive environment at the Bureau. Harassment survivors are further victimised by the socio-cultural and legal environment while filing complaints and during investigations.
Sangita’s case is a testimony to the trivialisation of issues and a lack of sensitivity at the Bureau.
“When I approached the police station at Baneshwar, they refused to take the case and said that we should instead invite the harasser to meet us and help him understand how his actions affected me, politely,” said Sangita.
She was appalled by the compassion the officers extended to the perpetrator, she said.
As opposed to being sympathetic towards her while she shared her account of online violence, she had to fight the police officers at the Bureau to even consider her case.
“When I took 60 pages of evidence—screenshots of conversations from all the fake accounts starting 2018—to the Cyber Bureau after the first lockdown, they said they only looked at the past 35 days of evidence and said they didn’t find enough evidence to file a case,” says Sangita.
The thirty-five days of evidence included derogatory and foul language used against Sangita.
“Why was the focus on whether a perpetrator’s behavior is contrary to public morality as opposed to the fact that my safety is threatened, and that it affects my mental health?” she said.
Had Sangita not fought for her rights at the Bureau, the case would neither have been registered, nor proceeded.
Lack of sensitivity among officials at the bureau has been a major concern, according to her.
“While there are officers who have dealt with cases with seriousness, many officers demonstrate a lackadaisical attitude towards cases of online harassment,” she told the Post, adding, “In fact, about 50 percent of the cases have problematic investigations.”
Officers in the Bureau do not undergo any special training, other than those prescribed for the civil police.
“We only undergo basic training that lasts 18 months and crime investigation training. It includes courses on victim handling and approaching such situations, but there’s no extra training that we undergo,” said Subedi, the inspector.
The lack of mental health first aid courses, victim-focused training and gender sensitivity training are reflected in the interactions between victims and the officials.
Victim-blaming at the sites of justice—police stations and Cyber Bureau—is only reflective of Nepali society’s unequal gender structures.
“Victims have already gone through a huge battle by the time they decide to file a case. When they are blamed for their decisions and actions, women are further vilified and treated as sexual objects even at sites of justice,” explains sociologist Lalita Bashyal.
Questions targeted towards women—asking why they sent pictures in the first place, or why they interacted with men in the first place, asking if they had thought of consequences of their actions, how it affects their family’s honor and their marriage prospects—are frequent and angle towards victim-blaming, according to Bashyal.
Cyber Bureau is soon undergoing a complete restructuring, from upgrading the existing technology to installing advanced equipment with the assistance of the South Korean government. However, the agenda doesn’t address sensitising the officials at the Bureau, thus far, according to Subedi.
Despite the need for reforming the cyber laws and system of operation in the Bureau to address the rapidly increasing crimes in the online space, stakeholders also don’t seem to have prioritised it.
As many as 314 events are being organised by national and international organisations all across Nepal as part of the 16 days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence (GBV), an annual international campaign to increase awareness and galvanise advocacy efforts against GBVs. It takes place annually from November 25 until December 10.
However, not a single event this year is being organised to talk about online harassment or on raising awareness on it.
Two days after the Bureau agreed to take Sangita’s case, the harasser deleted all his fake Facebook accounts and apologised.
“However, very recently, he messaged a male friend of mine saying that if the latter associates with me, he will cut off the latter’s private part and sell it to the university canteen. We sent the screenshots to the Cyber Bureau, but we didn’t hear back,” said Sangita. “But I want him to know that I will take legal action and haul him before the court if he persists with these actions.”