African sex workers face digital abuse as pandemic pushes them online

NAIROBI / MUTARE, September 27 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Kenyan sex worker Elizabeth Otieno shudders every time her cell phone rings with a new notification.

The device may have become a lifeline to help her move her work online during the COVID-19 pandemic, but after a client secretly recorded her virtual sex session and leaked it on the internet , every phone alert sends Otieno in a cold sweat.

“I don’t even know how many social media sites and discussion groups the video was shared on. Even eight months after this happened, I still get people forwarding it to me,” the mother said. of two 45-year-old children who live in Nairobi.

“I feel ashamed and anxious all the time. My partner has left me and even my family doesn’t want to talk to me. I thought it was a safe and private way to make money, but virtual sex has ruined my life, ”said Otieno, whose name was changed to protect his identity.

Across Africa, sex worker groups say there has been an increase in complaints from members who have become victims of non-consensual pornography, where sexual material is posted online by their clients without their consent.

From Kenya and Uganda to Zimbabwe and Nigeria, pandemic restrictions such as closures and curfews have seen sex workers move from bars, brothels and massage parlors to websites, apps and video calls.

But with the use of digital technology to deliver their services comes a barrage of dangers online, leaving sex workers vulnerable to blackmail and sextortion, said Grace Kamau, coordinator of the African Sex Workers Alliance. (ASWA).

“Sex workers in Africa have learned to protect themselves with their clients in the real world. They know the precautions to take, such as letting their peers know where they are going and checking in at regular times, ”Kamau said.

“But in the virtual world, most have no idea. It’s a relatively new space for them. They don’t understand the risks and how to be safe and there is no information available for female workers. sex on digital security and data protection. “

She said ASWA – a Nairobi-based network of more than 130 organizations run by female sex workers in 34 African countries – has found that most female sex workers do not report cases to the police for fear of to be humiliated and blamed by the victims.

Digital abuse has led many sex workers to be rejected and isolated by their friends and family, and many feel traumatized, depressed and suicidal, Kamau added.

DIGITAL SECURITY AWARENESS

Even before COVID-19, more than half of girls and young women had experienced online abuse, according to a global survey conducted last year by the Web Foundation.

Sharing images, videos or private information without consent – known as doxxing – was the most worrying issue, according to the February survey of more than 8,000 respondents.

Privacy groups and women’s rights advocates say the pandemic has only increased the threat.

Image-based sexual abuse, which includes so-called revenge pornography, has skyrocketed around the world, with a survey by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky showing a 20% increase in the number of people sharing nudes and sex. explicit material since the start of the pandemic.

Almost a quarter of respondents said they shared their content with someone they had never met in person.

Some African countries have laws in place criminalizing digital abuse and protecting data privacy, but there is a lack of awareness among most women – especially those from marginalized groups such as sex workers, say the women. digital rights activists.

“Members of society in general are not familiar with what laws and regulations are, what it means to them and how they can use these laws to their advantage,” said Juliet Nanfuka, researcher at CIPESA, an organization promotion of digital rights.

“For sex workers, it’s even worse. Due to this lack of information, they will gladly share their images and videos with clients – which are then shared on platforms like Facebook and TikTok, without their consent,” she said over the phone.

Even though they are aware of their digital rights, sex workers are often reluctant to report crimes against them to the police because they fear they will not be taken seriously, Nanfuka said.

Lillian Gitau, a Kenyan sex worker, said she was blackmailed by a client she met on the dating app Tinder, who secretly filmed her and posted the video in discussion groups on Telegram and WhatsApp.

“He wanted 3,000 shillings ($ 27) from me to delete the messages. I gave him the money and he deleted the video, but I know it’s still there and being shared,” he said. said Gitau, 30, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

“The police are not an option. They won’t help women like us. Instead, they blame us and say it’s our fault that we’re doing this job.”

Kenyan police officials were not immediately available for comment.

TRAINING AND EDUCATION

Some sex workers have reported resorting to concealing their faces during video calls or when sending images to new clients.

“Most of the videos and nude photos (I sell) don’t show my face,” said Mandy Kusasa, as she scrolled through one of her two smartphones at her home in Mutare, eastern Zimbabwe .

“However, the nude videos and photos that reveal my face sell for higher prices, so I sell them to some of my repeat customers,” added Kusasa, whose name has been changed to protect his identity.

Sex workers’ organizations say their members need online safety training as well as legal support, but add that they lack funding to provide this training.

“This is a new phenomenon for sex workers in Zimbabwe,” said Hazel Zemura, director of All Women Advocacy, a Zimbabwean organization that provides health services to sex workers.

“Some women are unfamiliar with security precautions such as two-step verification, apps to secure nudes, or using a virtual private network to hide their IP address.”

Nanfuka of CIPESA added that sex workers and the police should also be trained on how to remove photos and videos that have been posted online without permission.

“Not many people know how to report, so these images remain online to the detriment of victims when they could technically be deleted,” she said.

“Sometimes they are shot, but that is not always the case. Even when they are shot, they have already traveled far and the individual has been harmed.”

($ 1 = 110.2000 Kenyan shillings)

Reporting by Nita Bhalla @nitabhalla and Farai Shawn Matiashe, edited by Jumana Farouky. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org


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