Gender-based violence in Tunisia: What role are social media companies like Facebook playing in the #EnaZeda era?

Salma Houerbi, MENA regional researcher Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Emna Sayadi, Access Now Campaign Officer MENA

Woman typing

To mark International Women’s Day, we are sharing lessons we have learned on the potential and limitations of social media as a platform for amplifying women’s voices and catalyzing the movement for equality in the digital era.

Read this piece in Arabic

The #MeToo movement sparked a global phenomenon on social media of sharing personal experiences and expressing solidarity with victims of sexual harassment and abuse. Recently in Tunisia, thousands of women have participated in the #EnaZeda campaign, the Tunisian version of #MeToo, which rose in popularity following allegations of sexual harassment and public indecency against a newly sworn-in member of parliament.

To mark International Women’s Daywe are sharing lessons we have learned on the potential and limitations of social media as a platform for amplifying women’s voices and catalyzing the movement for equality in the digital era.  

As one activist from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region said in an interview:

“Sometimes online is even more dangerous. Offline we know how to protect ourselves. We know about where not to go, signs of attacks to a demonstration, safe house, etc. We have indicators and tools. But online we don’t have that. We don’t know what we’ve agreed to, or who’s watching.” 

While the thousands of testimonies that women shared online have powerfully exposed the prevalence of sexual harassment in Tunisia, and demonstrated the need for the government to ensure there are legal remedies and psycho-social resources in place to protect Tunisian women, these testimonies also reveal new forms of gender-based violence curently emerging via Facebook — the social media platform with the most users in Tunisia

 The spread of online gender-based violence constitutes a threat to those using social media as a platform to express their opinions, feelings, and views on diverse topics.  According to statistics published in 2018 ,the rate of women victims of sexual harassment reached 43.8% in Tunisia; 90% of women suffered such violence in the means of transport; 78.1% in public places and 75.4% in the workplace. More recently, Tunisian national institute for research on women CREDIF has conducted a study on violence against women in digital spaces, particularly on Facebook.  The preliminary findings document a range of gender-based violence online in Tunisia, from the creation of “imposter” profiles to discredit, defame, and damage reputations to the spreading of private and explicit photos on social media and the publishing of pages, comments, or posts targeting women with gender-based hate (including misogynistic slurs, death threats, and threats of sexual violence).

In the past six months, according to feminist activist Amal Bint Nadia, several incidents have shown how violence against women is reproduced in digital spaces. Several users of the Ena Zeda Facebook group have reported receiving unwanted, harassing messages after sharing their testimonies online. 

Further, countless testimonies of Ena Zeda campaign members illustrate the rampant online harassment Tunisian women are currently experiencing on social media: from profiles sharing nudes on Facebook Messenger to strangers harassing women in the comment section. The EnaZeda Facebook page has highlighted countless comments aiming to intimidate and threaten women who posted their testimonies online.

Facebook has also been used as a space to target Tunisian feminist activists and to lead defamatory shaming campaigns against women’s rights defenders. Back in 2017, feminist figure and head of the Indivudal Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) Bochra Belhaj Hmida was the subject of a massive social media attack following her submission of a list of recommendations on individual freedom in Tunisia. 

More recently, solidarity movement Falgatna denounced the digital campaign of defamation, stigmatization, and incitement to hatred against Tunisian women activists after women human rights defenders carried the coffin of deceased human rights figure Lina Ben Mhenni

Gender-based violence is prevalent in both the real world and in the digital world, and both Tunisia’s government and social media companies must take concrete action to address this widespread abuse. 

  1. The Tunisian government must strengthen actions to combat tech-facilitated gender-based violence.

As the new Tunisian government redoubles commitments to strengthening equality, it should address the rampant online violence taking place on social media, which normalizes misogyny and reinforces systemic inequalities. While Tunisia’s recent law combating gender-based violencereceived high praise, it fails to mention digital violence.

In particular, the Ministry of Women and Family Affairs and the Ministry of Technology should lead efforts at the intersection of gender-based violence and online safety measures, and work to raise awareness of the harms of gender-based violence. 

  1. Facebook must improve efforts to ensure its platform is a space free of violence for women.

While governments can play a strong role in combating gender-based violence, the issue cannot be solved by legal means alone.

Recalling the United Nations (UN) Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, social media companies have a specific responsibility to respect all human rights, including the right to non-discrimination and freedom of expression. They must take concrete steps to ensure that their platform is free of violence.

Facebook has previously responded  to the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre regarding the civil society allegations raised about the platform’s role in amplifying hate speech and facilitating violence. The company reiterated  their commitments to tackling these challenges  and to implementing  and improving  their policies through engaging with partners.  Increasing the dialogue between social media platforms and civil society groups across regions is an  opportunity to better understand and tackle the manifestations  of violence in the digital space.

Facebook’s recent decision to establish an independent oversight board for content moderation decisions has been particularly welcomed by several civil society organisations and lauded by the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Facebook should ensure the board functions with full accountability and transparency, and that it can play a stronger role in integrating human rights principles and tackling gender-based violence.

The most important step in preventing gender-based violence is to stop it from happening in the first place. It is not acceptable in any form, and women have the right to express themselves fully and freely, both online and off. That said, women, gender-nonconforming individuals, and others who are marginalized are facing very real threats, and we are here to support you. 

Click here for tips on how to stay safe while sharing stories on Facebook. 

If you are a victim of gender-based violence in Tunisia please dial 1819 or consult the SOS websiteYou can also use the resources below to help improve your security online.