Coronavirus has changed the world in more ways than one can imagine. A major shift has been the transfer of workplaces and education into the digital realm. Sadly, this has not mitigated society’s ills as the unscrupulous elements have begun harassing people online — in fact there has been an increase in harassment cases, especially during virtual classes organised by educational institutes.
In Pakistan, shifting of physical classrooms into the virtual world was a huge step as faculty and staff had to design online classes for students to carry on with their education. Due to this shift to online spaces, girls had to share their social media profiles or telephone numbers with their class fellows and teachers. A number of female students were resultantly harassed during virtual classes, allegedly by their class fellows. Their display pictures were photo-shopped and uploaded on dubious sites, some received unsolicited pictures from their male counterparts while others were sent objectionable video links.
According to Digital Rights Foundation (DRF), a Lahore-based organisation working towards equal internet rights for all, nearly 70% women face sexual harassment in offline and online spaces.
A number of families do not allow internet access to their female family members because of these reasons. Nasir Khan, a businessman from Lahore, said, “My three daughters study in school. We have internet at home and the latest gadgets but they are not allowed to use the internet. Even though our sons use it, it is not a safe space for women. They can repeat a year, it’s alright.”
DRF also has a ‘Cyber Harassment Helpline’ catering to people across the country who face cyber harassment or are bullied. According to DRF’s latest report focusing on an increase of complaints registered during the coronavirus-related lockdown, “March and April saw an increase of 189% in complaints. A total of 74% of the cases in this time were reported by women, 19% by men, and 5% by gender non-binary persons. There were only 47 cases reported in January and February this year. There is a lot of probability that new ways of harassment have emerged because of online classes.”
Asma*, a student in a private university in Lahore, explained how she felt unsafe taking online classes. “We were very excited when we came to know about online classes but soon the enthusiasm faded. On the second day of our class, I started receiving unsolicited messages from an unknown number during class. I did not inform anyone. The next day strange, uncomfortable sounds were heard during the online class and the teacher ended the class immediately,” she shared. Due to such acts a number of female students left the online classes altogether, she shared.
Other than students, teachers also face harassment. Sana* had recently joined a private school as a teacher. As schools shut down, she had to share her numbers to communicate with students for school work. “I am not in favour of sharing numbers with students. Ever since I’ve shared my number, I have received many messages from unknown numbers, creating a lot of trouble at home for me.”
*Names changed to ensure privacy