A married 38-year-old employee at a software firm and a mother of two, Anita* was just about to start preparing dinner for her family after work when her boss texted her for a quick one-on-one on Zoom. A diligent employee, Anita did not think twice before putting on some work suit and sitting in front of the camera for what she thought would be an ordinary, official meeting. As the camera on the other side flickered on, Anita became aware of two hairy thighs and chest peeping back at her. Her middle-aged boss had decided to show up in just a vest and boxers.
“It was traumatising. I have been working in this company for just under a year. I didn’t know how to bring it up but that is not the appropriate attire for a meeting," Anita, Kolkata resident, tells News18 upon conditions of anonymity.
Throughout the 15-minute Zoom call, Anita alleges that her boss remained fidgety and kept touching and rubbing himself in odd places.
Though the meeting made her extremely uncomfortable, Anita didn’t know how to take recourse. Despite her company having a POSH policy, Anita says that she didn’t find any rules about what constituted as harassment in a virtual set-up.
“It’s not like he said or did anything overtly inappropriate. But the incident made me extremely uncomfortable," she adds.
Anita’s is not an isolated incident. The coronavirus pandemic has driven people indoors, resulting in a new normal for students and working professionals. With schools, colleges, offices and workplaces closed, virtual interactions like Zoom meetings and online classes are here to stay. The growth in virtual interactions, however, has also led to a new type of problem, especially for women - a spurt in online harassment, cyber abuse and bullying.
As per reports in March, cases of cyberbullying and online harassment against women and teenagers grew by 36 percent in the past year. But the numbers tell just half the story. According to cyber-safety expert Akancha Srivastava, the situation has only got worse.
“The problem is that with human interaction shifting online, sexual harassment has also taken newer shapes and forms. And companies at large are lagging to update their POSH policies in keeping with the Zoom call paradigm," Srivastava tells News18.
The Mumbai resident runs the Akancha Srivastava Foundation to spread awareness about internet literacy, education, and safety, is also the creator of the Akancha Against Harassment initiative to provide aid and support to victims and survivors of cyber harassment.
It also acts as the country’s only non-profit, private, multilingual helpline for cyber safety in India that works in partnership with police across states to generate public service awareness content and also provide aid when needed. Since the beginning of the coronavirus lockdown in March, Srivastava’s helpline has received over 2,000 distress calls and complaints or a 200 percent increase.
It isn’t just in meetings. Vinita Gupta*, a 27-year-old advertising professional from Kolkata, says that the lockdown made her turn to online gaming. And while the gaming itself was fulfilling, the experience soon soured after she started facing regular sexist jibes, slurs and even rape threats from fellow male players.
“The second they see its a girl, they want to know what my rate is and if I want to sleep with them," Gupta tells News18. She adds that when she refuses, a majority of them move to rape threats. Gupta has since reduced frequenting the gaming groups and when she does, she prefers to list her gender as ‘male’. “It’s sad but its the only way to avoid getting unsolicited dick pics," she adds.
Apart from sexual harassment, instances of abusive grooming of children, domestic abuse against minors caught on tape have also been reported along with cases of cyberbullying which include mean comments, uploading content such as photos or videos of a person on the internet without their permission, spreading fake news and rumours and more.
“Cyberbullying is a leading threat to one’s mental health," Srivastava says. But much of it goes unnoticed. According to a 2018 report, Indian teenagers are one of the most cyberbullied in the world. And Srivastava says that up until a few years ago, no one was even talking about it at all. “Most people are still unaware of how to file an FIR in a cyberbullying case. In fact, most people are unaware of what cyberbullying or online sexual harassment even is," Srivastava says. With the lockdown, people have become further closeted with and dependent on the internet, increasing their exposure to such attacks.
To help spread awareness about the impact of cyberbullying and online harassment, Srivastava and her team of police officers, academics, lawyers and mental health as well as cyber safety experts have come up with a short film called “Words Have Impact" that deals with the impact of online bullying and harassment on social media platforms.
Despite being underreported, cyberbullying and harassment can have a deep psychological impact on victims’ mental health, especially if they are teenagers. According to a 2018 UK Millennium Cohort Study published in The Lancet, the impact of cyberbullying can include depression, low self-esteem, body image issues, self-harm, and other mental health issues.
One of the first ways to increase prevent such cyber crimes is by raising awareness about the basic problems that constitute as threats to cybersafety. According to Srivastava, this can only be possible if both the civil society as well as the government invests in cyber literary and cyber safety measures.
This may include ethical and protective interventions by the private tech sector driven by strong policy decisions to make a sphere to make online spaces like social media safer for women and teenagers.
The recent death by suicide of a 32-year-old actor Sushant Singh Rajput has plunged the country deep into a deeply polarised debate regarding mental health and what constitutes depression. But what started as an opportunity to better understand and spread awareness about mental health soon became politicized with several parties (political or otherwise) appropriating it to further their own motives. And the internet emerged as a major tool for propagating false allegations and malignant content against certain individuals such as Rhea Chakraborty and Deepika Padukone.
With such an increase in polarization, it becomes imperative for the Indian government to come up with stricter policy measures that push tech companies for higher safety protocols against cybercrimes such as bullying and sexual harassment. While cybersafety cases like fraud, phishing, identity theft or hacking are easier to defend against due their easy visibility, the focus needs to be on shedding light on the millions of invisible transgressions that take place across the internet and can lead to severe psychological and physical trauma, and in some cases, even death.
*Names have been changed to protect the identities of the individuals.