Wed. May 27th, 2020

‘It sticks to me like a disease’: Fiji grapples with revenge porn as internet use booms

SUVA, 23 APRIL 2020 (THE GUARDIAN)—Crystal* remembers the day her life came crashing down.

Crystal, 23, a former student at the University of the South Pacific in Suva, Fiji, had allowed her partner to take intimate pictures of her in 2014. It was a decision she would come to regret. Two years later, those pictures were published online in a public Dropbox folder, appearing alongside roughly 900 other images of young Fijian women.

“It happened many years ago, but it still sticks to me like a disease,” she says.

Revenge porn, of which Crystal was a victim, is devastating wherever it is experienced. But in Fiji, a Pacific nation with a population of just under one million, closely-knit communities and conservative attitudes to sex and gender, the social stigma around being a victim of such a crime is particularly pronounced.

Crystal’s parents blamed her for what happened, and she was forced to drop out of university after they refused to fund her education.

“My family says it is useless for me to study after what happened. They are trying to get me married off, but I want to complete my studies and become independent,” she says. “I was diagnosed with depression last year because I couldn’t take the pressure anymore and became suicidal.”

Crystal believes her family’s “backward” attitude stemmed from a culture in Fiji that views sex as taboo, and a society that tends to empathise with male perpetrators.

The case prompted a major police investigation and calls from women’s groups for tougher action on perpetrators.

Revenge porn is one of the issues that the country is grappling with since the explosion of internet access in the country over the last decade.

More than half of Fiji’s population now have access to the internet and usage is set to increase with government plans to provide high-speed broadband services to 95% of Fijian households by 2023.

The country also has one of the highest rates of gender-based violence in the world, with two out of three women in Fiji subjected to some form of physical or sexual violence in their lifetime, double the global average.

The Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre received 833 violence against women cases in 2019, with domestic violence the most common offence.

“We have been concerned about this issue for a very long time,” said Shamima Ali, the coordinator of the Fiji Women’s Crisis Centre.

Ali says Fiji’s police force are ill-equipped to investigate revenge porn, and that when it came to cybercrime, largely focused on financial crimes such as money-laundering and fraud.

“I believe there isn’t information out there about this issue. A lot of women don’t want to come out because they feel that the whole family will be dishonoured, and she will be stigmatised.”

According to Roshika Deo, a Fijian feminist activist, women who were the victims of revenge porn were stigmatised because of negative attitudes towards women who engaged in sexual activity.

“They feel powerless and humiliated. They stop going to school or work. They become socially ostracised and face violence by members of their family and community. Anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts also develop,” she said.

Opposition MP, Lynda Tabuya, has called for pornography to be banned in the country, saying it was fuelling negative attitudes towards women and contributing to an increase in sexual crimes; a call that was rejected by Mereseini Vuniwaqa, the minister for women, who said pornography bans were “virtually impossible” to implement.

But concern is growing among women’s rights groups who believe that while porn was not the root cause of gender violence, it was a contributing factor in a country with some of the highest rates of violence against women in the world.

Nalini Singh, executive director of the Fiji Women’s Rights Movement, says that with the use of digital media expanding, there was an urgent need to improve sexual education in schools.

Singh says that children need to be educated about their “bodies, consent, and healthy relationships” from an early age to prevent discrimination and sexual violence.

“Banning porn will not change anything if attitudes towards women and girls don’t change and they are still seen as less,” she said….PACNEWS

*not her real name