How cybercrime is wrecking the lives of women in India’s hinterland

Some women are fighting back now despite the apathetic attitude of law enforcement authorities towards such crimes.

WrittenBy:Khabar Lahariya
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The perils of imagery generated by Artificial Intelligence and its manipulation have been widely explored as part of investigations into deep fakes capable of swinging elections. But far from the spotlight, manipulated images and videos are writing a horrific tale of violence in India’s hinterland.

Recently, mainstream and social media were quite amused by the prank actor Daljit Dosanjh played on Ivanka Trump, daughter of visiting US president Donald Trump, using photoshopping tools. For young women in small towns, this same technology is used to destroy their lives.

“I have earned my freedom. I know that one misstep on the internet and I’ll never be able to negotiate it back,” Suneeta Prajapati, a Khabar Lahariya journalist, recently told a conference exploring digital mobility and feminism. “This is why I have to be extremely careful.”

She described how men send her back her display pictures with comments ranging from “Beautiful, Ma’am” to “Not all men are so nice as to only appreciate from distance. Aisi profile pic lagane se pehle zara savdhani baratiye.” Be careful before you post such nice pictures.

A 21-year-old woman from a village in Uttar Pradesh’s Mahoba can relate. She was shocked to hear about a photograph of hers that had gone viral. Posted on Facebook by a young man of her village popularly known as Chaubey, it was a picture of a naked woman with her face. A morphed photo that garnered likes and shares and was soon spread by WhatsApp forwards. The woman, who works with the local National Rural Livelihood Mission, was determined to turn the perpetrator in, despite desperate pleas by her family not to risk her reputation. “What about her izzat?” her father asked. “She is unmarried.”

The woman spent two weeks trying to get hold of the image. She finally saw it on the village pradhan’s phone. “I took him along to the police station since I finally had the evidence,” she recounted.

She was asked to speak with the constable at the thana. She did and the matter was referred to the official in charge of the police chowki. Then it went cold. This despite the identity of the perpetrator being known. “I see him hanging around,” the woman said. “He even approached me and told me smugly that I was wasting my time. All it meant to him were a few payoffs to the tune of Rs 5,000.”

Awadh Singh, the Circle Officer of Kulpahad city in Mahoba, where the case is pending, said the investigation was underway.

Uttar Pradesh tops Indian states in crimes against women, as per the National Crime Records Bureau. In the past few years, it has also seen a spike in cases of cybercrime. Nearly 6,280 cybercrime cases were reported in 2018, an increase of 26% over the previous year. But with dowry killings and rapes topping the list of crimes against women, the state’s law enforcement apparatus often does not have the bandwidth or even the inclination to pursue a cybercrime. There’s also poor awareness as illustrated at the Kulpahad police station, where the Mahoba woman’s case is lying shut in a dusty file.

Another problem, former police chief of Banda district Shalini Singh pointed out, is that women who fall victim to cybercrime are often hesitant to file complaints. It’s because there isn’t wide recognition of cybercrime as violence. Violence is rape, it’s generally understood, violence is a dowry killing. That a photo you may have posted online can be manipulated with the intention of harming you isn’t your fault isn’t made clear to women in small towns. Indeed, even the woman in Mahoba who fought back insisted she had never used a smartphone. As if that could be a crime, too. “I only use the basic phone and that too for work,” she said.

Still, as Suneeta told the conference, young women are starting to fight back. A 14-year-old from another village in Mahoba is a case in point. She was on her way to a coaching class when three men grabbed her, took her to an isolated place, disrobed her and took photographs of her.

The girl filed a police complaint, identifying the men as Dhabbu, Gabbar and Pinku. One of them had been harassing her for days, she stated in her complaint. “He was constantly telling me that he loved me. I told him I didn’t love him and I wasn’t even interested in friendship. He continued to follow me around.”

Since the assault, the men have visited her several times and sought to blackmail her. “They keep threatening me that they will leak the pictures on the net, they will make sure the pictures go viral.”

Her family has been supportive of her decision to pursue the case, despite being told by local cops, they claim, to “settle the matter”.

Officially, though, Abhimanyu Yadav from the Kulpahad police station, where the case is registered, said an investigation into the matter is ongoing.

Reported by Khabar Lahariya Bureau, written by Pooja Pande.

A version of this article appeared on Khabar Lahariya.

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