Women Talk About Receiving Obscene Messages During Covid-Relief Work

Since the second wave of COVID-19 slammed India, hitting our healthcare systems hard, many civilians have stepped up to volunteer and help in response to the SOS calls that engulfed various social media platforms. There are thousands of stories of strangers helping strangers find beds and medical resources.

But while amplification on social media has undoubtedly been a boon for many, it has also come with a set of problems for many volunteers which go beyond how mentally taxing such volunteer work can be. Several women have spoken up about being harassed, of getting sexually explicit phone calls, text and even images after their numbers were shared online as they hunted for resources.

Swaty Kumar, who has now made her account private, was harassed via direct messages on WhatsApp and Instagram. In mid-April, Kumar had posted her phone number on Instagram asking for resources for her friends and family. Soon after, she started receiving pictures of male genitalia, as well as messages like: “Can I offer you body massage”, “I saw your profile on Bumble/Jeevansathi”. According to Kumar, who has been vocal about the government’s mishandling of the situation, all the accounts harassing her seem to be “troll accounts”.

Several students at Delhi University also received similar messages. When some social media influencers shared their contact information online, Esha Wahie and Shristi Sensarma, both philosophy students, started getting such calls and messages. For Sensarma, the real problem began when a senior journalist revealed her phone number on his Twitter account. Though the journalist deleted the tweet within 15 minutes, the damage had been done.

Wahie, who is from Kashmir, said a man requested her friend to arrange a bed for a patient, and when Wahie agreed to help, the person asked if she could get in bed with him. Wahie, who created a Covid help desk with nine volunteers – a number which has currently grown to 80-90 – has had her mental peace disrupted time and again reading such messages as she has no choice but to read them to see if anyone requires genuine assistance.

Sensarma, on the other hand, has gotten more phone calls than messages, and has even gotten rape threats. The men address her as “lovely”, “baby”, “honey” and other such non-consensual terms. “Ek aadmi ne call ki aur 10-second baad bola, raat ka kitna leti hai (One guy called and after 10 seconds asked ‘what do you charge for a night?’)” recalls Sensarma. Another incident of many was when a man in his 70s kept sending her messages commenting on her public profile until she ultimately blocked him.

When Kumar shared her experience of harassment on Instagram, it only intensified. “Log comment karke mazaak udaane lage (People started making jokes in the comment section),” says Kumar, who works with an IT company in Delhi.

Women have long faced the brunt of nameless men on social media. Last year’s Boys locker room incident shocked many. The Instagram scandal involving a chat room of teenagers from Delhi came to light when a member leaked chats from the group, including obscene images of around 15 girls. Recently, in a separate incident on the occasion of Eid, some boys live-streamed their vulgar commentary on celebratory pictures of Pakistani women.

Such online harassment sometimes results in women being hesitant of making their profiles public or sometimes even making a profile. A survey conducted by Plan International, an NGO which works for child rights and equality for girls, in 2020 shows that 58% of young women face harassment or abuse on social media. According to the same survey, 19% of young women reduce their social media activity in response to abuse. Another 12% seem to vary in their way of expression. While social media provides a platform for everybody to express themselves, trolling and harassment make it a challenging environment for women to engage in conversations online.

According to Kumar, who was sexually harassed at the age of seven, it is not stringent laws that will bring about a change. Instead, the way men are raised in an atmosphere of hyper-masculinity and misogyny needs to be changed.

Mardon ko pata hona chahiye ke aurtein bhi insaan hain (Men should know that women are also human),” emphasises Kumar.

Salman Saleem and Jyotsna Richhariya are students of M.A Development Communication at AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia. 

Featured image credit: Salman Saleem