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Addressing an Ecological Fallacy: Does Lower Digital Access in Rural India Result in Minimal Cases of Cyber Abuse

The National Commission for the Protection of Child Rights’ (NCPCR) Chairperson Shri Priyank Kanoongo launched a report titled, “Changing Trends in Online Abuse and Trafficking of Women and Children: A Study in Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and West Bengal” conducted in partnership by Space2Grow and CyberPeace Foundation in the NCPCR office on 19 October 2022. The study set out to explore the common misconception that lower digital access in rural areas of the country in comparison to urban areas automatically leads to lower instances of cyber abuse and fraud. The most pertinent flaw of this outlook has been the complete oversight on experiences of women and children with abuse and trafficking in rural India in both journalistic pieces as well as academic research. This is especially significant in the post-pandemic phase which is marked by increasing internet exposure and adoption towards varied activities. Space2Grow and CyberPeace Foundation set out to study the internet usage practices, experiences of common forms of abuse (such as cyber bullying, stalking, phishing, impersonation and identity theft, unwanted exposure to content etc.), response to abuse and other aspects like perception, knowledge and opinions on the topic of cyber safety. The study findings have thrown up the dire need for training, capacity building and programs targeting all key stakeholders to contain the victimization and address the vulnerability faced by women and children online, including and especially in rural areas.Shri Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson, NCPCR launching the research by CyberPeace Foundation and Space2GrowShri Priyank Kanoongo, Chairperson, NCPCR while launching the book said, “Children today are extremely vulnerable in cyberspace, especially while using social media. It is important for parents, teachers, and for the society at large to give thought to the safety of children in cyberspace as this can be achieved only when we work together. This study by Space2Grow in collaboration with CyberPeace Foundation points to these dangers. This report has come at a time when children are increasingly using the internet and are therefore highly vulnerable. This report should hence be treated as a wakeup call and as stakeholders, we need to work with a sense of urgency towards having conversations with and keeping an eye on children’s online activities.”Talking about the research report, Major Vineet Kumar, Founder and Global President, CyberPeace Foundation said, “Internet usership in rural India is growing on a year on year basis and hence requires rural-area specific prevention strategy to tackle abuse. CyberPeace Foundation has found that it is a fairly organized crime and indicates the use of cyberspace and different online platforms as a medium of trafficking to target vulnerable population. The report provides a recommendation to creating and capacity building of FIRST RESPONDER, Peer groups, community and stakeholders to protect the vulnerable population from Cyber harms and quick redressal of the problem.” He also mentioned about the South Asia CyberPeace Cooperation Council (SAC3), which will bring together nations in the region for a common objective – to fight cyber-enabled human trafficking and online child sexual abuse exploitation (OCSAE).”Ms Chitra Iyer, Co-founder and CEO, Space2Grow: At Space2Grow our aim was to deep dive into the issue of increasing online abuse thats linked to trafficking. The findings are evident of the fact that no more can vulnerabilities of online abuse be ignored on the pretext of lack of digital access. Instead, its time for a mass level campaign for protecting children and women at large from online abuse and trafficking.Some of the key findings of the study are given below:Cyber abuse is agnostic to ownership of devices as it can and does happen via any device and medium.While cyber abuse and fraud are extremely common among women and children in the study areas, awareness on prevention, reporting and redressal is abysmally low.There is a high level of tolerance to cyber abuse in that participants did not consider reporting an incident unless it was considered grave or involved financial fraud. This additionally points to a lack of understanding on the long-term effects of cyber abuse on one’s mental health.Women and children often choose to confide in friends, rather than close family members like a spouse or parents, when faced with an uncomfortable situation online.Teachers in general, despite being key stakeholders in the lives of children, are not aware of or involved in any way with their students’ online activities and they do not have the awareness or knowledge on how to respond to online abuse.In response to and as a way forward, Space2Grow and CyberPeace Foundation are committed to working with all relevant stakeholders to address the issue of cyber safety of women and children.The key recommendations based on the study findings are given below.Awareness and capacity building on the topic for all stakeholdersTo encourage, promote and normalize conversations and discussions on cyber abusePeer-group trainings and support groups in institutions and communityEnsuring reporting of cyber crimesEfficient, convenient and effective reporting mechanismsTransparent and quick redressal processesCounseling services for victims of cyber abuseCollaboration of all stakeholders to address rising cyber crimesEducation of caregivers, parents/guardians and teachersRural-area specific prevention strategy to tackle abuseTo popularize helpline numbersSpace2Grow is a social impact consulting firm which plays a pivotal role in collaborating, engaging and co-creating sustainable solutions for complex social problems related to Anti-Human Trafficking, Inclusive Skilling and Livelihoods, Child Protection and Digital Safety.CyberPeace Foundation is the world’s first non-profit civil society organization and think tank of cyber and policy experts with the vision of pioneering CyberPeace initiatives to build collective resilience against cybercrimes & global threats of cyber warfare.

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