On September 23rd, Judith Heard’s nude photos were leaked for the second time. Lured by a scammer posing as former U.N. Special Rapporteur, David Kaye, the long-time Ugandan fashion model believed she had been offered an opportunity to speak at a U.N. event. The hacker, posing as Kaye, instructed her to set up an online account for the event registration. Once completed, her phone was promptly hacked.
Minutes later, nude photos and intimate videos flooded her Twitter page.
Heard was inconsolable. “How was I supposed to know this is a hacker? The profile on social media was the identity of a real person that worked at the U.N.,” she said. “I am losing my mind. I think this is the same person that hacked me before and nothing is being done. I can’t take this anymore.”
This is an experience Heard, now 35, never wished to revisit. In 2018, when her nude photos were first leaked, she was arrested under Uganda’s anti-pornography act, which criminalizes the production and circulation of “pornographic material.” Despite insisting her photos were shared without consent, Heard faced prosecution. The impact on her mental health was severe. Falling into a deep depression, she said she became suicidal.
Two years later, the hacker was never caught, and now Heard finds herself in the same position. “The public will make a joke out of it,” she said. “But they need to find the person that is doing this. The situation is out of control.”
Across East Africa, women are increasingly facing non-consensual intimate image sharing (NCII), often in the form of revenge porn. But some argue that the subregion’s cybercrime and anti-pornography laws are not there to protect women — but to prosecute them instead.
In Uganda and Tanzania, in particular, the laws penalize women for partaking in the creation of “pornographic content.” The punishment is extreme. Women, like Heard, can be confronted with an extortionate fine and even time in prison for having their photos leaked.
“Our society has patriarchal standards and the cybercrime law follows this. It has been interpreted to govern what a woman should or should not do,” explained Carol Ndosi, co-project manager at Women at Web Tanzania, a project that is addressing the gender digital divide. “Even though it is the woman who is a victim, society makes her look like the villain.”
While there are no official statistics, women’s rights groups in East Africa believe there has been a sharp increase in non-consensual intimate image sharing due to Covid-19-induced restrictions and lockdowns, which led to more people spending time online — a trend observed worldwide. The subregion has also seen a huge growth in internet and smartphone usage. But despite this, there are still low levels of digital literacy and poor mechanisms in place to reduce online violence. This makes women all the more susceptible to NCII.
“From July 2020, we have received over 60 cases of NCII through our helpline. Twenty-three of these cases have been revenge pornography, but the majority of cases are linked to sextortion,” said Ndosi. “Scammers lure young ladies into online relationships and fool them into believing they are living overseas. After dating for some time, they pressure these girls to send their nude photos, which they then use to blackmail them.”
Revenge pornography has even been used as a political weapon. In Rwanda, nude photos of 2017 presidential candidate, Diane Rwigara, surfaced on the internet. She said the images had been doctored and were intended to discredit her.
Fearing punishment, many cases of NCII go unreported. This was the case for Lydia, 22, a victim of revenge pornography, whose name has been changed to protect her identity. In June 2021, her ex-boyfriend leaked eight of her nude photos on her Facebook wall. Lydia said her initial reaction was to go to the police, but after seeking guidance, she decided against it.
“When I learnt about Tanzania’s cybercrime law, I did not have the strength to go through with the case,” said Lydia. “I realised that because I am in the photo, I could also be heavily fined or be sent to prison. He could also be fined, but he can afford to pay it. I can’t.”
Once Lydia informed her ex-boyfriend he could face a 20 million shilling fine ($8,600) for publishing her pictures, he stopped posting and she said she hasn’t heard from him since. But Lydia remains scarred from the experience. She no longer uses social media and avoids spending time online.
“I honestly thought about suicide,” said Lydia, “because not only did my family see them but my friends at university did too. I wasn’t sure how many times they would be shared on other networks. I had no control over it.”
Activists say that even the cases that get reported to the police go unheard. “We have seen cases where women will go to the cybercrime unit and when they report it, the police will ask them, ‘Aren’t you embarrassed?’” said Warda Mansour, project coordinator of Coco Na Denge, a project run through Women at Web Tanzania which aims to raise awareness of women’s safety on digital platforms. “They will make you feel very bad about yourself. So many do not report because of the way it is dealt with. And we do not see the consequences for these criminals.”
Despite this, Tanzania’s cybercrime unit said that NCII cases are few and far between, with the head of the Cybercrime Unit, Joshua Mwangaza insisting it is not in the country’s culture to send “porn pictures.” Mwangaza said the emphasis should be on raising awareness of the laws, so that people can avoid falling victim to them.
Yet in Tanzania, women are also targeted by the country’s strict online content regulations. Introduced in 2018, the Tanzania Communications Regulatory Authority put a ban on any online content deemed “indecent,”prohibiting nudity and sex. Since the government introduced the regulations, socialite Hamisa Mobetto, was forced to publicly apologize after posting photos of herself wearing a bikini. Celebrity Wema Sepetu was also summoned to court after sharing a video of her kissing her boyfriend.
A survey from Women at Web Tanzania has since revealed that online gender-based violence, such as revenge pornography, is one of the main factors why women do not participate in the digital space. Ndosi said many women voiced concern about engaging on social media, and those who had experienced threats of leaked photos disappeared offline altogether.
Women do not just face legal consequences, but social ones too. “A woman can lose her career, her family — her whole life can be ruined,” said Lindsey Kukunda, founder of Her Empire and the Not Your Body campaign in Uganda. “Our biggest obstacle is culture. A man can do it but a woman cannot.”
Now, women’s groups across East Africa are trying to warn young women against taking nude photos — aware that the laws can land them in trouble. Some organizations promote a “no face, no case” policy, in a bid to keep women safe. On Clubhouse, “nude etiquette” sessions have been circulating, advising women on how to send their intimate photos in a secure way.
Recognizing that many women do not know where to turn for help, Women at Web in Tanzania has also set up an online platform and 24/7 helpline where women can report cases of revenge porn, and get free legal advice and counseling. The project is also working to improve digital literacy and security among Tanzanian women.
Across the border, small gains have been made. Women’s rights campaigners in Uganda celebrated earlier this year when the constitutional court annulled parts of the anti-pornography act, scrapping sections which put a ban on women wearing “indecent clothing” in public.
Many believe that revenge porn won’t be curbed until the laws are reviewed and subsequently enforced.
“Section 14 of Tanzania’s cybercrime law should be made very clear that the person who leaked images without consent should be the one accountable and brought to justice,” said Ndosi. “It is about intent. The person who published those photos is aiming to harm the other person. They should face the punishment.”