The COVID-19 outbreak with the resultant lockdown and stay-at-home measures have led to a surge in online activity by young people. This increased online presence has heightened their susceptibility to online sexual abuse, cyber bullying, exploitation, and other risks.
To address this growing concern and to help combat online hate faced by many youth in Sri Lanka, the ‘Cyber Care’ mobile application was launched recently on World Safer Internet Day, commemorated each year on 9 February 2021. The app, which was created by Team Cyberwarders, a team who has successfully completed the incubation phase of the HackaDev: National Youth Social Innovation Challenge, aims to help alleviate and prevent cyber violence affecting youth of all genders in Sri Lanka.
Given the rise in cyber violence affecting youth in the country, in 2019 the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Sri Lanka, through its premier Youth Social Innovation Platform ‘HackaDev’, launched a thematic challenge for young people to develop a solution to address the escalating threat of cyber violence. Cyber violence ranges from cyber bullying, non-consensual sharing of intimate images (revenge porn), sextortion, cyberstalking, up skirting, sexual harassment, sexual abuse, threat, and blackmail among others.
Speaking at the virtual launch held recently, Faiza Effendi, Deputy Resident Representative of UNDP Sri Lanka noted, “looking at how societies are transforming digitally, cyber violence needs to be understood, and acted upon as a matter of critical importance. I am heartened to see a group of young people that have come forward in seeking a solution to this challenge. Working together as UNDP, we will continue to create opportunities, take a chance on young people, and provide meaningful platforms of engagement, where innovative and entrepreneurial talents of youth can be harnessed to the fullest.”
The Cyber Care App, a timely initiative built by youth, for youth, aims to raise awareness on cyber violence including the relevant laws and regulations in Sri Lanka pertaining to cyber-crimes; offer interesting gaming features as means of raising further awareness; provide important information on helplines and authorities or organizations that assist victims of cyber violence; provide news on incidents relating to cyber violence, and gamified ways of learning about cyber violence among other features.
Bimali Ameresekere, Gender Specialist of UNDP Sri Lanka stated, “the creation of this mobile app is timely, given the research studies put forward by UNICEF in 2018 and the study undertaken by CENWOR commissioned by the National Committee on Women (NCW), which highlighted the need for greater awareness on prevention and response to cyber violence. The study identified adolescent unmarried girls and young women as the main victims of online violence in Sri Lanka, while the most common medium used to perpetrate violence was largely through social media, peer to peer networks, mobile phones and other internet-based communication platforms.”
Today, the world is in a new normal context, with greater advances in technology, digitization, increased use of social media platforms and the high usage of the internet to communicate as a part of daily life. Online violence and abuse has accelerated with the onset of COVID-19, with devastating mental and physical impacts on youth.
Niroshika Hettiarachchi, Legal Officer at Women In Need (WIN), highlighted, “we have seen a distinct rise in the number of cases. Between July and December 2019, WIN recorded 170 complaints of cyber violence. During the first month of the COVID-19 lockdown, from March to April 2020, the WIN Helpline received 584 calls. Of these, 341 were from victims of domestic violence and 39 were as a result of cyber violence. As an organization, we have been able to support 615 persons through online interventions on Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) and other issues.”
Cyber violence can steer adverse offline consequences such as psychological trauma, rape, self-harm – which sometimes leads to extreme cases of loss of life, income and employment, marital discord, disruption in education and other forms of physical and sexual violence.
Addressing the need for more youth to take the lead in combating this online menace, Team CyberWarders stated, “Today, the Internet has become a crucial part of our lives. We noticed that many people, young and old, were unaware and made critical mistakes when sharing personal information on the internet. Bullying behind a computer is easy, but the consequences are cruel. As a team of young people, we decided it was time to take steps to put a stop to this ‘online bullying culture’ and to stand up for what is right. The Cyber Care App is a Sri Lankan solution, that provides awareness on cyber-violence to youth and children of this nation.”
The UNDP HackaDev Innovation Challenge, through a thematic challenge on cyber violence, worked closely with the youth team connecting with relevant stakeholders and resource persons in order to roll out the mobile app. The Cyber Care app was supported by the Ministry of Women and Child Development and the National Committee on Women, the National Child Protection Authority, Sri Lanka Computer Emergency Readiness Team (SLCERT), Criminal Investigations Department (CID) Cyber Crimes Unit, Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR), Women In Need, UNICEF Sri Lanka, Grassrooted Trust, Save the Children, Hithawathi team at LK domain, University of Colombo and experts from the ICT sector. With financial assistance from the Government of Norway, under UNDP’s SDG 16 portfolio on Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions, the app is one of many ongoing projects addressing Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV) in Sri Lanka.
The Cyber Care app is now available for download via the Google Play Store and will be available for iOS in the coming weeks. Link to app: https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=co.cyberwarders.cybercare