Manipur assaults show India internet shutdowns hurt women more

With internet access cut off since early May – and since partially reinstated – women in Manipur struggle to make a living, check misinformation and report abuse.

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The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated period poverty, primarily due to the widespread job losses and financial difficulties resulting from extended quarantines and business closure. Image: UN Women Asia & the Pacific, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Flickr.

When videos of two women being paraded naked and assaulted in India’s Manipur went viral last week on social media, the remote northeastern state had been cut off from internet access for nearly three months.

The attack took place on May 4, but the videos of the women being dragged and groped by armed men before what onlookers say was a gang rape, surfaced last week. Authorities said they are investigating the incident and have arrested several men.

Officials imposed a statewide internet shutdown on May 3, saying it was needed to curb rumours and disinformation, and quell violent ethnic clashes that have killed at least 125 people and displaced tens of thousands.

But the internet ban in the state - among the longest in India to date - has made it difficult to alert authorities and journalists to rights violations, many of them directed at women, activists say.

“If there was no internet shutdown, those videos would have surfaced over two months ago and the horror could have been addressed speedily, and other similar offences could have been curbed,” said Patricia Mukhim, an activist and editor of the Shillong Times daily in the northeastern state of Meghalaya.

“The internet shutdown is a violation of human rights - it curtails people’s freedom, and it shuts out news of violent incidents and allows perpetrators to carry on undeterred,” she told Context.

The shutdowns also have an “adverse impact on women’s ability to feel safe and restrict their freedom of movement,” said Jayshree Bajoria, an associate director at Human Rights Watch in Asia.

“It took a horrific video of violence against women in Manipur to emerge on social media for the authorities to take action. This shows how necessary the internet is for the flow of information, and reporting and documenting abuses,” she said.

After the Manipur high court directed the state government to restore the internet in a “limited fashion”, authorities on Tuesday said they had “conditionally” lifted the ban on broadband services.

The internet shutdown is a violation of human rights - it curtails people’s freedom, and it shuts out news of violent incidents and allows perpetrators to carry on undeterred.

Patricia Mukhim, editor, Shillong Times

Social media websites, WiFi hotspots, virtual private networks (VPNs) and mobile internet - used by a majority of people - still remain blocked in Manipur.

Adverse impact

India had the most number of shutdowns in the world for the fifth successive year in 2022, according to Access Now, a digital rights group.

The shutdowns - including during protests, elections and examinations - were often imposed for indefinite periods and without the publication of shutdown orders, in violation of a 2020 judgment by the nation’s top court.

“Authorities have cited violence as part of the rationale for shutting down the internet. However, there is no evidence to show internet shutdowns reduce violence - quite the opposite,” Access Now said in a report in May.

The clashes in Manipur, which borders Myanmar, began when members of the Kuki and Naga tribal groups launched a protest on May 3 against the possible sharing of their benefits with the ethnic majority Meiteis in the state.

The federal government rushed thousands of paramilitary and army troops to the state of 3.2 million people, but the state has remained tense since, with killings and other incidents of sporadic violence.

The restive northeast region is among the least developed in the country, with patchy internet access and among the most shutdowns in India, according to data compiled by the Software Freedom Law Center, a digital rights group.

As more services are digitised under the Digital India programme, internet shutdowns disproportionately hurt rural communities and other vulnerable groups such as those who depend on social welfare benefits, a recent report by Human Rights Watch and the Internet Freedom Foundation showed.

Toll on women

In addition to shutdowns, Indian authorities also frequently block websites and issue takedown orders to social media platforms. The government issued nearly 7,000 takedown orders of social media posts and accounts last year compared to 6,000 in 2021, according to Access Now.

Most shutdowns involve blocking the internet on mobile phones, which is how most of the population, particularly in rural areas, access the internet.

This severely impacts access to education and livelihoods, particularly for rural women, the report by Human Rights Watch and IFF showed.

In the western state of Rajasthan, which has had the most internet shutdowns after Kashmir, the majority of workers in the government’s rural employment guarantee programme are women.

As attendance checks and wage payments for workers have been digitised, frequent internet shutdowns in the state mean that many women don’t get to work, or that they don’t get paid, said Bajoria.

“Most of the women come from socially and economically marginalised households … shutdowns that cut off internet access make their situation worse,” she said.

In Manipur, the shutdown means that women cannot communicate as easily with their families via WhatsApp, check the news, make and receive payments on the phone, or even recharge their mobile SIMs, said Ninglun Hangal, who works with development non-profits.

Unable to work from home because of the internet ban, Hangal travelled 13 hours to relocate to neighbouring Assam state. But for women forced to stay back, conditions are tough, she said.

“There are more rumours and misinformation circulating, and there’s no way to check or clarify what is true” she said.

“Women feel isolated and scared for their safety, and it’s taking a terrible toll. More cases of assault and abuse are bound to come to light when the internet is restored.”

This story was published with permission from Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women’s rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit https://www.context.news/.

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