Why women in Tanzania face jail when their naked pictures are leaked to social media

Children play in the ocean while a woman looks at them on Tanzania's island of Zanzibar. Credit: Gulshan Khan/AFP via Getty Images

Words by Multimedia Producer Wedaeli Chibelushi

Mobile phone use in Tanzania has rocketed over the past 10 years, mostly due to the availability of cheaper smartphones. Millions in the East African nation have grown used to socialising, banking and learning wherever they want - but Asha Abinallah feels “lucky” she came of age before the smartphone boom.

As connectivity increases, so does the amount of people seeking help from Ms Abinallah’s organisation, complaining they’ve had naked pictures leaked without their consent.

The subjects are overwhelmingly young, female, “naive and in love”, Ms Abinallah, head of digital empowerment organisation Women at Web explains.

Asha Abinallah in a Women At Web workshop on online safety. Credit: Women At Web

“But the perpetrators are usually people whom they love.”

For victims of non-consensual intimate image abuse, consequences can include isolation, suicide and even a criminal conviction.

Strict anti-pornography laws introduced in 2016 mean publishing pornography online, or “causing” it to be published, is punishable by a fine of not less than 20 million Tanzanian shillings (around £6,900) or at least three years in jail. Thanks to a liberal interpretation of the law, there’s a trend of being punished, rather than the person who leaked them. (For comparison, leakers in the UK face up to two years in jail.)

A number of big names have been punished amid Tanzania’s anti-pornography crackdown. According to media reports, popular singers Nandy and Bill Nass were arrested after an “indecent” clip of them went viral. Both insist the footage was stolen and leaked without their permission.

26-year-old musician Nandy was arrested after an 'indecent' video clip of herself was shared online. Credit: Nandy/Instagram

“While there are headlines on those who are celebrities and popular, there are a lot of these cases underground, in which a person will be considered insignificant,” Ms Abinallah says.

The vast majority of these cases are women, and through allocating psychological and legal support, Women at Web seeks to support them.

Ms Abinallah gives the example of Stella*, who sought justice after her nudes got leaked, but was instead held in police custody. Her case is still going through the courts.

Then there’s Mwanaisha*, who also reported that her pictures had been shared without her permission. Officers told her she must pay for them to investigate the breach.

There are no official statistics on the number of people punished when their nudes are leaked, but women’s rights organisation WiLDAF Tanzania says in 2021, it provided ten people in this category with legal aid. This is a tiny fraction of the true number across Tanzania, WiLDAF lawyer Zakia Msangi tells me.

“A lot of women suffer from this problem but they are afraid to ask for help, they fear bringing shame to their families and being neglected,” Ms Msangi says.

Smartphone use in Tanzania has rocketed over the past 10 years.

Ms Abinallah echoes this sentiment, saying communities tend to judge women whose naked bodies are in the public domain, “they don’t want to sit down and really understand them”.

I ask Ms Abinallah if she can tell me more about what it's like to be a woman in Tanzania.

“I like that question because it's very conflicting and sometimes it gives me pain.

“For the majority, it seems very hard. I have seen women who have so much potential but they can’t decide anything in their marriage or maybe their families don’t want to decide anything,” she says.

To speak for these women would be “distorting the truth”, Ms Abinallah continues, because she has overcome such obstacles already.

She dropped out of school in Form 4, the equivalent of Year 10 in the UK. Then she got married and had two children, but the marriage “didn’t work very well”. Determined to complete her education, she headed back to Form Four, then to sixth form, then to the University of Dar es Salaam one of Tanzania’s highest-ranking universities.

“For myself, where I am right now, I see doors opening. But then again, this didn’t come easy,” she says.

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In their efforts to lower barriers for all Tanzanian women, Ms Abinallah and Women At Web are battling to change how anti-pornography laws are interpreted. They’ve held meetings with lawmakers in a bid to lobby the justice department and have run a training course for Tanzania’s national police force.

Despite these efforts, the head of the force’s cyber crime unit insists women aren’t being punished for leaked nudes, at all.

“It's not true,” Joshua Mwangaza says when I raise anecdotal evidence from four separate non-profits.

“The one who published that picture, that should be the one who committed the offence… the law is very clear.”

Still, Ms Abinallah asserts that the way forward is collaboration, lobbying and empathy.

“It can be really, really heart-breaking. I know that there is still a lot of hard work to do, but I am so happy with where we are because we've reached so many women,” she says.

“I'm really happy and looking forward to the future for a better internet, for all women.”

*not their real name

If you believe you're a victim of sextortion, revenge porn or any other form of intimate image abuse, contact:

  • The police on 999

  • The Revenge Porn Helpline on 0345 6000 459 or help@revengepornhelpline.org.uk

  • Scam Survivors using via its website

  • Childline on 0800 1111 if you're under 18