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No space for violence against women and girls in the digital world

Human Rights Comment
Strasbourg 15/03/2022
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No space for violence against women and girls in the digital world

The advancement of technology has enabled us to connect, share important information, speak up and raise awareness on human rights violations. But it has also provided additional fertile grounds for gender-based violence against women and girls to an alarming extent, and with little accountability. It has fuelled the perpetration of insidious harmful actions, often by partners and ex-partners but also anonymous individuals, perpetuating an environment in which violence against women and girls seems to be normalised by society. Lockdowns imposed throughout the COVID-19 pandemic only amplified this long-standing problem, with a high number of instances of online sexual abuse.

Though both men and women can experience incidents of online violence and abuse, women are considerably more likely to be victims of repeated and severe forms of harmful actions online or with the help of technology. Every day, we hear about women and girls who have been victims of – to name but a few - non-consensual image or video sharing, intimidation and threats via email or social media platforms, including rape and death threats, online sexual harassment, stalking, including with the use of tracking apps and devices, as well as impersonation, and economic harm via digital means. Young girls are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and abuse as well as bullying by their peers in the digital space. In some cases, such acts have also resulted in physical violence or led to the victims even having suicidal thoughts. But this is just a snapshot of the problem. The lack of comprehensive and accurate data collection in this area results in information being fragmented and incomplete, but the little we do know suffices to conclude that the magnitude of digital violence against women and girls and ensuing impunity remains colossal, having an impact on society as a whole.

Harmful impact on women and girls and society as a whole

The digital dimension of gender-based violence has a serious impact on the lives of women and girls, including their safety, their physical and psychological health, livelihoods, family ties, dignity and reputation. It is emblematic of long-standing problems of gender inequality, structural violence and discrimination against women anchored in society and is also a demonstration of current broader trends undermining the progress made in the overall protection of women’s rights and the advancement of gender equality. Not only does violence perpetrated in the digital sphere amount to gender-based violence against women and girls, breaching a wide range of human rights as protected by international and European human rights standards, but it also has a chilling effect on democratic discourse.

The specific impact on women exposed to intersecting forms of discrimination

Violence in the digital world can be especially harmful for those women and girls at risk of or exposed to intersecting forms of discrimination. For example, women of colour are more impacted by violence online or through digital means than white women, with Black women being 84% more likely to receive abusive tweets on Twitter. Women belonging to religious or ethnic minorities may also be a particular target. In North Macedonia, for example, a Facebook page seemed to target specifically Roma women, posting explicit private photos and videos as well as disparaging comments against them. Amnesty International also found that women with disabilities, lesbian, bisexual, transgender or intersex women (LBTI) experience higher rates of online abuse on Twitter. LBTI activists who take an active role in public fora are particularly targeted for their sexual orientation and gender expression. This has been the case for example of a Spanish lesbian journalist. In Armenia, several political figures engaged in hate speech online against the chairperson of the Right Side NGO for being a transgender woman, after she addressed the Armenian Parliament and called for the upholding of transgender people’s rights.

Such attacks are particularly dangerous because they not only have a serious impact on the wellbeing and human rights of the person concerned but also have the effect of further spreading hateful narratives and limiting access to the democratic debate for women affected by intersecting forms of discrimination.

Violence online used to discredit women’s collective power

Just speaking out – regardless of being a private individual or public figure – about certain issues online, often when related to feminism, gender equality, sexual abuse or specific aspects of women’s rights, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, may be a trigger for violence and abuse. In particular, I noted how women who stand in solidarity with other women who have been victims of violence or sexual abuse, using their collective power to speak out and amplify their voices online, have been attacked in the digital sphere. For example, in Serbia, following the revelation of sexual violence in an education institution, women created the Facebook page #NIsamtrazila (I did not ask for it) for women in the region of the former Yugoslavia, where they could report sexual violence in a safe space and share their own experiences anonymously. This resulted in widespread criticism and mockery online against them and even sexist jokes, unsolicited sexual content and threats of physical aggression. Their page was quickly unduly reported by a number of users to the social media platform, while attempts were made to hack their personal private profiles. In addition, several persons received emails from a fake address similar to the official address of the page, containing inappropriate and false content.

Such attacks may lead women and girls to self-censor and limit their interactions online, or drive them off social media completely, pushing them again into silence. It undermines the network of support and solidarity created by women to show other women that they are not alone, even in the digital space.

Violence online used to disable a conducive environment for women’s work in society

Due to the role they play in society, particular groups of women and girls may also be more exposed to such violence. Public figures, politicians, journalists, video game players and creators, environmental and other activists, and women’s rights defenders are increasingly engaged in the digital sphere, where they can document and expose human rights violations, access and share information, gain visibility and mobilise people for action. This work is crucial as it provides for new opportunities for awareness and accountability. However, being on the forefront exposes them to further risks of violence and smear campaigns aimed at delegitimising their person and their work. As a woman, and Commissioner for Human Rights, I am familiar with such attacks.  In my previous work as the OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, and during the time I worked as Director of Broadcasting of the Communications Regulatory Agency in my hometown of Sarajevo, I experienced what it means to be harassed online. As a very active social media consumer, I could testify that most attackers were anonymous and most of them aggressively misogynist, and they all ultimately tried to silence me. The attacks were not trying to argue any points related to substance, but they were mainly addressing me as a woman who should not have power. Misogynist comments spreading false information related to me and my family were landing on my Facebook and Twitter accounts. In some instances, these were very violent or were inciting to violence.

But I am not the only one. There are millions of voices in the digital space that experience a similar or even worse situation. Those voices and their courageous testimonies inspired me to start a project in 2015 during my mandate as OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media. The project focuses on the online safety of female journalists and is still ongoing, and is of great relevance to journalists and researchers in Europe and beyond.

I have addressed the digital dimension of violence against female journalists in several instances. It is disturbing to see how their important role of public watchdogs in democratic societies is heavily undermined by them being constantly inundated with threats of murder, rape, physical violence and with graphic imagery via digital means. I have noted how female journalists in the Balkans are subjected to widespread violence and misogyny online. Attacks online are often of a very violent nature and include death threats, as was the case for female journalists in Bosnia-Herzegovina when reporting on, for example, migration or dumping of waste. In Croatia, online threats as well as smear campaigns against female journalists are common. In Finland, a survey found that one in four journalists had been the victim of verbal harassment, such as insults and threats implying physical violence. Most of the journalists targeted were women and such online attacks were triggered by articles on migration. In some instances, online threats of violence and abuse against female journalists are so severe that steps have to be taken to ensure their safety and security, as was the case in the UK. I am also concerned by the situation of women journalists in Turkey, a country which is experiencing a significant number of online and offline threats and attacks against women journalists. I was particularly struck by the increased level of sexist speech expressed online and offline against female journalists in Slovenia and I made a number of recommendations in relation to changing the toxic environment in which these women are working. In Malta, I also reiterated the need to tackle the scourge of sexist harassment, including online, against female journalists and to ensure that all those responsible for the murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia are held accountable. Human rights standards to ensure the safety of journalists and combat gender-based violence exist. Implementation is, however, lacking.

Women’s human rights defenders are also at high risk of experiencing gender-based violence, harassment and verbal abuse, as well as online attacks on their reputation. In a number of European states, women’s defenders who challenge traditional gender stereotypes or work on sexual and reproductive health and rights are specifically targeted. For example, in Poland, since the Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling of October 2020 further limiting access to abortion, women human rights defenders have been facing an increasingly hostile and dangerous environment, with some complaining of being threatened with death or sexual violence by unidentified persons via e-mail and on social media platforms.  As mentioned above, women defending and reporting on the rights of the LGBTI community are also under constant attack. Moreover, in Estonia and Italy, for example, women activists working on the rights of migrants and refugees, or simply speaking out for their rights on social media platforms, have also been victims of online violence, receiving death and rape threats as well as sexist messages. I have also raised my concerns with the authorities of Bosnia and Herzegovina about an elementary school teacher and human rights activist who was the victim of an online smear campaign and received death threats for her work protecting the rights of refugees and migrants.

Female politicians are also another target of violence and abuse online. Such attacks represent yet another attempt to undermine women’s political engagement and silence women’s voices. Between 1 January and 8 June 2017, a black female MP in the UK – alone – received almost half (45.14%) of all of the abuse recorded against women MPs active on Twitter in the country during this period. Online violence is driving women MPs away from standing for (re)election. In Italy, a female Senator and Holocaust survivor was assigned police escort after she became the target of a high number of daily online threats and insults. Female politicians in Denmark and Finland are regularly subjected to online abuse as well.

I strongly reiterate that undermining women’s working environments through online violence, causing a chilling effect on women taking part in public life, means undermining democracy itself. These women stand at the core of that constant vigilance and mobilisation that fights against stagnation and retrogression in women’s rights as well as the rights of other groups. Safeguarding and amplifying the voices of these women is crucial today to shed light on any attempted backlash against the human rights protection system as a whole.

Combating violence in the digital world is possible

Tools exist

Despite the severe implications of such harmful behaviours, it is frightening to see how attacks in the digital world often remain underreported and underestimated and the huge challenges that still lie along the path towards obtaining justice.

The first step towards addressing violence against women and girls in the digital sphere is to recognise that this is yet another manifestation of gender-based violence that, like any other, hampers the full realisation of gender equality and violates women’s and girls’ human rights. Putting an end to such violence, wherever it occurs and through whichever means it is perpetrated, must be a priority issue in all Council of Europe member states. Here again, as shown by GREVIO General Recommendation No.1 on the digital dimension of violence against women, the ratification and adequate implementation of the Istanbul Convention, the most far-reaching legal instrument to prevent and combat violence against women and domestic violence, proves to be essential in today’s fast-moving times. The Istanbul Convention is usefully complemented by other relevant treaties and instruments we have at our disposal, such as the Lanzarote Convention, dealing with sexual abuse and exploitation against children, and the Budapest Convention on Cybercrime. The Committee of Ministers’ Recommendation on preventing and combating sexism and ECRI General Policy Recommendation No.15 on Combating Hate Speech are useful tools as well. Furthermore, the European Court of Human Rights has provided important indications on member states’ obligations to protect women from digital manifestations of violence. I also welcome the European Parliament’s recent Resolution with recommendations on how to combat gender-based violence, particularly cyberviolence, and note the European Commission’s recent Proposal for a Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence, which foresees the criminalisation of certain forms of digital violence.

National practices

Some member states have taken important steps to prevent and combat certain aspects of this phenomenon, as shown in GREVIO evaluation reports. Initiatives have been taken to introduce new criminal offences or extend existing ones to regulate specific acts of violence or harmful behaviours perpetrated online or through technology. For example, in France, cyberbullying against women and girls has been introduced as a new criminal offence. Legislation in Slovenia and in Poland criminalises both the offline and online manifestations of the offence of stalking. Italy included the unlawful dissemination of sexually explicit images or videos as a new criminal offence. Ireland has also adopted a bill which created two new offences outlawing the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, whether this is done with the intent to cause harm or not. In Austria, I noted with interest the recent adoption of the online hate speech package (Hass im Netz), which provides new tools to address this scourge. Law enforcement officials face many challenges in preventing and investigating digital violence. In Estonia, I noted the creation of a “web constables” unit in the police which specialises in handling hate speech and harassment online.

Education and raising awareness among the young generation to avoid the proliferation of violence against women and girls, including when online and technology-facilitated, are also key. Some states have implemented projects of this sort. Portugal has adopted a comprehensive set of guidelines on gender and citizenship, which includes guidelines on internet security, for all levels of education, from preschool to secondary education. Slovenia co-financed projects raising awareness among young people about dating violence, including in its online dimension and to improve the knowledge and sensitivity of relevant professionals, including teachers and social workers, for the successful prevention of and protection from online violence and harassment of girls and women. Monaco has made efforts to prevent cyberbullying in all classes from year 6 to year 10.

National human rights structures, such as equality bodies, ombudsman institutions, and national human rights institutions, also play an important role in combating violence against women online, particularly when their mandate allows them to investigate cases of online hate speech. For example, in Belgium, the Institute for Equality between Women and Men is filing a criminal complaint against a social platform for refusing to take down non-consensual intimate images. The Belgian Institute has also submitted a complaint on behalf of a female public figure before the Council of Journalists against an online magazine, which had published a sexist article about the woman after she participated in the public debate on #MeToo. The role of such national bodies is also significant as concerns raising awareness on the phenomenon and in elaborating standards. Among others, the Ombudsman institution of Montenegro has published comic strips about online violence against women and girls to raise awareness on the issue. In Denmark, the Institute for Human Rights has published a number of studies that address hate speech in the public debate online, providing recommendations.

More efforts needed

The digital dimension of violence against women and girls remains insufficiently addressed. Common shortcomings persist in most domestic laws adopted in this respect. In some countries, the issue is only partially tackled through the lens of children’s rights and Internet safety, while others only focus on certain forms of digital violence. The recognition and sanctioning of the harm perpetrated against women and girls online mostly focuses on ensuring the person’s safety, reputation or property, failing to place it in the context of a continuum of violence affecting women and girls in all areas of life and to capture other impacts of such acts, including the social, economic, psychological and participatory harm.

Moreover, there is little awareness of the scope of the problem among relevant actors in the justice system as well as other professional groups such as medical professions and teachers, who lack sufficient training. In addition, specialist expertise and technology tools to ensure the collection of evidence are not always available to law enforcement officials. In many instances, law enforcement authorities tend to minimise the risk of online threats and sometimes refuse to investigate them. Social media platforms as well as other websites do not always act effectively to remove hateful content. These platforms should not be places where online abuse proliferates without consequence. Private companies must also do more to combat these attempts to silence women online. Fighting the digital dimension of violence against women and girls requires systematic and comprehensive responses from all actors involved.

Impunity has deadly effects. It sends the message that women and girls can be victims of violence online without legal consequences, encouraging perpetrators to commit further harm. Impunity also leads to a loss of trust in the national authorities, with women and girls no longer reporting threats and violence against them as they doubt that they will receive adequate assistance or for fear of facing prejudice and re-victimisation.

What can be done to fight online violence against women and girls

As a starting point, to combat this phenomenon, I urge all Council of Europe member states to ratify and implement the Istanbul Convention, taking into account GREVIO General Recommendation No.1 on the digital dimension of violence against women and, accordingly, to:

  • Recognise that violence against women and girls in the digital sphere is yet another manifestation of gender-based violence and a continuum of violence affecting them in all areas of life;
  • Ensure that a strong legal framework is in place to prevent and combat gender-based violence, hate speech and discrimination, online and offline, and that it is applied effectively;
  • Accelerate efforts to complete other crucial elements of the legal framework to ensure digital violence is addressed in all its forms;
  • Investigate, protect the women targeted and hold those responsible accountable;
  • Train law enforcement agencies to be able to investigate and prosecute digital violence more efficiently and provide them with specialist support services;
  • Counter abusive misinformation campaigns online targeting women, in particular women public figures;
  • Guarantee easily accessible, safe and specialised mechanisms enabling women to report abuse and obtain the removal of harmful materials;
  • Unite forces and coordinate work with private actors who are driving cyber technologies in combating this phenomenon;
  • Ensure the effective enforcement of social media companies’ obligations to restrict access to illegal content, in line with freedom of expression standards and as interpreted by the judiciary;
  • Raise awareness about this multifaceted problem, alerting society to the risks of online violence and educate children in schools and beyond about their rights and the dangers in the digital space;
  • Remain vigilant to the different types of behaviours and acts of violence in the digital sphere that are still not addressed or are yet to emerge.

Women and girls’ voices need to remain loud and impact the world. All of us, women and men, have a role in stopping any attempt to push them backwards to a culture of silence. We need more courageous, prominent voices to step up and call for action. We need science to address the digital dimension of violence at the same pace at which innovation takes place. New technologies will inevitably give rise to different and new manifestations of violence against women and girls. We need to be quick. We need to be ready.

Dunja Mijatović

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