Don’t Feed the Trolls: A Report from CSW59

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GRW’s Executive Director, Cheryl Thomas with Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, Lily Greenan, Rosa Logar, Rashida Manjoo and Jackie Jones.

Global Rights for Women’s three days at the United Nations 59th Commission on the Status of Women meeting was a mix of exhilaration and challenges. We were exhilarated by the heady experience of hearing from experts on women’s rights from around the world about their many accomplishments, reconnecting with old friends, and of course the response to the two events we sponsored and the other two that we participated in as panelists. At the same time our exhilaration was tempered by references to a backlash, obstacles and barriers.

Monday morning started with a standing room only crowd for our panel on “International and Regional Legal Standards on Violence Against Women.” The panel, led by Cheryl Thomas, included experts on European and Latin American treaties and a thought-provoking presentation on the United States’ potential to influence other governments’ response to violence against women through the International Violence Against Women Act (I-VAWA), currently pending before Congress. I had to leave our event early to participate in a panel sponsored by the Inter Parliamentary Union on cyber-violence. The widespread interest in this topic in several panels and discussions during the conference is an indication of the Internet’s role in an exponential expansion of violence against women throughout the world.

On Monday afternoon, GRW sponsored an all-star panel, including Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, and Caroline Bettinger-Lopez, the newly appointed White House Advisor on Violence Against Women on “Strengthening the International Response to Violence Against Women.” On Wednesday, Cheryl spoke on a panel sponsored by Women Against Violence Europe (WAVE), where she highlighted Minnesota’s 40 years of international leadership in addressing domestic violence.

Despite the excitement of learning from one another and celebrating our successes, we also kept hearing about a backlash to our progress. Backlash from those whose own power is challenged by our success. Backlash in the form of obstacles in the path to obtaining freedom from violence for women. Whether through attacks on the Internet, government policies that fail to acknowledge the gendered nature of violence against women, or the lack of resources that prevents us from fully responding to the needs of victims, the backlash is pervasive and persistent. But even though the backlash makes our job harder it is also a signal that we are doing something right, that women working together are making their own lives and the lives of other women better.

Cyber violence is an especially pernicious form of backlash. When women post about our lives and our ideas, anonymous trolls come out to attack us, often in graphically violent ways that focus on our sexuality. One lesson we’ve already learned is that it almost never helps to respond to these anonymous attacks. “Don’t feed the trolls,” in Internet-speak. Just keep blogging, tweeting and posting our truths and, difficult as it may sometimes be, don’t let the negative comments silence us.

Our wise friend, Lily Greenan, director of Scottish Women’s Aid, suggested that “don’t feed the trolls” is also an appropriate response to the larger backlash the women’s rights movement is experiencing. We cannot allow the naysayers – whether they are government entities, non-governmental institutions or individuals – to distract us from our important work. We can’t let them take up airspace that should be devoted to preventing violence, keeping women safe and holding offenders accountable. The goal of the backlash is to make us feel small and weak, but the reality is just the opposite. We are a powerful movement and women everywhere are a part of it. Not just activists and not even just women who identify as feminists. Every woman in the world who does not give in to those who would deprive her of her right to a life of equality and dignity is part of the movement.

Today we are heading back to Minnesota, re-energized to continue our important work. In the next month and a half we will be blogging from Armenia, Morocco, Serbia, Lithuania and Russia. We will continue to meet with exciting successes even as we feel the resistance of backlash. We will keep moving forward toward our goals and we won’t feed the trolls.

For more information on Global Rights for Women, see this press release.