This post is part of an ongoing series on the intersection of law and how it interacts with violence against women, illuminating how it is equally critical to make effective implementation of law, as well as the legislation itself, a priority. For background and the inspiration of this series, start here.
Violence against women and girls takes many ugly forms. The most common form is often cited as direct physical or sexual violence by an intimate partner, experienced by an estimated 35% of women worldwide. Though effective implementation is often a problem, many countries offer at least some legal protection from physical intimate partner violence. But what happens when an abuser is hiding behind the keyboard of a computer? With the spread of information and communication technologies (ICTs), humans across the globe are more connected than ever. While ICTs provide new resources in the fight to end violence against women and girls (VAWG), like apps that help women get home safely, they also create a new set of problems.
A recent UN Women report found 73% of women have been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence, such as hacking, tracking, and harassment. The report draws much-needed attention to the pervasiveness of cyber VAWG, which leaves its victims traumatized, frightened, and depressed. By gathering data across a variety of ICT platforms; including social media, mobile phone apps, and video games; the report was able to make recommendations for confronting the problem, including changing social attitudes and norms to shift the way online abuse is understood. As the report illustrates, social media is perhaps the most important and challenging ICT platform to tackle in the fight against cyber VAWG.
With the relative ease-of-access and anonymity provided by social media, it is rife with abuse directed at women by complete strangers. Julie DiCaro, a female anchor for a prominent Chicago sports radio station, shared her experience with highly offensive and dangerous Twitter threats. She refuses to write off senders of violent and demeaning tweets as trolls saying, “[T]here’s something larger at work here . . . many accounts used to harass women are either newly created for that express purpose or run by people who systematically delete the tweets after they hit their mark.” Julie’s story illustrates how even the most innocuous posts can evoke downright violent comment threads causing genuine fear in victims. Moreover, with many mobile apps including GPS and location tagging functionality, cyber VAWG is thereby transformed into threats of actual, physical danger. Through these acts of violence, women are losing power over their bodies and voices.
The dire consequences of cyber VAWG are not being addressed with the urgency they require, and current laws do not adequately protect victims. In addition to changing social attitudes and norms, the UN Women report suggests greater oversight and monitoring of ICTs, and adapting and applying laws and regulations so that ICTs are included. Unfortunately, it has been difficult to convince the public and governments that cyber VAWG is a problem to take seriously. Meaningful legislative advancements in recent years, such as South Africa’s Protection from Harassment Act, have been met with strong opposition over freedom of expression concerns. Just this past December, the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia struck down the Cyber-Safety Act, ruling that the legislation violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. In response, Canadian cyber-safety leader CyberSCAN redoubled its education and public awareness efforts.
The anonymity afforded abusers coupled with the type-and-click ease of committing cyber violence creates a unique set of problems that requires action on multiple levels. Non-governmental organizations like Global Rights for Women play a critical role in shaping legislation and educating the public on the dangers of cyber VAWG. Changing societal norms and providing a framework to address the problem is increasingly urgent as developing countries come to gain access to ICTs. A recent report commissioned by Intel Corporation estimated that 450 million more women are expected to come online in the next three years. Providing these women with a safe space to communicate and educate and empower themselves is of the utmost importance. Every woman and girl deserves the human right to be free from violence in every facet of her life.
Wendy Bratten, an associate at Carlson Caspers, is a volunteer contributing writer for Global Rights for Women.