Argentina: Strategic use of ICT as a response to violence against women
Having worked for 14 years on the issue of violence against women and information and communication technologies, APC WNSP held a workshop in Buenos Aires on “Strengthening women in the strategic use of information and communication technologies in order to combat violence against women and girls” to acquaint women and their organisations with technological tools. The workshop is one of the initiatives of the APC WNSP's MDG3 project Take Back the Tech! to eliminate violence against women taking place in 12 countries. In connection with the workshop, we hope to explain the status of public policies aimed at promoting the access, use and acceptance of ICT in Argentina to fight against violence towards women, delving further into some of the aspects of this issue such as privacy and security.
Privacy and technology, a double-edged sword for women
Information and communication technologies (ICT) currently constitute both a medium for exercising violence against women as well as contributing to eradicating it.
The Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women (Belém do Pará, 1994) 1 defines violence against women as "any act or conduct, based on gender, which causes death, injury, or physical, sexual or psychological pain to women, both in public and private scope." The clear statement of "both in public and private" generates controversy in regard to violence against women in relation to information and communication technologies. Where does the public end and private begin in these spaces?
Quoting Kathleen Maltzahn, “Privacy has always been a double-edged sword for women. (…) Today, the internet is one clear place that privacy can be realised and used for women’s individual and collective development. On the other hand, the concept of private space has long been a barrier to scrutiny of violence against women. Too often police ignore male violence with the off-hand appraisal that it was ‘just a domestic’, that is, a private matter beyond state intervention. (…) Feminists have argued that rather than being an individual man’s domain, the state has a responsibility for so-called ‘private’ actions, and should be ultimately accountable for continuing violence against women and children.”
Where should the line be drawn? When a former partner sends threatening or harassing messages to your personal account, are they still a private matter between two people? When you take a picture of yourself with your cell phone and you send it by MMS to a friend, does it become public because you no longer have control over how the image might continue circulating? 2
This can be seen clearly in social networking sites such as Facebook, Orkut, MySpace, or Hi5 which erase the line between the public and private and place what is traditionally considered “private” into question.
As Dafne Sabanes Plou, WNSP Latin America Coordinator, explained, “in terms of privacy and security, issues that concern the women’s and feminist movements, for example, are the use of internet and information and communication technology to prevent violence against women, advising the survivors of this violence, offering opportunities for accompaniment and filing complaints that are presented. The lack of privacy and secure use of the network can be a significant stumbling block to women’s use of technologies to make their situations known and to receive appropriate support.”
Let's illustrate this with two cases that occurred recently in Argentina. One occurred in 2009 but was made public this year, where a 14 years old girl was abused by three adult men in a town called General Villegas. During the despicable act one of the men videotaped the images on his cell phone, then the video traveled from phone to phone until it reached YouTube, causing the authorities to intervene 3. The community came out to defend three men, arguing that the girl was a “slut”.
Another case in which ICT has played a crucial role in giving category "public" to a private matter is the case of Las Heras. Silvia Luna killed a work colleague after the colleague released a video of Luna being unfaithful to her fiance, who then refused to marry her.
The indistinct boundaries between public and private can result in impotence of the courts to cases of violence online against women or in the adoption of excessively protectionist laws that undermine the exercise of certain rights of women such as the right to information or the right to privacy.
Are laws enough?
The legal system should cover all forms of violence against women, including violence that is exercised through ICT. Since this violence occurs virtually, there is a legal 'no man's land', where imprecise internet jurisdiction continues to present challenges to protecting the rights of women online.
During 2009 in Argentina, two federal laws were approved which place limits on how the media represents women and girls. On March 2009 the Law of Comprehensive Protection to Prevent, Sanction, and Eradicate Violence against Women was approved. This law defines “media violence” for the first time, as one of the ways through which violence is expressed. It is defined as: “the broadcast of stereotyped images through any means of communication which promotes the exploitation of women, insults, discriminates, humiliates or attacks the dignity of women, or the use of women, adolescents or girls in pornographic messages or images constituting patterns that create violence against women.”
On October 2009, the Law of Audiovisual Communication Services was passed. In section 9 on Communications Media it establishes the duty of the media: “To promote a balanced and varied image of women and men in the communication media.” However, these measures are currently aimed at regulating images in the traditional media such as television, radio, and audiovisual productions, but do not specifically refer to digital communications where violence can acquire new forms. In Atschull’s view the process of access and use of the new technologies is so rapid that it is producing a “legal vacuum.”
Gustavo Tanús, an attorney specialising in legal matters linked to privacy and information technology, believes that Argentina’s current laws have specific sections that are useful for confronting cases of harassment, invasion and violence against people’s privacy which can also be applied to cases of aggression against women. He stated it thus: “Today a threat or harassment carried out by e-mail or telephone receives the same treatment; the problem is proving it.”
He says that Law 26.388 on Computer Crimes fills some gaps that appeared as ICT expanded. “Is electronic mail equivalent to traditional mail? Yes, and it is covered by the Law on Computer Crimes, the key is to act quickly, preserve the evidence, and do discovery in the courts to ask the company providing the service for the information, that there be a notary public present certifying the content, and print it out. The content is so volatile that tomorrow they remove them and it’s over. So we need certified proof to demonstrate it,” he says.
Regarding the space given in the digital agenda to the debate on violence against women, the specialist categorically stated that “the digital agenda does not deal with these issues.” It was evident that there are still no clear prospects directed at resolving violence against women using ICT. To date there has been no apparent desire to legislate and accept these issues as a public matter.
Online safety: knowledge as the key
The strategic use of ICT goes hand-in-hand with awareness of rights. In this vein, the “Strengthening women in the strategic use of information and communication technologies in order to combat violence against women and girls” workshop yielded, according to the organisers, important data on the capacity for use, access to infrastructure, and evaluation of the technological tools available in each region. In the words of Carola Caride, one of the coordinators of the activity: “there were a variety of concerns, but they revealed the lack of security regarding text messages on cell phones and harassment by husbands or boyfriends using them. Other women residents of urban centres referred to this access as an unlimited circulation of pornography.”
Norma Santa Cruz works in the Women Growing/Being Organisation (Organización Cre-Siendo) in Ciudad Evita in Greater Buenos Aires. She highlights that the privacy problem is a frequent complaint in the day center, not only in the digital realm but also in daily life. Norma explained that in her neighbourhood “it’s very common not only for women’s intimate spaces but everyone else’s to be invaded, too. Most of the time it’s because there is little physical space for privacy in the homes.”
According to Norma, women’s perceptions of ICT is one of some “distancing”, though women's desire to learn about technology is evident “especially the computer since it is a novelty.” The most widespread technology among this population is the cell phone. “They all have one and it’s not the same as with computers,” Santa Cruz added. Cell phones are one of the most accessible technologies of recent times for women and girls, but just like the internet, they have often become an ideal platform to track, observe, control, and threaten women.
In this organisation they are also working on a course for basic ICT use which will be open to all women, and will include the problem of security and prevention of violence for adolescents. In the workshop they plan to give an overview on the use of computers, as well as teach in a way that includes prevention and getting the most out of their use. Peralta defined the priorities as follows: “we will train in the use of social networks, handling and awareness-raising about the use of images.”
Monique Atschull of the Women in Equality Foundation (Fundación Mujeres en Igualdad) emphasised the need to create awareness and work on prevention for women who see their intimacy in danger due to the theft of private images, or have their e-mail or instant message service password stolen. “We give talks in schools, insisting that adolescents must be careful with what they reveal and protecting intimacy,” Atschull explained.
It is essential to emphasise the way in which training in ICT can raise awareness on the possibilities they provide to confront violence against women, working on pivotal points such as privacy and information security.
Florencia Goldsman holds a degree in Communication at the University of Buenos Aires. She has worked for the last 10 years as a journalist specializing in digital media, culture, education and new technologies. In 2009, she joined the Take Bach the Tech! campaign as a contributor and is responsible for @DominemoslasTic in Twitter where she posts messages and campaigns against violence against women through ICT.
Flavia Fascendini is a social communicator. Since January 2007, she works as the GenderIT.org Spanish/Portuguese site editor.
Maltzahn, K. Digital dangers: information & communication technologies and trafficking in women, Association for Women’s Rights in Development and Association for Progressive Communications, 2006.
Sabanes Plou, D. Tecnologías de la información y de la comunicación para la inclusión y la participación en la sociedad de la información y del conocimiento, Barcelona: Institut de Drets Humans de Catalunya, Serie Derechos Humanos Emergentes 6, 2010.