The problem of gender-based violence is not new. However, it seems that this discrimination along gender lines is not only replicated, but in fact deepened, through information and communications technologies. All states have pledged to take proactive and concrete measures towards ending discrimination and violence against women as part of their MDG3 goals. But are they living up to this commitment?
Preliminary research suggests that most of the abusive behaviour in online spaces is aimed at women, and that the victims of cyberstalking are predominately female. Domestic violence organisations have reported a substantial increase in the number of calls from women who are trapped in a violent relationship because a partner threatens to release intimate photos or videos of them online. In India, nearly half of all reported cases of cybercrime are filed by women who discover their faces copied onto pornographic images and posted online, often with their personal phone number.
Clearly, the numbers are staggering; but until more research is conducted, the full scope of the problem will remain hidden. At present, advocates and policy-makers can only guess at the number of cases of gender-based violence online. Without solid data, how do we hold states accountable to their MDG3 commitments? How are we to measure success, or even progress?
The Take Back The Tech! campaign has served an invaluable role in bringing this issue into the public eye -- but now it's time to take it a step forward. If we want to really tackle the problem of gender-based violence online, we need to develop a strong evidence base to which we can point policy-makers. We need to demonstrate the scope of the problem, so that the gravity of the situation can no longer be denied. Most of all, we need good numbers if we hope to make good policies.
The question we face now is how do we build such an evidence base? There is no simple answer. We face a number of obstacles, not the least of which is how to gather the data.
First, as with all cases of gender-based violence, violence online is largely underreported. Police agencies are often unable or unwilling to address cases of cybercrime or harassment; owing to the distributed and anonymous nature of the internet, catching and prosecuting perpetrators is often impossible. Worse, the availability of personal information (contact info, photographs and the like) and the ease of dissemination means that an abuser can do considerable harm to another person without ever being near them. What recourse does one have against someone living in another country? How can you reliably prove their culpability?
This raises the question of whether we will ever have accurate data on this issue. Ultimately, we should not let this deter us, but we should be understandably humble in our approach, and recognise that the full extent of the issue will always be understated by the numbers.
Second, how do we build accountability into the Internet, without threatening the very openness that makes it such a valuable tool for activists and other at-risk communities? APC's own EroTICs research shows that the Internet is a critical tool for LGBTQI communities to connect and advocate for social change. The same anonymity that protects cyberstalkers from the law also affords lesbian, gay and transgendereds to express themselves online without fear of being persecuted.
The conclusion of some governments has been to adopt a strategy of full transparency on the web. This is the case in Korea, where new legislation has declared the use of internet pseudonyms to be illegal. While this may deter some of the less tech-savvy trolls and other cybervagrants, it is likely to have no significant impact on determined cyberstalkers, abusers and criminals, many of whom are technically skilled. We must bear in mind that in many societies, it is illegal to be gay, or to speak ill of the state. In these cases, pseudonyms are the best and sometimes only defence. Ultimately, it's a tough sell to sacrifice privacy for safety.
Finally, how do we protect the privacy, security and dignity of the victims and witnesses? As our experience from training of women's human rights defenders shows, using ICTs carries considerable risk. Many of these women, some of whom are technically savvy and experienced, have expressed concern that both themselves and their colleagues had not fully appreciated the dangers associated with their online presence.
The question of dignity is not a light one. Can we document these crimes without forcing the victims to relive their experiences? The short answer is that we cannot. Should this deter us?
Whatever approach we choose, it's clear that we must balance these concerns with the obvious need for solid data. It's important that we recognise the internet and ICTs as not just a threat, but an opportunity.
The way forward
That's why the Take Back The Tech! mapping initiative is so important. It provides a platform for victims and witnesses to share stories of violence voluntarily and on their own terms.
The value is two-fold:
First, rather than be mere victims of violence through ICTs, women can use these same tools to take action. By bearing witness in this way, they are challenging the idea that ICTs are hostile to women, and are openly competing for digital spaces and influencing the broader internet culture. This is an important distinction. It is possible to document violence without sensationalizing it.
Second, it serves as an act of catharsis. The map is crowd-sourced and voluntary. Rather than represent the passive observations of a team of researchers and impersonal surveys, it is the active participation and empowerment of thousands of women who have experienced violence. By sharing their story, and reading about other women's experience, they see that they are far from alone.
This mapping initiative joins a host of other tools for ensuring ICT policies address and respect women's rights.
At the latest Internet Governance Forum, APC's Women's Networking Support Program handed out "Gender Report Cards" in many of the workshops. The idea behind this cards was to grade each session according to how well women were represented and whether the relevant women's issues were addressed. Initiatives like this one help to illuminate women's issues in an often male-dominated field.
Likewise, APC has developed a model called the Gender Evaluation Methodology, which integrates a gender analysis into evaluations of ICT initiatives. This is an important tool in determining the impact of ICTs on women's livelihoods and gender relations. Several national and provincial governments have already pledged to use this method as part of all ICT policy evaluations. As the use of this tool becomes more widespread, it sets a standard for all states to consider these issues as a matter of course.
The bottom line
Now that the issue of gender-based violence online is on the public radar, it is crucial that we give women's rights advocates the tools they need -- both for their activism and to make informed policy decisions. Of course women's rights defenders must be conscious of the unique nature of these issues, and of the dignity of the women they are trying to protect, and so their approach must be necessarily sensitive.
Ultimately, policy-makers will only respond if we can demonstrate the true scope of the problem. If we want to hold states accountable, we need a strong evidence base; we need data that shows this issue can no longer be denied, and that inaction is not an option.