Imagine for a moment, a woman standing on a podium chanting the slogan: “Demanding safe spaces on the internet!” The speech is recorded and blogged about by various activists, workshops are organised and women demand justice from their local authorities. It’s electronically networked to inform about tech-related violence against women (VAW). In principle, all levels of these interactions are protected by freedom of expression (FOE). The woman at the podium, organisations and survivors have the right to express ideas without adverse consequence. In reality, many women continue to be victims of the emergence of tech-related VAW.

Tech-related VAW hinders FOE as it creates an environment of fear, intimidation, violence, social isolation and impunity. This article will explore the effects of tech-related VAW on women’s rights to FOE, providing insight on human rights law; the different forms of tech-related VAW; reasons behind it; weaknesses in the responses; and strategies used by online tech-related VAW survivors.

In light of the changing nature of information and communication technologies (ICTs) and their growing impact on the rights of women, the Association for Progressive Communications Women’s Rights Programme carried out research as part of its project entitled “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online” that examined the relationship between tech-related VAW and the access to and use of ICTs.

Based on the earlier example, here are a few ways in which tech-related VAW could adversely affect FOE:

  • Images of women in videos could be altered and used in pornographic movies;

  • Women rights organisations could receive threats by email, Twitter, Facebook and cell messages;

  • Ex-boyfriends upload naked pictures and derogatory comments;

  • Family members are embarrassed and punish the women to ‘save their reputations’;

  • Husbands refuse to let wives control their own accounts and consistently send violent messages to phones and email;

  • Police and government agencies refuse to apply criminal sanctions of existing laws to tech-related VAW.

1. Speaking your mind: Protections for freedom of expression

The right to FOE is a fundamental right protected by international human rights law. It creates a series of rights and responsibilities that colour all our social communication and sets the rules on how to respond to differences in opinions.

The protections extend to all communications in writing or oral expression through any other media of choice, including social media platforms, such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, cellphone communications and email exchanges, etc.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights allows individuals to hold opinions, to express ideas without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media. Supplementing this, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that all restrictions must be provided by law and be necessary “for the respect of the rights or reputations of others and for the protection of national security or of public order… or of public health or morals” It prohibits the use of FOE to advocate for “national, racial or religious hatred that constitutes incitement to discrimination, hostility or violence”. Importantly, these rights and restrictions allow women human rights groups to challenge culturally set norms. These conventions limit using FOE as a pretext to personally attack the reputations of women.

Although there is no specific article in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women relating to FOE, it provides a legal framework that promotes and protects women against economic, cultural, social and cultural exclusion. It creates and strengthens environments favorable to women’s expression and political participation. CEDAW General Recommendation No. 23 recognizes the difference between women’s de jure and de facto exercise of freedom of expression, particularly the ability of women to participate in public life in without risk of violence. CEDAW General Recommendation No. 19 highlights the inherent link between discrimination experienced by women, situations of gender-based violence, and violations of fundamental freedoms, including FOE violations.

Finally, the UN Beijing Platform For Action stresses the role of the media in raising awareness and educating society on the causes and effects of violence against women and the importance of stimulating public debate on the issue. It asks governments to promote increased participation, expression and decision-making of women in and through ICTs. Although it does not specifically use the terminology of freedom of expression, it states that women cannot engage in healthy expression and debates on violence against women without exercising the right to FOE.

2. Watching your words: Types of tech-related violence against women

In principle, the protections found in human rights law should offer sufficient protection of women’s FOE, yet tech-related VAW is on the increase. The End violence project ellaborated a report collecting case studies which is a collection of testimonies by women survivors of tech-related VAW from around the world.

The report found that the following examples of tech-related VAW have directly affected women’s rights:

  • Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Orkut, emails and cell texts are being used to send messages that intimidate, harass, propose sexual acts to victims and lure women and children into exploitation;

  • Facebook and Twitter are being used impersonate and write harmful or derogatory messages on behalf of survivors;

  • Facebook and emails are being used to download photographs of survivors and use their images in a non-consensual matter (such as naked pictures or Photoshop pictures on pornographic websites.)

3. Understanding tech-related VAW: Different reasons for its use!

ICTs are being deployed as a means to punish women and activists for demanding changes in leadership and gender equality. It is linked to wider social trends that promote VAW as a tool to maintain social norms and restrict gender roles. From the End violence report, it is possible to extract five distinct rationale for tech-related VAW, ultimately resulting in the reduction of rights to FOE.

a. Oppressing women, controlling sexuality and maintaining social order

There have been countless accounts of women in the study, from all regions of the globe, testifying on the use of ICTs as a means to maintain abusive personal relationships and to introduce unwanted sexual contact.

The End violence report tells the story of a young woman, a professional entertainer that experiences firsthand the perverse effects of tech-related VAW and how it impacted her ability to continue to express herself through ICTs. During a work related performance, her image was taken without her consent and used to create a false love video that was circulated on Facebook, YouTube and other internet platforms.

“The video was about forbidden love between him and me, where he fully wrote down my name, the city where I am from, and [posted] my Facebook pictures… If someone who did not know the entire story saw it, they would probably think it is a sweet love story.”

During the following four years, she experienced phone calls and texts harassing and bullying her into a relationship with her stalker. She experienced violations to her rights to privacy, stealing of her identity and private information, emotional harm and threats. She had to change her phone number numerous times and contacted YouTube providers in vain to remove the video.

b. Silencing community organisations that promote women’s rights to gender equality

There are clear trends in the use of ICTs as a way to silence women human rights organizations. An example from the End violence case studies demonstrates how an organisation and its employees experienced online and offline threats by fundamentalist paramilitary groups. The text from one of these emails reads, “We repeat that we will not be responsible for what might happen to the leaders of these organisations, their boards of directors and their collaborators, as we have begun to exterminate each one of them without mercy.”

During the period in which the emails were sent, three women associated and working with the organisation were victims of sexual violence, harassment and stalking. As a consequence of these acts of violence, internal security within the organisation was tightened, which created an environment of distrust. Employees started to fear using available ICTs, exercising caution when writing emails or talking on their mobile phones.

c. Limiting women from roles of leadership and political participation

Women involved in political participation have often experienced harassment and threats of violence against their persons. This has been intensified by using ICTs to intimidate, cyber-bully and limit their FOE.

In this example from the End violence report, the hopeful candidate used online platforms and social media to communicate with her electorate and to get in touch with citizens online, specifically through Facebook. During the course of the election campaign, she began to face several forms of verbal abuse and psychological attacks: “I had quite an interesting experience – a lot of insults, a lot of rude messages, a lot of hate. Comments such as: “You will be a failure” or “I believe you running for this election is a waste of resources” were common.

In order to halt the personal attacks on her integrity and dignity, she decided to remove herself from all social media during the election campaign. In this regards, tech-related VAW directly violated her right to FOE.

d. Isolating and attacking women in the LGBTIQ communities

The End violence case studies highlights the persistent use of ICTs as a way to directly attack women and activists from the LGBTIQ community. The following case depicts the experience of many LGTTBI community members. The woman in question was subjected to threats, discrimination and surveillance by cell phone, email and social networks because of her lesbian rights activism.

The survivor’s contact information was available on a resources page for the LGBTIQ community. This information was used to threaten her on social media, by blog comments, by cell message and email. She “received an email at our Yahoo account threatening that they were going to burn down our house,’ she says. ‘The threat said, “We know where you are, what time you meet… You are a pig, you are going to rot in hell.” Disturbingly, the threats of physical violence were also aimed at her immediate family and friends. She found numerous violent blog comments such as you “fat, lesbian women”; and threats to rape her daughter if she continued to seek legal justice.

Survivors of tech-related VAW often adopt restrictive and preventative behaviors during the violation period. She recalls, “I didn’t want to leave the house. I was terrified and felt guilty. I was the dummy who had put our address on the internet… I wanted to shut myself away from the world.” Contrary to the majority of cases examined in the report, these acts of tech-related VAW did not result in her decreasing her use of ICTs. She mentions, “I think the internet is marvellous… and I can’t, I don’t want to, I won’t stop using it.”

e. Luring vulnerable groups into sexual exploitation

New ICTs can contact a wide range of potential victims for the purpose of sexual exploitation. In the majority of human trafficking cases, the survivor already knows the trafficker as a family member or friend. Often social media platforms such as Facebook and cell messaging will be used to lure victims away from their community to a destination location. The survivor will then be forced into sexual and labor exploitation. Love bombing is commonly used, where the survivor believes that she is meeting a boyfriend based on previous romantic messages or emails. Once isolated, the survivor quickly learns that the texts or messages were lies and now finds herself trapped in a cycle of abuse.

The End violence case studies report describes a situation where a young girl experienced love bombing through her cell phone. The text messages between her and her trafficker began as a pleasant flirtation, then escalated to his demanding her to have sex with her, then over time became threats of sending messages to family members, of sexually exploiting her younger sister or of killing her mother if she continued to refuse. After months of continued harassment, she agreed to meet her aggressor in a nearby city. Upon her arrival, she was greeted by a stranger who proceeded to bring her to the traffickers’ home, where she and two other girls were held captive. During this time, she was a victim of physical violence and sexual assault, including rape. Her trafficker forced her to send numerous text messages to her mother saying that she was safe and happily living with her boyfriend. After three months of captivity, the young girl managed to escape and seek help from a local women’s shelter.

Not only was tech-related VAW used to lure, then silence this young girl into sexual exploitation but the same technology was used to convince her family that she had ran off with a boyfriend and had no need for protection from kidnapping and sexual assault. Importantly, the local police argued that the texts sent home were sufficient proof that she was safe. She was unable to use her technology to effectively communicate with her family and to seek justice for the violations she experienced.

4. Failing to support survivors, where are the protections against tech-related violence and freedom of expression violations?

The End violence report highlights the systemic failures of society to respond to male violence against women. The diverse case studies all show society’s inability to effectively promote rights, prevent violations and prosecute perpetrators of tech-related VAW. As AWID says, there is a direct link between the protection of freedom of expression and the way society treats women who choose to seek justice.

In “the absence of adequate action by state and police, many survivors of sexual assault (including tech-related violence) are not able to speak out against their violators for fear of retaliation, or fear of being ostracized by their own community”.

Based on the findings of the case studies, the following trends seriously impede women’s ability to challenge tech-related VAW:

  • Limited protection for VAW based on these crimes being associated with private family matters (husband, ex-boyfriend and family), patriarchal control and gender discrimination;

  • General disregard for the protection of women’s human rights groups working towards gender equality;

  • General disregard for the protection of organisations working in LGBTIQ communities;

  • Minimal understanding of the impact of tech-related VAW;

  • Lack of concern by and training for police, national prosecution agencies, legal pornography services, service companies (cell provider, social media platforms, email providers);

  • Non-existence of national legislation on tech-related VAW;

  • Lack of knowledge and application of existing national legislation on tech-related VAW;

  • Reluctance to prosecute against tech-related VAW due to embedded discrimination against survivors within the judicial system;
    * Ineffective intervention on part of the police and judicial system;

  • Lack of adequate removal procedures on the part of social media platforms, email and cell providers to address tech-related VAW;

  • Limited definition of illegal use and lack of affective removal procedure by service providers companies in terms of services [1].

5. Seeking justice: Strategies adopted by survivors of tech-related VAW!

It is important to stress that even in situations where women survivors of tech-related VAW have access to resources that challenge the multitude of social, legal and political barriers, the decision to use legal avenues to seek justice remains a personal decision. In some situations, prosecution of the perpetrator of the crime will be necessary for survivors to feel a sense of justice. Other times, simply ending the tech-related VAW is sufficient. The strategies adopted by women, support networks and non-government stakeholders greatly depend on the type of tech-related crime, the existence of national laws, the capacity and knowledge of law enforcement and government agencies, the social safety nets available to women, willingness of service providing companies to address tech-related VAW and the financial insecurity of survivors. Having said this, the first strategy of defence was to remove or limit women’s use of ICTs during the violations, such as:

Second, women have contacted local or national women’s groups specialising in VAW protection. These groups can offer referrals to a wide range of services, including emotional support, psychological support, legal support and economic support.

Third, many survivors found it helpful to share experiences with family and close friends that are not involved in the perpetration of the crime. This provided support networks and protections against social and virtual isolation.

Fourth, reporting the incident to police and government agencies has occasionally been effective in ending the negative behaviour. The problem remains that without the support of community groups or family, survivors found that the process of seeking justice was riddled with administrative negligence, personal judgement and often leads to the re-victimisation of the survivor. In a few cases, when finances permitted, survivors were able to seek justice though the hiring of a private lawyer specialising in cyber-crime.

Finally, in a small number of cases, survivors or human rights organisations were able to group their efforts, in partnership with likeminded organisations, to create education activities on the issue and promote increased awareness in their society.

To ensure that the FOE of women survivors and activists is not restricted by the growth of ICTs, we must challenge tech-related VAW through education, funding and awareness. Freedom of expression facilitates the spread of information, so free expression actors are well situated to raise awareness and change attitudes towards women and violence against them. It is through the promotion and protection of these rights, that women will “heighten their ability to gather and transmit stories of violence against wome.”.

To read the full research in which this article draws on, click here

[1] Namita Malhotra, Association for Progressive Communications (APC), End violence: Women’s rights and safety online, Good Questions on Technology Related Violence Against Women And Others, September 2014

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