Technology-related violence against women in Colombia: Sociocultural imaginaries and access to justice

23 November 2015

Colombia was one of seven countries covered by APC’s research project “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online”, carried out in partnership with Colnodo. In this article, María Goñi interviews Ana Maria Acosta and Marina López Sepulveda, two of the three researchers who worked with Colnodo and made interesting discoveries.

Maria Goñi (MG): Colombia has regulations covering issues of gender violence. What effect do these have on addressing and combating technology-related violence against women?

Ana Maria Acosta (AMA): Colombian law on gender violence stipulates that action must be taken against any content that discriminates or is violent against women. There is a strong regulatory framework to protect women in situations of domestic violence, but this protection applies mainly to the offline environment. There are no specific offences recognised within the current legal framework for technology-related forms of gender violence, such as cyber stalking or online blackmail.

Cyber crime is mainly regarded as being associated with attacks on databases or public institutions, while another spectrum of crimes, including online forms of gender violence, is neglected.

Cyber crime is mainly regarded as being associated with attacks on databases or public institutions, while another spectrum of crimes, including online forms of gender violence, is neglected.

So when a woman approaches a public institution to register a complaint about online harassment and violence, she is not given adequate remedies; there are no clear mechanisms and pathways to be followed, and above all, this type of violence is not viewed as violence at all.

Society’s recognition of gender violence as a violation of women’s rights, expressed in numerous campaigns, actions and policies promoted mainly by organised civil society and the state, is not reflected in an equivalent level of recognition of gender violence in virtual spaces.

The research report on Colombia concludes that online gender violence should be incorporated into the regulatory framework, so that it may become clearly visible to the different agents who have the duty to enforce current legislation. Otherwise, it will remain invisible not only to the public and private actors involved, but also to society as a whole.

MG: What difficulties do women in Colombia encounter when they press charges in such situations?

AMA: At the formal level, the state does not provide sufficient guarantees for appropriate response and action in these situations. When a woman decides to report the offence and tries to get justice, she is met with barriers that undermine her course of action and the potential responses – which should be immediate – to remedy her situation. The absence of protocols to guide the actions and responses given, according to the nature of the case, means that procedures are slow and also ineffective. To make matters worse, the majority of officials do not have a high level of awareness about these specific problems, and so cannot give high quality attention and responses to the women’s demands. Consequently, women often feel that their stories are discredited, and the situation is swept under the rug, thus perpetuating the power relations existing in the patriarchal system.

On the other hand, women themselves often do not recognise this type of behaviour as another form of gender violence. This means that these situations tend to go unreported and remain invisible. Educational and awareness-raising campaigns at all levels are essential in order to put a stop to this form of violence and encourage women to report it.

On the other hand, women themselves often do not recognise this type of behaviour as another form of gender violence. This means that these situations tend to go unreported and remain invisible.

Hypothetically, increasing the number of formal complaints might be a viable strategy to exert pressure on the state to address the legal vacuum and develop specific policies.

MG: How did the cases of Martha and Alejandra, documented in the research project, come to your attention?

Marina López Sepulveda (MLS): I came across both cases through my work as a human rights defender; I am also a lawyer and a university teacher. I work at the Fundación Voces de Derechos (Voices for Rights Foundation) [1] where we try to make violence against women visible, and to support them by means of a training programme to empower them to claim their rights and enable them to effectively put forward their demands in the processes to impact outcomes that we initiate jointly in every case. Through this process I got to know the cases that I documented in the research project. One of them came to light through the Barranquilla District Mayor’s Office, where a woman arrived in desperation, asking for help and advice and the urgent attention she needed. The Mayor’s Office recommended the Foundation where I work, and they got in touch with me as a lawyer to advise her. The other woman also reached me through activism work. My name was recommended and I began the process of supporting her with a view to lodging an official complaint.

MG: What experiences had these women survivors gone through before they reached you?

MLS: One of the women had gone to the District Mayor’s Office, to the office of women’s affairs, and she reported her case, but she did not obtain access to justice in the comprehensive way that cases of violence against women deserve. In spite of both women having made their complaints about what was happening to them and the distress it was causing them, the authorities did not respond adequately within a reasonable time as they ought to have done, nor did they provide the guarantees to which the women were entitled. This lack of proper responses has also to do with the persistence of some sociocultural imaginaries that come into play when women seek access to justice, and with ignorance of how digital violence affects women, in the same way as other types of violence.

This lack of proper responses has also to do with the persistence of some sociocultural imaginaries that come into play when women seek access to justice, and with ignorance of how digital violence affects women, in the same way as other types of violence.

MG: What role do the (ICT) companies play in these cases?

AMA: The companies are obliged to comply with Colombia’s constitution and laws. As they are private companies, they can regulate themselves according to their own rules. Therefore they have terms and conditions of use that specify, for example, what content must be removed. But their terms and conditions always say that they will do this at their own discretion, and they themselves regulate which content must be removed and which may not. It is a purely ethical issue.

When a woman requests the removal of content she considers to be aggressive and violent toward her, she has to bring a court order against the company. To get such an injunction involves a lengthy legal process that is seldom easy. Meanwhile, the offending content remains online and continues to be broadcast and amplified. This demonstrates the mismatch between formal legal procedures and actions carried out through technologies. By the time the court order arrives it is too late, because the images have been propagated and the effect they have on the woman has worsened during all that time. Who takes responsibility for this? No one.
For their part, the companies have not internalised this as a real problem. They do not have a full perception of the effects that women suffer.

MLS: The companies do not live up to even minimal standards of corporate social responsibility. The indifference they exhibit is the same as that of the state in these situations. One positive thing about this research project is that it managed to bring the problem home at least to those companies approached, and so it raised some awareness. Some companies responded positively, while others said they would try but that it was not up to them; this is also a way of shrugging off the problem, by invoking privacy, freedom of expression, etc.

MG: Do internet service providers have specific protocols for dealing with cases of gender violence online?

AMA: No. It is not even on their agenda, neither in Colombia nor in other countries.

MG: What role does civil society play in this context?

AMA: Society fulfils an essential role. The Take Back the Tech! campaign has been crucial for raising awareness around this issue. In Colombia, organisations that had not been working on the issue got involved through the campaign, and that is good because it means that other audiences and other spaces are being reached.

Civil society has an essential role in providing support, raising awareness and implementing its own interventions. Through the breadth of its discourse on the issue, addressing it as a health and public safety problem, civil society testifies that this is a problem that affects us all.

MLS: It is very important. Civil society has an essential role in providing support, raising awareness and implementing its own interventions. Through the breadth of its discourse on the issue, addressing it as a health and public safety problem, civil society testifies that this is a problem that affects us all. This research project was also able to showcase the influential actions of those of us who have participated by studying legal resources, documenting cases, conducting interviews, surveys, campaigns and training courses on women’s rights and safety online. In Barranquilla we administered questionnaires to 1,200 people on their perceptions about the issue, and we found different forms of violence were categorised according to use of different technologies, platforms (Twitter, mobile phones, Facebook, email, chat rooms, YouTube, Skype), the response from the authorities, the type of penalty imposed, internet intermediaries, their forms of expression, impacts and perpetrators. Questionnaires were administered to university students at the Faculty of Law at Corporación Universitaria Rafael Núñez (CURN-Barranquilla) taking courses on constitutional law and human rights and a “Rights and gender” course promoted by Fundación Voces de Derechos. The same survey was administered to students in the various faculties of Universidad del Atlántico taking a course on “Legal provisions for protection of women and children against abuse” promoted by the “Women, gender and culture” research group.

MG: Has Alejandra’s case, which was dealt with satisfactorily and promptly, set a precedent for other cases?

MLS: Yes, it could be taken as a precedent that shows that it is indeed possible for a case to be resolved and to receive the treatment it deserves, without impunity. The fact that her aggressor was imprisoned and the matter was dealt with as a crime, that awareness was raised about the commission of a crime, and that agreements were reached on removing the offending images, leads us to affirm that we can take this as a precedent. It was not an ideal outcome, as we would have wished, but it did get closer to the guarantees of dignity and rights for women, and above all it prevented impunity.

MG: How did this type of violence affect the women’s lives?

MLS: It affected them and marked them for life, as does every kind of violence against women. They experience a lot of fear, they don’t want to use mobile phones or technologies, they distance themselves from ICTs because they feel they were harmed through them. They are afraid to open a Facebook account, and if they do so they are extremely cautious. They feel that if they post a photo it may be used for something they do not want. These fears are even transmitted to their children.

They did find a momentary strength when they spoke out about the matter and denounced their situations, but many in time came to feel that might have been a mistake – leaving them very exposed and feeling even more unsafe. That is why the support of the women’s social movement and its organisations is so important in these cases. In Alejandra’s case, a very significant process of resilience, empowerment and autonomy was achieved, to the point that she now teaches other women how to use technologies safely and responsibly.

MG: Technology-related violence against women has given rise to debates that range from the protection of individual rights to freedom of expression. How are these dealt with in the context of the state and the companies?

AMA: Both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court in Colombia have ruled in cases in which women’s private lives have been exposed. In Colombia, the right to privacy is a constitutional right. When a crime occurs in which a woman’s privacy is violated through the publication of images and/or conversations, the justice system must rule to protect the woman’s right to privacy. The problem is that getting access to such a ruling is a lengthy process, since cyber stalking is not recognised as violent behaviour. There is still a lack of awareness about how technologies are used as tools for committing offences and violence against women. These behaviours are regarded as just a part of the relations between men and women, part of the “courtship” in online relationships and/or seduction in the virtual world, which continues to feed the asymmetries of power and patriarchal behaviour in the virtual environment.

For their part, the companies also distance themselves from the problem, on the grounds of guaranteeing freedom of expression online. It is not a straightforward issue, because there are many possible interpretations. For instance, the aggressor can claim that if information is taken from his emails before a legal action, his right to privacy has been infringed. On the other hand, the aggressor – by posting an image and/or conversation that violates the woman’s privacy – can declare that he did so under his right to freedom of expression, since the woman gave him that material, and therefore the company would be censoring internet content if the material is removed.

Thus companies shield themselves behind the need for a legal injunction before they will act. The formal process is slow and is out of step with the speed of actions in the virtual world. And the one who has the most to lose is always the woman.

MG: What legal changes should be promoted to deal with violence online?

Colombian legislation needs to be synchronised with practical access to justice. We have a real social state based on the rule of law that is democratic, secular, participative and inclusive, but the dead letter of the law is one thing and the everyday practice of operators, companies and politicians another, and glass ceilings are everywhere to be found.

MLS: While it is true that there have been judicial rulings that are very helpful, the theoretical discourse or dead letter of Colombian legislation needs to be synchronised with practical access to justice. We have a real social state based on the rule of law that is democratic, secular, participative and inclusive, but the dead letter of the law is one thing and the everyday practice of operators, companies and politicians another, and glass ceilings are everywhere to be found. The social imaginaries that often uphold these practices and blame women for what happens to them must be dismantled. Women are assumed to be the guilty parties because of the way they dress; because they do not want to stay in a damaging relationship; or they refuse to continue to fulfil conjugal duties subjected to the concept of “familism”, which considers it women’s duty to put the family first and keep the family together no matter what; and so on. In addition to achieving these transformations of a mental and sociocultural nature and of recognition and awareness, the state must exercise due diligence for prevention, awareness raising, providing care, investigating, punishing and providing guarantees.

MG: What kind of reform could bring home this issue so that it is taken up by all the relevant actors?

AMA: Putting the issue firmly on the public agenda. If that happens the companies would begin to feel pressure to do something about it. Civil society has led the way in showing internet service providers that this is an issue that must be addressed. The state must implement awareness and education campaigns. At the same time, a dialogue on this issue must be initiated between the state, private companies and civil society in order to reach agreements and plan joint actions, based on the best options for regulation.

Download the full Colombia country report (in Spanish)

More information about the research project: From impunity to justice: Exploring corporate and legal remedies for technology-related violence against women

This research is part of APC’s project “End violence: Women’s rights and safety online”, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (DGIS).

Image: Postcards by Colnodo for the Take back the tech campaign in 2013

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