This report describes research carried out by Colnodo in Colombia between February and May 2014 as part of an Association for Progressive Communications (APC) project covering seven countries, titled End violence: Women’s rights and safety online.
In recent years Colombia has made great strides towards formally recognising violence against women as a violation of human rights and as a problem that needs to be given priority by civil society and the state. The report points out the main laws and public policies that to a certain extent address the specific problems of technology-related violence against women, or provide a general framework for action on the issue.
The law on violence and discrimination provides a broad legal framework for addressing violence against women. Although it does not include specific provisions in relation to technology-related violence against women, it does provide a general framework for state action, as well as establishing a series of victims’ rights that can be used as references for preventing and dealing with this type of violence.
The Colombian criminal code includes a chapter on cyber crime that seeks to protect the confidentiality, integrity and availability of data and of computer systems. Among others, it has created offences such as abusive access to computer systems, interception of data, violation of personal data, and identity theft on websites for the purpose of unlawfully appropriating personal data. Penalties for these offences are greater when perpetrators take advantage of confidence placed in them by the owner of the information and when the information is revealed or given out to the detriment of another person.
These two regulatory frameworks can be effectively used in combination to combat technology-related forms of violence against women. But in fact risks remain because of the lack of formal ties between the two legal frameworks. The second of the two laws is sufficiently broad to encompass virtual spaces, but the fact that technology-related violence is not specifically mentioned means it can be neglected. Failure to connect violence against women with information and communications technology (ICT) means that no thought is given to designing protocols that enable coordinated work between institutions, agencies and instruments, facilitate reporting acts of violence, and formulate comprehensive inter-institutional interventions to combat and prevent ICT-related violence. In practice, the combination of both regulatory frameworks and their comprehensive enforcement does not occur in the vast majority of cases.
The Colombia report includes four case studies which describe some of the characteristics of online violence against women, the harm they experience, the infringement of their rights, and the different routes they take in search of protection from and remedies for these situations.
Three of the cases deal with violence on the part of the women’s former partners, who used social networks to spread information and images without the victims’ consent, and used mobile phones to constantly harass the women.
These three cases clearly illustrate the different strategies adopted by the women, depending on the extent of their knowledge, capabilities, and social and economic resources. One feature in common is that they all approached public institutions seeking remedies and protection in the situations they were facing, including the Attorney General’s Office, the police, local assistance centres and educational establishments. Their narratives indicated their sense that there was a legal vacuum and an absence of comprehensive responses, demonstrating a lack of information and awareness among public officials and the lack of coordination between all these institutions. Only in one of these three cases was the complainant able to remove the private images that had been posted on Facebook; in her case the Colombian law on violence and discrimination was comprehensively enforced and she felt that justice was done. However, swift and appropriate measures were taken in this case because the woman was able to call on influential family members involved in her particular situation.
The fourth case concerned threats from paramilitary groups received by a social organisation working for women’s rights, and in particular by its director. According to the national government, in 2013 threats and attacks against women and organisations that defend rights and/or exercise leadership continued to be reported to agencies such as the Unit for Comprehensive Victim Support and Reparation (UARIV – Unidad para la Atención y Reparación Integral de las Víctimas), the Office of the Presidential Advisor for Gender Equity (CPEM – Consejería Presidencial para la Equidad de la Mujer) and the National Protection Unit (UNP- Unidad Nacional de Protección), among others. Risks and threats against women who stand up for their rights have increased, at both local and national levels, as has sexual violence against women leaders and/or their daughters.
In this particular case, as well as resorting to the above-mentioned public institutions, there was an appeal to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which decided to take precautionary measures and requested that the Colombian state adopt immediate action to guarantee the life and physical integrity of members of the NGO. This request was never implemented.
All the women involved in these situations experienced insecurity, lack of protection, exposure and violation of their privacy. They suffered anxiety and distress as well as many other emotions. These situations have affected not only their personal lives but also their professional lives; their productivity has been negatively affected and the ways in which they relate to others and react to certain circumstances have changed.
The report concludes with a set of recommendations aimed at different actors, with the purpose of combating ICT-related violence against women. These recommendations include a range of proposals to improve the diffusion of knowledge of current legislation among the population at large, and particularly among the officials whose duty it is to enforce it; to improve enforcement measures and the complementarity of such legislation; and to define a new cyber crime offence that would criminalise this type of violence.
In the case of internet intermediaries, the report recommends the creation of protocols or mechanisms for receiving and responding to complaints of online violence against women more swiftly, especially when implementing prosecution orders, and for dealing with requests from women who seek the removal of content that violates their right to privacy.
Finally, social protests and solidarity movements organised mainly by the women victims themselves through social networks has proved in some cases to be an effective method to remove and prevent the circulation of the women’s private images. However, these actions depend to a large extent on the initiatives of the women victims themselves, who are often in no condition to undertake them because of the emotional distress they have suffered.
Baseline study: Legal and regulatory framework in Colombia on VAW and ICT – Executive summary
More information about the research project: From impunity to injustice: 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).