Understanding technology-related violence against women
Violence against women has been defined by the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Technology-related violence against women (tech-related VAW) encompasses acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as phones, the internet, social media platforms, and email.
Just as women face risks offline, in the streets and in homes, women and girls can face specific dangers and risks on the internet such as online harassment, cyber stalking, privacy invasions with the threat of blackmail, viral ‘rape videos’ and for young women in particular, the distribution of ‘sex videos’ that force survivors to relive the trauma of sexual assault every time it is reposted online, via mobile phone or distributed in other ways.
Technology-related VAW infringes on women’s right to self-determination and bodily integrity. It cause psychological and emotional harm, reinforce prejudice, damage reputation, cause economic loss and pose barriers to participation in public life, and may lead to sexual and other forms of physical violence.
As previously noted, psychological harm is recognised as a form of violence and is clearly defined as a human rights violation under international law.
Analysis of cases from the APC’s research and mapping project showed that the harms resulting from technology-related VAW include emotional or psychological harm, harm to reputation, physical harm, sexual harm, invasion of privacy, loss of identity, limitation of mobility, censorship, and loss of property.
These forms of violence also impacts on women’s capacity to move freely, without fear of surveillance. It denies them the opportunity to craft their own identities online, and to form and engage in socially and politically meaningful interactions.
Other cases have shown that technology-related VAW can result in a violation of the right to life. For example, a case of spousal abuse resulting in a woman being fatally stabbed by her husband, submitted to CEDAW, included reference of threats and harassment made by the perpetrator to the victim by telephone (Fatma Yildirim (deceased) v. Austria, communication No. 6/2005, views adopted 6 August 2007, para. 12.1.3). Various cases covered by the media have shown incidences of online violence and harassment leading to the victim committing suicide.
The APC's analysis of findings from over a thousand cases reported on the Take Back the Tech! online map revealed that the 3 general categories of women who experience tech-related VAW were:
- Women in an intimate relationship whose partner had become abusive;
- Survivors of physical assault – often from intimate partner abuse or rape;
- Professionals with a public profile involved in public communication (e.g. writers, researchers, activists and artists).
Like all VAW, much of tech-related VAW is perpetrated by someone known. Of 24 case studies collected in the APC’s research, 14 of the perpetrators were known to the survivors. In most of these cases, the perpetrator had an intimate relationship with the woman (as either a current or former boyfriend/husband), or belonged to the survivor’s immediate circle (of family members, co- workers or friends).
In addition, findings from over a thousand cases reported on the Take Back the Tech! online map from 2012 to 2014, revealed that the majority (40%) of cases are perpetrated by someone known to the survivor.
In cases where tech-related VAW took place in the context of domestic violence, women were subjected to physical beatings and/or sexual violence, coupled with insulting, threatening or violent text messages, phone calls or emails. In other cases, after the relationship had ended, private or intimate photos and videos of women were uploaded online to exact revenge and intimidate them. In some cases, the violence started online. For example, one woman was threatened first via mobile phone – an act of violence that over time escalated into rape. APC’s research showed that whilst aggressors used a wide array of ICTs to harass women, mobile phones were the most commonly used tool to perpetrate tech-related VAW.
“Revenge porn” is a gross violation of a woman's privacy where private and sexually explicit video and photographic images are published without explicit permission and consent onto various websites for the purposes of extortion, blackmail and/or humiliation. In India and the Philippines, episodes of revenge porn have led to amendments of the law to accommodate voyeurism and other instances of technology-related VAW as criminal offences, and in the United States revenge porn is recognised as a criminal misdemeanour. A court in Germany has also ruled that a person (in this instance, a woman) can request that her ex-lover be asked to remove all photographs of her from any storage device or computer. This does provide some protection for a person against instances of revenge porn, and in legal terms gives more weight to the “personality right” of the person in the images vis-à-vis the intellectual property right of the person taking the photograph.
However, the term “revenge porn” is misleading, because what it describes is an act of violence, and should not be conflated with pornographic content. It refers to the motivation of wanting to get back (usually at a woman) or to take revenge for rejecting a marriage proposal, spurning advances, or ending a relationship, for being seen as “loose” or amoral, being seen with someone else or someone outside of the caste or religious community, etc. – outside the male's control. In many ways these reasons are similar to those for which women are targeted for acid attacks in countries such as India and Pakistan.
A broad definition of technology-related VAW has been provided earlier, along with a list of examples of what should be covered. In relation to social media platforms such as Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Orkut and others, a recent APC study found the following specific instances of harassment, bullying, threats and other kinds of violence, involving both psychological and sometimes physical harm:
- Creation of “imposter” profiles of women, often to discredit, defame and damage their reputations.
- Spreading private and/or sexually explicit photos/videos, often with intent to harm and/or commit blackmail.
- Pages, comments, posts, etc. targeting women with gender-based hate (misogynistic slurs, death threats, threats of sexual violence, etc.).
Publishing personal identifying information about these women including names, addresses, phone numbers and email addresses without their consent.
Mobile phones were most often used as a tool to inflict psychological and emotional violence on women and girls when physical contact was not possible, as per the study conducted by APC. In a few cases, it was unknown aggressors or strangers harassing or intimidating through calls or SMS, but in the majority of cases involving mobile phones, the harassment and intimidation were within the context of ongoing physical abuse from a known aggressor. The extended violence fell into the categories of domestic violence, intimate-partner abuse, homophobic violence, kidnapping, rape and sexual assault. State services and law enforcement are primarily responsible for enabling women’s access to justice in addressing such violence, but companies can also help provide avenues for redress.
APC’s research on domestic legal remedies for cases of technology-related violence against women revealed a prevailing culture of impunity around these human rights violations.
The case studies analysed in the research illustrated the perceived notion of a complete breakdown in the criminal justice system, including the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of cases involving VAW. The non-efficacy of the laws and the lack of government action were aggravated by gender insensitivity on the part of enforcers and service providers, which served to silence women instead of encouraging them to assert their rights.
Relevant laws, in several instances, were essentially dead letter legislation – i.e. laws that were no longer being enforced. The excessive time taken to file charges, delays in the investigations, and the number of years that passed before a case was properly considered were all factors that made women survivors desist from “wasting their time” by filing a complaint.
It is clear that technology-related VAW covers a range of behaviour and actions that are invasive of privacy and bodily sovereignty. Yet since these offences use technological means, often the incidents are not taken seriously. This is most often the case in countries where there is a culture of impunity and lack of accountability, and where cases of rape and sexual assault are infrequently reported and prosecuted. In these circumstances, incidents of technology-related VAW are doubly trivialised, with factors such as class, caste, ethnicity and race playing a role.
If violence against women is taken seriously in judicial and social culture, then this necessarily includes crimes of harassment, stalking, voyeurism, etc. that are mediated through technology. Technology-related violence exists in a continuum, and often what are seen as “merely virtual” threats soon translate into physical violence and threats to the life and safety of individuals. A common fallacy is that prevention and redress should be concomitant with the offence: this means that if harassment or stalking takes place online then it should be addressed online or only through technological means. It would in fact be preferable to address the level of seriousness of the threat posed by the offender; for example, a protection order against someone making threats of violence and sexual assault would be more effective than blocking their phone or disabling their account when they can easily open a new one.
The perception is often that the violence that takes place online is not “real” and is therefore less harmful. Another perception is that if violence is not physical, then it is not as damaging. However, mental cruelty and psychological violence are recognised both in international law and in most national jurisdictions. The UN DEVAW recognises all kinds of violence: “physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering”. However, in certain contexts, such as where violence against women is endemic (Pakistan) or where there is already a collapse of regulatory structures and corrupt and oppressive regimes (Colombia), this can further lead to the discounting of technology-related VAW.
Incidents of technology-related VAW are also increasing because of the growing use of technology that can exacerbate existing structures of patriarchy and heteronormative oppressiveness. In most countries, what is required is an overhaul of all laws relating to sexual assault, violence and harassment. If the experience of women and others who are vulnerable because of gender or sexuality is taken into consideration, then all forms of violence, including those mediated by or related to technology, will be listed, and thus recognised in the law.
A specific law for technology-related VAW is essential in most countries because women face violence and harassment on a daily basis within heteropatriarchal societies and because of the impunity of male power vis-à-vis the law. This vulnerability to structural violence and exclusion is not limited to women, but is also part of the experience of transgender and intersexed people, and often even experienced by minority and ethnic groups that are in grossly unequal relations to those in positions of power or authority (for instance, Tibetans in China, Dalits in India, etc.). For such minority and ethnic groups, there should be specific additional provisions for their protection from hate crimes and hate speech.
In relation to gender-related violence that is technologically mediated, there is a need to extend the categories of those vulnerable to include women, transgender and intersexed people. Children should also be protected, but there are already specific United Nations protocols on child pornography and trafficking and on children’s access to sexual material.
Transgender and intersexed people face transphobia, harassment and violence and this should be considered in the formulation of laws that deal with sexual assault and technologically mediated violence. Often transwomen and transmen are subject to intimidation and fear, offline and online, and are victimised and bullied. A recent instance of harassment was the editing of wiki pages to misgender public figures or celebrities who have transitioned. In several Asian countries there is or has been cultural and social acceptance of transgender people, and a recent judgment from India reflects the growing acceptance of the need for welfare schemes for transgender people.Violence against women and transgender people that is mediated through technology is indicative of the limits of both sexual and technological citizenship – who can and cannot determine their own lives, desires and bodies, and who can access technology for their own needs rather than being at the mercy of technologies of the state.