Violence against women has taken a technological turn, according to a new UN report entitled Cyber-Violence against Women and Girls: A World Wide Wake Up Call, recently released by the UN's Commission for Digital Development Working Group on Broadband and Gender.
The new report makes no bones about the expansion of the scope of both cyber-violence against women and girls (VAWG) and cyber-crime: “cyber-VAWG is emerging as a global problem with serious implications for societies and economies around the world.” It poses a particular threat to the “goals of inclusive, sustainable development that puts gender equality and the empowerment of women as key to its achievement.”
Cyber-VAWG is better publicised in the global north, with a slew of high profile stories emerging in recent years including the spread of so-called ‘revenge porn'; the leak of intimate celebrity photos in late 2014 or the prosecutions of misogynist trolls, accused of targeting eminent feminists, politicians and journalists.
”The global south, is comparatively under-served. In certain parts of the third world, like South Africa where viral rape videos have become particularly commonplace, cyber-VAWG is not pursued by law enforcement." The report adds that “ Even though South Africa has strict laws governing these types of behaviours, these are rarely enforced.”
The report cites that in nearly three quarters of countries, the World Wide Web foundation, an advocacy organisation founded by Tim Berners-Lee, found that law enforcement bodies fail to take appropriate action against cyber-VAWG.
But as the report says, cyber-VAWG is not just a first, nor a third world problem, but it “seamlessly follow(s) the spread of the internet.” Research by the Broadband Commission, suggest that 73 percent of women have already experienced some kind of online violence, which can include threat of rape, death and stalking and often involves a significantly taxing experience on the victim, whether that be emotional stress, legal fees in taking steps to protect themselves or the actual fulfilment of those threats.
The report adds that the internet is also becoming not just a platform for abuse, but a way of enabling it in the real world. The transformation of cyber-abuse into real world danger, the report says, are in part down to “increases in the availability of information online, for example through location tagging, may facilitate these forms of victimisation and increase risks for victims.”
Polly Neate, chief executive of Women's Aid, a charity devoted to ending domestic violence against women, spoke to SCMagazineUK.com, reinforcing the report's conclusions about the use of the internet in perpetuating and enabling abuse:
“Online abuse and cyber-violence is often a large part of domestic abuse; it becomes another way for a perpetrator to abuse his victim. A Women's Aid survey into online abuse found that for 85 percent of respondents the abuse they received online from a partner or ex-partner was part of a pattern of abuse they also experienced offline. In addition, nearly a third of women (29 percent) experienced the use of spyware or GPS locators on their phone or computers by a partner or ex-partner.” Neate concluded, chillingly, with the fact “Nearly a third of those respondents who had received threats (32 percent) stated that, "where threats had been made online by a partner or ex-partner, they were carried out.”
The end of, or at least resistance to, cyber-VAWG will come through a networked response. The report makes several recommendations to mitigate, or halt, the effects of cyber-VAWG.
The responsibility should be spread among organisations, individuals and business, concludes the report. “The majority of big and small internet companies can be expected to support a system of checks and balances” as well as telecoms companies, search engines, media and technology unions and ‘digital citizens.'
Though this ‘soft mix' of responsibility is imperative, the buck must stop with the government says Neate: “The power for investigations into harassment, threats of physical safety, sexual violence, kidnapping (etc) must ultimately lie with courts and law enforcement; and therefore laws that direct companies in their responsibilities are necessary.”
There is a larger scope to the threat of cyber-VAWG, says the report noting how online abuse reverses the liberating potential of the internet as a space for women to act freely: “While the Internet is a potential engine of equality, it has also often reinforced the power imbalances of offline realities; escalating cyber-VAWG is one indicator that further cements and magnifies unequal power relations between men and women.”
Jennifer McCleary-Sills, an expert in gender violence and rights at the International Centre for Research on Women, a non-profit organisation promoting gender equality in international development, also spoke to SC. “We know that as new spaces and opportunities open up, there are greater opportunities for greater mobility” says McCleary-Sills. However,“ they also open up some new ways for perpetrators of violence to exercise control.” She adds that while for women, technology “opens up doors, it also opens up some real risk.”