Cyber violence is just as damaging to women as physical violence, according to a new U.N. report, which warns women are growing even more vulnerable to cyber violence as more and more regions gain internet access.
The report calls itself a “wake-up call” about cyber violence as a systemic concern, especially as technology is spreading across more regions. Presented by U.N. Women and the U.N. Broadband Commission, the report estimates that 73% of women have endured cyber violence, and that women are 27 times more likely as men to be harassed online. In Europe, nine million girls have already experienced some kind of cyber violence by the time they’re 15. Anita Sarkeesian, a gamer and activist who has long agitated for more action against cyber violence, spoke at the launch of the new report, titled “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A Worldwide Wake-Up Call.”
The U.N. defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts.” The report notes that cyber violence is an extension of that definition, that includes acts like trolling, hacking, spamming, and harassment.
The report also argues that “cyber touch is recognized as equally as harmful as physical touch,” suggesting that online harassment might be just as lethal as domestic violence or sexual abuse.
“Dead is dead,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the U.N. and Executive Director of U.N. Women. “Whether you are dead because your partner shot you or beat you up, or you killed yourself because you couldn’t bear cyber-bullying, or you were exposed to many of the sites that lead people to suicide pacts— bottom line, we lose a life.”
Mlambo-Ngcuka explained that the report is intended to encourage governments to take action against cyber bullying, and U.N. Women is committed to making sure those efforts are sustainable and enforceable. She said the three most important ways to combat cyber violence are sensitization to the dangers, safeguards against harassment, and sanctions against those who perpetuate internet abuse. “This is a 21st century challenge that needs us to have new ways of reacting,” she says. Still, one in five female internet users live in countries where law enforcement are extremely unlikely to respond to internet violence, and only 26% of law enforcement agencies in the 86 countries surveyed are properly prepared to address the problem.
Even with her position at the U.N., Mlambo-Ngcuka says it’s been difficult to convince some people that this is a problem to take seriously. She recalled some resistance from industry leaders, particularly in the gaming space, who seemed to think that cyber violence was not their problem. “The attitude was like, ‘this sells, this is a business we make money off it, so what are you asking us, to reduce profits?’” she says. “This gentlemen said to me, ‘Lady, you are so intense, chill!’”
She emphasized that cyber violence exists on a continuum with physical violence, and that both problems are byproducts of a society that is inherently unequal for women.
Even if women don’t end up dead, the Under-Secretary-General said, cyber violence can still dramatically affect women’s ability to participate in the modern world. With 450 million more women expected to come online in the next three years, more and more women are relying on the internet for educational and professional resources.
If the internet isn’t a safe place for them, Mlambo-Ngcuka added, they risk swearing off it altogether. “If the woman is tormented, she may then decide that ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with technology,” she said. “To be disconnected from technology in the 21st century, it’s like having your freedom disrupted: your right to work, your right to meet people, your right to learn, your freedom of speech. So if women become so intimidated and traumatized from the experiences they may have, it’s a whole world that will be lost to them for the rest of their life.”
- Online violence against women: are acts of gender-based violence ‘committed, abetted or aggravated’ in part or fully by the use of information and communication technologies, such as cyber stalking; accessing or disseminating a woman’s private data (through hacking); identity theft or doxxing.
- Due diligence: International law mandates States to exercise due diligence to promote, protect and fulfill human rights. This includes the obligation to prevent violations, protect victims/survivors of human rights abuses, prosecute violations, punish perpetrators and provide redress and reparation for victims/survivors. This also includes the obligation to remove impunity and preventing human rights abuses by non-state actors. Non-State includes transnational and national corporations operating within the jurisdiction of the State.
- Patriarchy and prevailing interpretations of moral norms, culture and religion places women as the primary bearers of honour and tradition. Women who establish cyber-friendships or relationships may be deemed to have transgressed culturally appropriate behaviour as are women who engage in sexting, exchanging or who consent to intimate partners taking suggestive images, albeit for private purposes.
- In relation to violence against women, consent is key to differentiating lawful from unlawful and harmful behaviour. Consent in an online context is often complicated by the exact act to which the consent, if any, relates. Because of this, defining consent is crucial in online violence and must be addressed in any relevant mechanism.
- It is simplistic to view anonymity as a threat that needs to be removed under all circumstances. As anonymity offers privacy to victims/survivors (whose privacy is often violated by perpetrators) and allows them to re-enter online spaces or to report violence. The anonymity provided by the internet is also beneficial to whistle-blowers, human rights defenders or to those outside current dominant groups, such as LGBTQIA people.
The internet, once a liberating space is also increasingly, a space of unmitigated violence, particularly violence targeting women. While it is beyond the scope of this paper to explore why women are especially targeted within the online spaces, suffice to say that online violence against women is part of the continuum of violence against women that is committed offline. It reflects and parallels the reality of offline violence against women with the same causes and similar consequences. Like offline violence against women, internet-related violence against women is often in the form of sexual violence such as threats of rape, non-consensual dissemination of intimate data and images, dissemination of rape recordings, cyber stalking, sexual harassment and exploitation of women and girls.issues.