Gender-based cyberviolence: The new face of an old enemy

Gender-based violence online is not a new phenomenon, but a continuum of violence that women and girls face offline; the root causes of all forms of gender-based violence are the same, writes Sylwia Spurek.
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By Sylwia Spurek

Sylwia Spurek (PL, Greens/EFA) is a member of Parliament's Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee

18 May 2021

Some might say that gender-based cyberviolence was hard to imagine thirty years ago. And they are partially right, as the means to commit online violence mostly did not exist back then.

As a lawyer, activist and women’s rights defender engaged in combating gender-based violence for over twenty years, I have seen the cyber dimension of gender-based violence evolving.

Crimes that are a form of gender-based cyberviolence include: online hate speech, trolling, cyber harassment, cyberstalking, sharing content without consent, hacking, identity theft, cyberbullying, and image-based sexual abuse. However, the attempts to make such a list exhaustive are pointless.

As the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women noted, every new technology can give rise to different and new kinds of gender-based violence. Just as the increase in time spent online. The COVID-19 pandemic brought clear evidence of that.

In July 2020, the World Wide Web Foundation found that we face a parallel pandemic of cyberviolence, with 52 percent of women and girls reporting having experienced some form of online abuse, and 87 percent of the belief that the problem of cyberviolence is getting worse.

Why is that and how can we fight an enemy that has such a complex and constantly evolving nature?

To understand and tackle the phenomenon of gender-based cyberviolence we must acknowledge that either offline or online, violence against women and girls is the most severe form of gender-based discrimination.

“To understand and tackle the phenomenon of gender-based cyber violence we must acknowledge that either offline or online, violence against women and girls is the most severe form of gender-based discrimination”

It has a structural nature, and it is one of the main social mechanisms that disadvantage women in the family and society.

It is the same mechanism of patriarchy that manifests in domestic violence, sexual violence and in any other type of physical, psychological, or financial violence. And now, also in violence online. Cyberviolence does not happen independently of the offline reality; they go hand in hand.

In many cases perpetrators of online violence are the same as offline: they are partners, ex-partners, relatives, classmates or work colleagues.

Crimes committed online follow or precede those committed offline. The consequences for the victims of cyberviolence are far-reaching and are experienced in all areas of life, including, but not limited to, mental and psychological harm, damage to career development, withdrawal from public debate, and invasions of privacy.

From a human rights perspective, these amount to violations of the freedom of speech, the right to equal participation in public life, and the right to private and family life.

In its most severe form, cyberviolence threatens protection from discrimination and violence.

Currently, our response to gender-based cyberviolence in the EU is weak, fragmented, and undoubtedly insufficient.

“Crimes that are a form of gender-based cyber violence include: online hate speech, trolling, cyber harassment, cyberstalking, sharing content without consent, hacking, identity theft, cyberbullying, and image-based sexual abuse”

There is a wide range of approaches to dealing with the phenomenon in Member States, with the majority not providing any measures that take the gender and cyber dimension of these types of crimes into account.

Instead they rely only on general provisions of offline crimes to be applied in these cases, such as stalking or harassment. Although standardisation is vital, EU legislation is still silent on the topic of gender-based cyber crimes.

Considering the common root causes of all forms of gender-based violence that women face offline and online, we need a holistic approach to putting an end to it.

Yet, in the 21st century, while women and girls are facing violence every day and everywhere, the EU still has not ratified or enforced the Istanbul Convention from 2011, that aims to prevent and combat violence against women.

This is why in November 2020 I proposed measures which should be taken by the EU in an exhaustive letter to the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen.

The letter was co-signed not only by 74 MEPs but also by almost 60,000 people from all over Poland, who all believe that the problem is urgent and hope that the European Commission will show the highest determination to end violence against women, including gender-based cyberviolence, once and for all.

We in the Greens/EFA group are once again calling on the European Commission to take concrete legal action and show that their commitments are more than empty words.

Join our call and sign our petition for #nomoreemptywords.

Read the most recent articles written by Sylwia Spurek - Poland abortion ban: Stripping women of their fundamental human rights

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