By Keina Yoshida,
Online Violence Against Women: An update
This post looks at developments in the area of online violence against women, with a focus on the work of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its Causes and Consequences. In her vision report (A/HRC/32/42), the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women (SR VAWG), Dubravka Simonovic specifically set out that online violence would be one of her priority areas. She noted that while new technologies have contributed to the empowerment of women and girls, there is also a need to consider current good practices on the law regulating violence against women and harassment online. She has recently called for submissions from stakeholders on a number of issues including, laws, policies and jurisprudence on the relating to the prevention, protection, prosecution and redress for VAWG online. Submissions are due on the 2 November 2017.
Online violence against women and freedom of expression
Unfortunately, it is all too common to hear reports in the media of women receiving rape threats, death threats and other forms of harassment online. Recently, it was reported that a model received threats after posing for Reebok with hairy legs. Female journalists and politicians have been especially targeted and some have been told in response that they should simply absent themselves from social media if they do not want to receive threatening or offensive messages. However, telling women and girls to withdraw from public digital spaces is simply not the answer. This has been recognised by the Special Rapporteur but also others who have sought to demonstrate that tackling online attacks on women is also a part of upholding freedom of expression.
The Special Rapporteur is well aware of that the fight online must also respect freedom of expression. In March 2017, Ms Simonovic released a statement alongside Mr David Kaye, the current Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression. In this statement, both Special Rapporteurs marked international women’s day with the message that governments, companies and civil societies need to tackle online gender based violence, whilst also safeguarding freedom of expression. David Kaye stated:
The internet should be a platform for everyone to exercise their rights to freedom of opinion and expression, but online gender-based abuse and violence assaults basic principles of equality under international law and freedom of expression. Such abuses must be addressed urgently, but with careful attention to human rights law.
The Special Rapporteurs draw attention to the fact that women experience numerous attacks online including blackmail, threats of sexual assault, sexist comment, intimidation, stalking, surveillance, and dissemination of private content without consent. They observed that due to these threats and attacks, women and girls limit their participation and sometimes withdraw completely from online platforms. The Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, who has previously addressed the silencing of women and highlighted Security Council Resolution 1325 and the Women, Peace and Security agenda, emphasised that the attacks “chill and disrupt the online participation of women journalists, activists, human rights defenders, artists and other public figures and private persons.”
But the experts both cautioned that “All actors in the digital space should ensure that any attempt to restrict freedom of expression is necessary and proportionate to address violence against women online”. This statement underlines that women’s rights should not be used as an excuse or a pretext to curb freedom of expression for other purposes, something which has become all too familiar in other geopolitical discourses.
The Special Rapporteurs are not alone in their attention to online violence against women and girls. Four months after their joint announcement, in July this year, the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination (CEDAW) updated General Recommendation 19 on violence against women. GR No 35 on violence against women is a landmark achievement. Significantly, the GR addressed online spaces and recognises that despite advances, gender-based violence against women remains pervasive in all countries of the world, and manifests itself in a continuum, including in technologically-mediated settings and environments, such as the Internet and digital spaces. The updated GR thus recognises that since 1992 the develops are not only jurisprudential but also spatial, specifically referencing Cyber violence.