This subject was topical because of the increasing use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), to infringe human rights online and the need to raise awareness of what impact this has on individuals, in particular women.
Technology related violence against women is still very much misunderstood, unacknowledged and sometimes even trivialised.
This discussion becomes even more important in view of the fact that from the 25th of November to the 10th of December every year , the world commemorates the global campaign to end violence against women and girls during the ‘16 Days of activism Against Gender Violence’ and this conferenc was held just ahead of the 2015 commemorations.
There are newer forms of violence being perpetrated against women. Taking proper cognisance and naming the range of acts and violations that occur online or through use of ICTs is a critical first step to understanding and effectively addressing the issues.
A draft document on ‘Practices to Counter the Abuse of Women Online’ was shared at the IGF by the Best practice Forum (BPF) on. People from diverse regions and the broader Internet governance community, including victims and survivors of online abuse, collaboratively produced the document.
The BPF draft on online violence against women can be accessed on the IGF website, and the next draft will be published on 15 December 2015 after incorporating additional input and comments.
Among the BPF’s non-exhaustive findings on ICT related violations against women were: harassment, gender trolling (harassment that systematically targets women) revenge porn (basically a form of sexual assault), cyber-stalking, privacy violations, direct threats of physical violence, reputation or credibility damaging, name-calling and embarrassment with a view to discredit them and/or incite other violations.
The BPF draft recognises that online abuse and gender-based violence can, among other things, limit women’s ability to fully harness the potential of ICTs for developmental purposes, ultimately widening the gender digital gap.
There are also significant emotional and psychological harms suffered by victims of online violence including fear, anxiety and depression; all of which are factors that can ultimately lead to reduction of involvement or complete withdrawal from online spaces.
Sub-Tweeting as a form of online violence
A couple of months ago I discussed a new and pervasive form of online abuse called sub-tweeting, that I believe warrants further investigation but can be added to the list of ICT related violations that affect women disproportionately compared to men.
Not all sub-tweeting is bad, but it can and is often used as a weapon of gender based violence which can also result in psychological harm because a lot of the time, one is trying to figure out if they are imagining things.
Though subtle, it is used as a method for dispensing abusive comments. Sub-tweets can have the serious effects of public shaming, subsequently leading to silencing and inhibiting women’s ability to exercise freedom of expression online.
Negative sub-tweeting by design has the potential to affect confidence and perpetuate the ‘imposter syndrome’, as women are made to feel inadequate or unwelcome especially in male dominated spaces such as Twitter.
Naturally their participation on different platforms then dips significantly, because the intention is to silence and prevent women’s ownership of the space.
Very often, negative sub-tweets degenerate into personal attacks and name-calling. These come in the form of abusive language that is not only puerile but acts as a barrier to dialogue and a distraction from the valuable and valid conversations that people could be having on the platform.
On many occasions, sub-tweeting incites cyber mobbing. This is where cyber-bullies on virtual pedestals incite sections of an online community to gang up on individuals as a virtual lynch mob that dispenses words that can kill both emotionally and psychologically.
Studies proving existence of online gender based violence
Sure, anyone can be a victim of sub-tweeting, but observation of online trends shows that ‘little boys clubs’ are less vicious towards one another versus women whose opinions they disagree with. Numerous studies have been undertaken to demonstrate how notably gendered and biased online abuse is.
What immediately comes to mind is a 2006 study wherein researchers from the University of Maryland set up a number of fake accounts in online chat rooms. Through the study, they discovered that accounts with feminine usernames incurred harsher feedback and more sexually explicit or threatening messages per day versus the masculine named accounts.
It is easy to overlook the value of such studies, but what is clear is the need to take effective action towards combatting online abuse in order to create safe spaces for women’s participation as well as to sustain the potential of the Internet as a driver for development.
What makes online abuse even more aggravating is the fact that until governments decide to come up with some forms of regulation for such, there is limited recourse to relevant support systems, and it is generally a difficult thing for victims to access justice.
The challenges in reducing online gender based violence
The BPF on women’s abuse online found that oftentimes, there aren’t any effective remedies or relevant pieces of legislation to address transgressions taking place online.
Moreover, because tech-related violence is normalised and trivialised, there is a lot of social stigma attached to reporting or revealing that one is a victim of online abuse. The obstacles faced in collecting evidence relating to online abuse or violence also do not help. Sometimes it is difficult to prove how one has been violated, especially in the context of negative sub-tweets, such that it all ends up looking petty and victims are accused of taking things too personal.
In some extreme cases of online abuse, victims have, out of desperation, reported to police officers who do not have the first clue, and have been informed to ‘just get off the Faces book’.
This is hardly an adequate response, and removing abusive content from online is also pretty ineffective in the face of the many lasting effects described earlier.
Online abuse against women is a reality, and acknowledging and finding effective mechanisms of addressing it is essential to creating a safe, inclusive and enabling developmental environment.
Main image taken from www.ottawasun.com