Filling the Gaps Between Laws and Cyber Voilence Against Women

New form of gender-based violence is performed in the cyberspace and the more internet usage increase the more gender based violence cases increase. However, laws and governance cannot protect the women in cyberspace by its law so there is huge gap between laws and cyber violence. GenderIT writer Mavic Cabrera-Balleza make an interview with Lesley Ann Foster, founder and Executive Director of Masimanye Women’s Support Network in South Africa and Charlotte Bunch, founder and Executive Director of the Center for Women’s Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA to point out the gaps between laws and cyber violence against women. I just copy paste this precious interview to share my reader from the GenderIt page[1].

Here is the interview:

Mavic Cabrera-Balleza (MCB): Please tell us about your work on violence against women.

Lesley Ann Foster (LAF): The Masimananye Women’s Support Centre works on violence against women, HIV and AIDS and sexual and reproductive health and rights. We work on the intersectionality of these issues. The sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls are seriously undermined by gender-based violence. Unsafe abortions, unwanted pregnancy, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted illnesses threaten the health and well being of women and girls in many communities. Studies have shown that one in five women who are victims of sexual abuse will contract a sexually transmitted infection and many of these go on to become infected with HIV.

Masimanyane conducts primary prevention programmes through awareness-raising and we engage in advocacy work on those three issues. An important part of Masimanyane’s work is building the leadership capacity of women so that they become community advocates working at the local level to provide support to survivors and to influence governmenti policies and monitor the implementation of government programmes. We provide counseling and paralegal services to women who have been subjected to violence, those who are living with HIV/AIDS and are in need of reproductive health services. Masimanye is a Xhosa word which means “let’s support one another.”

Charlotte Bunch (CB): The Center for Women’s Global Leadership’s focus on violence against women comes out of our earliest days in the beginning of the 1990s when we were advocating for women’s rightsi as human rights. We felt that violence against women needed to be understood as a human rights issue both because of the seriousness of the issue and the fact that making it understood as a matter of human rights will give women more access to justice nationally and to the international machinery of the human rights system. We also wanted the world to see violence against women as a real crime and a major global problem. That’s the framework in which we’ve been working on violence against women—not at the ground level but at the global advocacy level. In terms of our advocacy, the first leadership institute that we held on women, violence and human rights in 1991 came up with the idea of the 16 days of activism against gender violence as a way to link violence and women’s human rightsi. Our main work now is to continue to coordinate that effort through the 16 days campaign which is in its 18th year. We also continue to think of new ways to portray human rights perspectives on violence against women at the international level through the Human Rights Council (HRC), the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), and other UN mechanisms that might apply to these issues.

MCB: In recent years, we have seen a new dimension of violence against women… Women’s groups and individuals have reported cases of e-mail harassment, “flaming” (online verbal abuse), cyber-stalking, online prostitution and pornogrpahy. How are your organizations addressing violence against women online?

CB: We’re not experts on this issue, but we have been concerned about the fact that the very tool we use to make our issues known can also be used by groups engaged in activities that violate women’s rights. Even as women try to master communications and media as a way to expose this violence and use the interneti as a tool to expose it, sometimes it gets turned around and used by people who want to titillate sexuality with violence. The new media extends the access to women that men have, particularly young women who may be vulnerable, and creates new forms of abuse that are not necessarily different in character but require new responses.

LAF: We focus on providing information and education on cybercrimes to schools and other community institutions and fora. We warn young people about the dangers that exist in the new technologies. We also provide support to those who fall victim to these crimes. We have worked with the police to track down men who have used the internet and cell phone technology to harass young women.

MCB: What kind of new analytical framework and approaches to gender justice advocacy should be considered if we are to effectively address cyber violence?

LAF: Any form of violence against women is reprehensible. We need to monitor our governments and ensure that they adhere to their obligations in respect of women. It is a government imperative to ensure the safety and security of all its citizens. The whole geopolitical environment is changing. There are also technological changes taking place. There is massive digitalization. These have brought about new forms of violence. Cybercrimes against women is increasing because more people are gaining access to the information and communication technologies. Women and particularly girls are targeted for cybercrime because of their vulnerability. There is a new level of cultural violence against women that is becoming more prominent because of cybercrime.

In the women’s movement, we started with domestic abuse and then proceeded to identify other forms of sexual violence. The boundaries of violence against women are enlarging with new forms of violence becoming evident in all regions of the world. We have a growing crisis which affects all women across the globe. Violence against women has been normalized in many societies in the sense that there is insufficient outrage at the violence perpetrated against women. Communities are not responsive enough.

CB: I think the analytical job is to understand that violence is always about controlling and exploiting women and using women’s bodies; new forms of violence are adaptations of this theme. For example, you take a phenomenon like acid burning—we never had acid burning until recently, but we certainly had men disfiguring women’s bodies in different ways as a result of being angry at or wanting to control women. Once the technology of acid burning was exposed by the media, other men then used this technique. Those of us who have been working on the issue of violence against women fear that media reporting can lead to more men using that technique. I think that’s a good illustration—it’s not that the media created the problem of violence—that’s been going on for centuries. This is the double edged sword of exposure of violence through the media. We have to keep trying to use the media for the benefit of women by way of trying to reach women to warm them about the kinds of violence they might encounter just as we warn women about trafficking—to understand the difference between a real job, a real opportunity and an exploitative situation. Certainly, we can work to expose these things but I’m not sure if we can control them ultimately anymore than we can control what happens to women in other spheres. What we can definitely do is to try to empower women to understand better what can happen online and create some legal redress for women once it does happen.

MCB: In terms of policies, how do you think we can address the issue of cyber violence against women?

CB: This is actually one of the most difficult areas of women’s rights issues because we are always seeking to balance the rights of any individual to their self expression and the need to protect people from exploitation. It’s what makes the issue of pornography so difficult, and it makes developing good, effective policyi difficult also. I do believe that we need some amount of government policy in these areas. When the internet is being used for abuse and violence, there must be some kind of legal redress. Where the right to information and the fear of government interference comes in is not so much when you see that violence has occurred, but when you try to figure out how are you going to protect against that. For example, if you learn that women are being abused through a particular website, I think the government should be able to investigate what’s going on in that website and should be able to close it down and prosecute people if they’re engaged in violence against women. I’m not sure, however, that I want the government to have the right to surveillancei in general, without a reason to be suspicious. I think it is very different to say that “if you hear about violence, the government should investigate and intervene” from having a law where the government can do surveillance without any provocation, without having some reason to think that something illegal is going on. That’s where the line gets crossed and that makes policy difficult. While you do want to say that governments have the right to intervene and prosecute violence when it happens online, but it should not become an open door so that the government can have surveillance over the internet or all media no matter what. Governments do have to be in-charge of justice, which means having some power to intervene when violations have occurred.

The other problem is who gets to decide what’s violence. On the freedom of expression side, I would lean towards that there has to be some demonstrable violence in order to intervene. I would also lean toward the definition from the people who are affected. What this illustrates is that there is no one perfect line. For example, the US Supreme Court said about pornography, that the standard is what the community thinks. But there is no one community; there are many communities and I think the protection of minority viewpoints is important. If anybody who is engaged in a violent situation, whether it’s somebody having a video made of them or stalking them from internet contact, and she feels violated, then that needs to be taken into consideration. I don’t think there’s a perfect answer. Where you’re dealing entirely in consensual sexual matters, I would be reluctant to have the government intervene, but if any party feels it’s not consensual, then you have to investigate whether it’s violence.

LAF: Cyber violence is more difficult to police because people do it in the privacy of their homes. People can use the internet and emaili facilities wherever they find themselves and in this way hide what they do. It can be anonymous and therefore more dangerous.

MCB: In 2006, the New York State Office of Cyber Security and Critical Infrastructure partnered with the Alliance of Guardian Angels, a volunteer organization of unarmed citizen crime patrollers. It was awarded a grant of US$200,000 to promote online safety in New York communities and in classrooms [4]. In 2002, South Africa adopted the Electronic Communication Transaction (ECT) Act,25 of 2002 which has a section on cybercrime. What can you say about such policy initiatives?

LAF: Yes, there are some policies in place in South Africa. There is also the access to informationi law — which allows for monitoring of internet usage and monitoring of cell phone messaging. As a result, there have been number of pornographic rings that have been shut down. There was an outcry against it because of violations of privacy. It became controversial because it is prying on people’s private information.

CB: What’s interesting in this (New York State and Guardian Angels partnership) is that this is another example of funding that’s being made available to men to protect women from violence. I think the really critical issue here for the women’s movement is how do we ensure that efforts like this are empowering women—not just protecting women, which after all has been the name of the game for many centuries. How do we ensure that women have something to say about how these programs are shaped, and women who have been victims of such violence are part of that. I think there is a role for men in challenging violence against women, such as men teaching women self defense or trainings in schools aimed at teaching women how to recognize violence on the web and how to recognize the dangers that may be there and to know what they can do about it. As long as men are engaged in the old fear and protection racket, it is fine to be teaching women how they can maneuver in the world more safely but not teaching them to watch out and be afraid and therefore not to do things. The key function of violence against women is control— to make women not do things. We need to ensure that whatever work is done to teach women about the danger of violence doesn’t reinforce the very purpose of that violence, which is to make them afraid to do something in the first place. This is the line we’re always struggling with—on the one hand we want to protect all young women and girls. I experience this with my nieces and daughters of my friends. I want to ensure that no evil things happen to them, but I don’t want them to be constrained by protection. I want them to learn to protect themselves, to fight for themselves. It is absolutely crucial that there be a feminist analysis about this kind of protection work and that it be done in an empowering way.

We should empower women so that they don’t get victimized or have to participate in anything that they don’t want to do and that they have the right to report anything that they see or experience that they think is objectionable. Whether the court rules that it is objectionable or not, at least there should be a place they can take their feelings and ideas about it. I think those are the kinds of policies we need to shape—policies that are empowering women to deal with violence rather than protecting them from the outside.

MCB: What are your recommendations to women’s groups working on the ground in terms of addressing these issues? How can we work collectively to address cyber violence?

CB: Working at the policy level must always be informed by what’s going on at the ground, and especially those of us at the global policy level need to be talking to people working locally. One of our goals in the 16 days of activism is to hear back from people what they are finding on the ground. We’re very excited when we heard that some of you have been focusing the 16 days around media violence. It hasn’t been our focus, but we could include in the 16 days some reflection about this. For example, we could have a section on the 16 days website about discussions on this issue, including this article. We could include information about who is talking about this and try to get that discussion going.

In spaces like the CSW and the HRC, we could initiate discussion about online violence and what policies we want from governments. There will be another resolution this fall from the General Assembly about what governments are doing to follow up on the Secretary General’s 2006 study on violence against women. This issue could be highlighted with some statement on what governments need to do to take this further as an emerging issue. We need to know whether people on the ground think that would be useful.

LAF: Put in place measures to protect women. Work in communities to bring awareness of the scale and price of violence in terms of the well being of the young women. We need to examine the issue of power because violence is about power—the militarization and the war on terrorism—all of those aspects of society contribute to a culture of violence. If you look at the media it is all about violence which is ultimately about power and domination. Violence against women has to be seen within this context.

MCB: Is there anything else you’d want to tell our readers on the issue of cyber violence?

LAF: We need to continue our vigilance and resistance to all forms of violence against women. We need to share information on the strategies which work and apply them in all situations where they are effective. We need to ensure that we have policies in place which protect women and we need to monitor our governments and ensure that they fulfill their obligations to women.

CB: All of the dilemmas that we encounter in working on violence against women also come up in this area. We’re always struggling to balance women’s agency and women’s victimization. When you work on violence against women, you know that women are victims, and at the same time, we don’t want to work on it in a way that reinforces being victims. We want to address it in a way that empowers women to have more agency to take control of their situation. You can’t do one only of these, but we need to continue thinking about how to resolve that dilemma. Each step forward reveals something to be looked at and violence against women online is certainly an illustration of that.




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