Violence against women as an issue of interest of international policymakers has its own long story, preceded by struggles of the feminist movement to bring the topic to international attention.
In the '90s, last century, the topic has finally "clicked", with the successful Vienna Conference, recognizing for the first time women’s rights as human rights and the adoption of the UN Declaration on the Elimination of violence against women (DEVAW). Then occurred other milestones with appointment of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against women as one of the most important ones.
Time has passed, and previously unimagined means of communication have won a central place in our everyday lives. Selection of available social media platforms, apps and other means of connection is more than rich. "Six degrees of separation" theory has become a kind of living truth. Internet technologies enabled boost of development of different fields of science, economy and life. The adulthood of current children and teenagers will be shaped by their growing up in the times of instant access to information.
Shortcomings related to the massive development of means of online communication lie not only under its inaccessibility for those less privileged. The fast-changing environment has led to forms of violence which had never crossed the imaginations of creators of the international treaties protecting human rights.
The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), which is the backbone of international women’s human rights law, does not refer explicitly to online violence. At the time of adoption of CEDAW (1979-1981) development of information technology was at a very early stage. Some may argue that CEDAW does not cover the issue of "more traditional" forms of violence, as violence is not specified in the text of the Convention. However, this illusive challenge has been overcome by the CEDAW Committee in the early 90s, by the publication of General Recommendation number 19 (updated then by the General Recommendation 35 in 2017).
Why call this shortcoming as illusive? Violence against Women, regardless of its form, fits into the definition of discrimination provided in Article 1 of CEDAW, as harm which affects women just because they are women.
Disproportional exposure of women to violence, especially domestic violence, around the globe is a fact-based issue (in Poland women consist of more than 70% of victims of domestic violence – according to the Police’s statistics for the year 2019. Statistics are available in Polish at LINK). The effective protection from Violence against Women has been declared by the CEDAW Committee as a prerequisite for the enjoyment of Women’s Human Rights by women. The Committee's General Recommendations serve as a doctrine of international law related to Women’s Human Rights - official explanation of a law, made with reference to the system, time and circumstances of interpretation. This doctrine reads violence as a form of discrimination. With this outcome, the Convention doesn’t have to refer to online violence against women explicitly - it is covered by the CEDAW's provisions the same as other forms of violence. In General Recommendation no 35 online forms of communications are mentioned with minor importance and there is no direct reference to the online violence, although the Committee has raised this issue in its recommendations to States through the CEDAW review process. Nevertheless, it does not mean the other bodies of the UN cannot and shouldn’t make broader inquires in regard to the topic.
In 2018 the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, one of the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council, whose mandate focusses particularly on the issue of gender-based violence against women, has issued a thematic report focused entirely on online violence against women from a human rights perspective.
Ms Dubravka Šimonović, the current mandate holder, has pointed out the ongoing increase of violence against women committed in the online world and the fact the states usually can't keep up with sufficient legislation in this matter. As the Special Rapporteur has indicated, not all forms of online violence are completely new, but they take advantages from characteristics of online communication, - mostly fast spreading (viral), global search-ability, applicability and it’s persistence.
Forms of online violence targeting women vary in forms and means. The most frequent forms of violence include blackmailing of a victim with a threat to release intimate pictures in order to receive another one (“sextortion”), use of victim’s private data (like name, surname, address and contact info) to make an impression for the public she is soliciting sex in exchange of money (“doxing”), posting of content for the purpose of annoying, provoking or initiating violence against the victim (trolling) and non-consensual distribution of intimate videos or images. The last form may emerge if the victim presents her opinions on topics considered controversial by the society, or is engaged in the public activity which challenges gender stereotypes (which not infrequently have centuries-long history). The effect of such may be also de – facto censorship or self-censorship of the victim, whom if the violence occurs may decide to silence their own voice.
Harm caused by such violations manifests through suicidal thoughts or attempts and other forms of psychological suffering (like depression, anxiety). Online violence reinforces gender stereotypes. It may also pose a real danger for life or cause bodily harm, especially if the violence is directed against women active in the public sphere (as an encouragement for those "on the field", if the perpetrator is not mentally stable the attack may be instant and violent, as has happened many times in history after public hatred campaign targeting public figures).
Lack of sensitivity of law enforcement while dealing with victims and survivors of such acts is clearly visible. Crimes committed online are not taken as seriously as those committed offline (there is a presumption they cause less harm).
Current national legal efforts to combat such crimes are usually based on criminal code in a matter of offences like stalking, harassment or civil litigation related to the protection of privacy or dignity.
Desired legal reforms should include criminalization of publication of harmful material, especially non-consensual disclosure of intimate content.
Re-sharing of such content should also be punishable.
The Special Rapporteur insists on the introduction of effective (but not only financial) remedies for victims. Rehabilitation, restitution, satisfaction and guarantee of non-repetition are needed to ensure the behaviour of perpetrator will not pose any danger to the rights of the victim in the future. “Right to be forgotten” developed within the European Union’s legal framework has been highlighted as a step taken in the right direction.
In the process of adopting new laws, the State should bear in mind the importance of free speech as a human right which has a non-absolute characteristic, allowing for reasonable limitations when it creates significant harm. Effective data protection is a must.
States are also obliged to update school curriculum, by including in them threats associated with the use of nowadays technologies. We all have to bear in mind we are still at early stages of development of technology. Next phases may bring another, more advanced risks, especially with the ongoing development of artificial intelligence.
Likewise, with other documents produced by UN treaty bodies Special Procedures, the discussed report may be used in the advocacy work.
The report includes a complete diagnosis of legal frameworks necessary to provide efficient legal remedies to survivors of online violence and in general online crimes and end impunity of perpetrators. Of course, the adoption of law has to be proceeded by the adaptation of legal frameworks to the local legal system. Civil Society Organisations may use the report in pushing governments to adopt concrete changes in the law. Process of shaping national policies is another opportunity for CSO to engage with the agenda of protection of victims of online violence or – ideally – prevention of such crimes. Non-governmental organisations may also raise this topic during Universal Periodic Review of their country or review conducted by relevant treaty body (especially CEDAW Committee or Children Rights Committee).
The Special Rapporteur has suggested other UN bodies to monitor the issue of online gender-based violence on a regular basis.
The report is available online on the following LINK.