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22nd Jan 2022

Opinion

Using Istanbul Convention to stop online abuse of women

  • Digitally-perpetrated violence ranges from forced 'sexting' and online stalking, to doxing, impersonation and image-based abuse (Photo: Alexander Lyubavin)
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Monitoring by the Council of Europe's group of experts on action against violence against women and domestic violence (GREVIO) over the past few years indicates increasing online violence and use of technologies against women and girls.

We document digitally-perpetrated violence, from forced 'sexting' and online stalking, to doxing (sharing personal information online, without consent and to encourage abuse), impersonation (creating an online presence in someone else's name) and image-based abuse.

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Much of this happens in the context of intimate-partner violence, or post-separation abuse, but in other contexts as well.

To face online violence, the group have published a new recommendation.

Although legal instruments have been developed to stop violence against women, no universally agreed definition of gender-based violence against women online or through technology exists and this recommendation aims to fill that gap with the term we coin as "the digital dimension of violence against women".

Our recommendation explains how cyber-violence can lead to violence offline, and that it can expand and amplify offline violence. Studies and surveys outlined in the recommendation illustrate the severe impact on victims – and that, sadly, impunity is more the rule than the exception.

Take for example a survey from the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights, which determined – in 2014 – that 14 percent of women in the EU had experienced stalking in the form of offensive or threatening online communications since the age of 15.

Another report commissioned by Women's Aid showed that 45 percent of domestic violence victims experienced abuse online during their relationship and that 48 percent reported experiencing harassment or abuse online from their ex-partner once they had left the relationship.

In 2018, Amnesty International reported that 25 percent of respondents polled across eight countries had received threats, including of sexual violence, physical pain, incitement to suicide and death towards them and their family on Twitter.

More than half of all young women

Last year, the NGO Plan International found that over half of 14,000 women aged 15 to 25, from 22 different countries interviewed, said they had been cyber-stalked, sent explicit messages and images, or abused online.

Indeed, cyber security software companies note an increasing use of "stalkerware" or "spyware": tracking software that can follow someone's private life without their knowledge or consent, by accessing personal information such as contacts, call logs, photos, videos, SMS messages and even physical location.

Such software, available legally and installed by anyone with access to a phone, can be hidden behind the download of otherwise innocuous programmes. Victims obviously give no consent, and the consequences can be devastating as individuals with abusive behaviour, such as in the case of domestic violence, use such software.

Our recommendation complements the Istanbul Convention with specific guidance on how to apply the treaty in a digital context.

It defines terms and concepts for violence perpetrated in the digital sphere. It provides guidance to prevent and combat such violence, proposing action as related to the four pillars of the Istanbul Convention: prevention, protection, prosecution and co-ordinated policies.

Among other measures, our recommendation calls on state parties to the Istanbul Convention to include the digital dimension of violence against women in national strategies and action plans and to ensure that data on suicide and gender-based killings contain relevant information about online harassment.

For more effective prosecution, the recommendation calls for equipping law enforcement with necessary tools to effectively investigate and prosecute gender-based violence against women perpetrated in the digital sphere.

It furthermore recommends reviews of existing relevant legislation with the possible adoption of new legislation to prevent, provide protection from and prosecute the digital dimension of violence against women, with respect to the standards of the Istanbul Convention and other relevant treaties, including the Budapest Convention, the Council of Europe treaty against cybercrime that was opened for signature 20 years ago.

Finally, it stresses that online violence cannot be seen as gender-neutral. It recognises the disproportionate exposure of women to threats in the digital sphere as gendered and sexualised abuse that punishes, silences, devalues and/or traumatises women and girls.

Ignoring the larger gender pattern associated with cyber-violence risks missing the social reality of violence against women stemming from the idea of the inferiority of women or from stereotyped roles for women and men.

Author bio

Iris Luarasi is president of the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO), which monitors implementation of the Istanbul Convention on violence against women.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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