The new face of an old enemy

What do we know about gender-based cyber violence and how can we combat it?


An opinion by MEP Sylwia Spurek

Gender-based violence online is not a new phenomenon, but a continuum of violence that women and girls face offline. The root causes of all forms of gender-based violence are the same. Gender as a dimension of cyber violence should influence how we perceive it and how we take action against it, also in EU laws and policies.

Woman with a laptop in bed/ CC0 victoria-heath

Cyber-crimes on the rise: the new face of gender-based violence

Some might say that gender-based cyber violence was hard to imagine 30 years ago. And they are partially right, as the media to commit online violence mostly did not exist back then. As a lawyer, activist and women’s rights defender engaged in combating gender-based violence for over 20 years I have seen the cyber dimension of gender-based violence evolving.

Crimes that are a form of gender-based cyber violence include:

  • Online hate speech, trolling
  • cyber harassment
  • cyberstalking
  • sharing content without consent
  • hacking
  • identity theft
  • cyberbullying
  • and image-based sexual abuse.

However, the attempts to make such a list exhaustive are pointless. As the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women noted, every new technology can give rise to different and new kinds of gender-based violence. Just as the increase in time spent online.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought clear evidence of that. The World Wide Web Foundation found , already in July 2020, that we face a parallel pandemic of cyber violence. 52 % of women and girls   reported that they experienced some form of online abuse. 87 % said they think that the problem of cyber violence is getting worse. Why is that and how can we fight an enemy with such a complex and constantly evolving nature?

Person wearing skull mask in front of computer screen / CC0 nahel-abdul-hadi

The old enemy: how patriarchy feeds gender-based violence online

To understand and tackle the phenomenon of gender-based cyber violence we must acknowledge that either offline or online, violence against women and girls is the most severe form of gender-based discrimination. It has a structural nature, and it is one of the main social mechanisms that disadvantage women in the family and the society. It is the same mechanism of patriarchy that manifests in domestic violence, sexual violence and in any other type of physical, psychological, or economical violence. And now, also in violence online.

Cyber-violence does not happen independently from off-line reality, they go hand in hand.

In many cases perpetrators of online violence are the same as offline: they are partners, ex-partners, relatives, classmates or work colleagues. Crimes committed online follow or precede the offline ones.

The consequences for the victims of cyber violence are far-reaching and experienced in all areas of life, including but not limited to:

  • mental and psychological harm
  • damage to career development
  • repetitional damage
  • withdrawal from public debate
  • and invasions of privacy.

From a human-rights perspective, these amount to violations of the freedom of speech, the right to equal participation in public life, and the right to private and family life. In its most severe form, cyber violence threatens protection from discrimination and violence.

Woman with raised fist against sunset/ CC0 miguel-bruna

Countermeasures to combat cyber-crimes against women

Currently, our response to gender-based cyber violence in the EU is weak, fragmented, and undoubtedly insufficient. There is a wide range of approaches to dealing with the phenomenon in the Member States, with the majority not providing any measures that take gender and cyber dimension of these types of crimes into account. Instead, they rely only on general provisions of off-line crimes to be applied in these cases, such as stalking or harassment. Although standardisation is vital, EU legislation is still silent on the topic of gender-based cyber-crimes.

Considering the common root causes of all forms of gender-based violence that women face offline and online, we need a holistic approach to putting an end to it. Yet, in the 21st century, while women and girls are facing violence every day and everywhere, the EU still has not ratified or enforced the Istanbul Convention from 2011, that aims to prevent and combat violence against women.

This is why in November 2020 I have proposed measures which should be taken by the EU in an exhaustive letter to the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen. The letter was co-signed not only by 74 MEPs but also by almost 60.000 people from all over Poland, who all believe that the problem is urgent and hope that the European Commission will show the highest determination to end violence against women, including gender-based cyber violence, once and for all,

Now, as Greens/EFA we are again calling on the European Commission to take concrete legal actions and show that their commitments are more than empty words.

👉 Join our call and sign our petition for #nomoreemptywords. 👈

👉 Or join our webinar on 13 April 4 p.m. CEST to learn about and discuss the topic of gender-based cyber violence with us! 👈

Person holding a poster / CC0 alice-donovan-rouse
Sylwia SPUREK in the European Parliament in Strasbourg © European Union 2019 – Source : EP