European collaboration can offer solutions on how to end cyberviolence. Sylwia Spurek MEP on why ending online violence should be considered a priority for the European Parliament when fighting gender-based violence. 

Cyberviolence -the new face of gender-based violence?

Gender-based violence, a concept we are sadly all too familiar with, is more than violence against women. It also includes violence against persons with marginalised sexual orientations or gender identities. I am a feminist, lawyer, activist and women’s rights defender engaged in combating gender-based violence for over 20 years. And I have seen the cyber dimension of gender-based violence evolving.

And just as for violence offline, the risk of being affected by cyberviolence increases if you are Black, a person of color, from an ethnic or religious minority, have a disability, identify as LGBTIQA+ or are if you are outspoken about anything to do with feminism or equal rights.

Gender-based violence online is not a new phenomenon. It is a continuum of the violence that women, girls and gender diverse people face offline.

Crimes that are a form of gender-based cyberviolence 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.

The World Wide Web Foundation found, already in July 2020, that we face a parallel pandemic of cyberviolence. 52 % of women and girls reported that they experienced some form of online abuse. 87 % said they think that the problem of cyberviolence is getting worse.

But how can we build a safer world online, to counter this ever-evolving form of gendered violence?

The cost of cyberviolence for a society

An Australian research shows the real cost of cyberviolence. When calculating the price tag of online harassment and cyberhate, the 2019 research shows that online violence has cost Australians an estimated $3.7 billion in health costs and lost income.

What do you think the economic cost would be for Europe, a region with a population nearly twenty times larger than that of Australia?

Gender-based violence is a human rights epidemic, an economical threat, and a barrier to thriving democratic societies. The EU can no longer be a by-stander to the evolving crisis. We need to go from empty words to practising our values.

The patriarchy feeds gender-based violence online

To understand and tackle the phenomenon of gender-based cyberviolence we need to understand that either offline or online, gender-based violence has a structural nature.

Patriarchal structures are some of the main social mechanisms that disadvantage all persons who don’t conform to old gender norms in society. It is the same mechanism of patriarchy that manifests in domestic violence, sexual violence, transphobia and other types of physical, psychological, or economical violence.

Cyberviolence does not happen independently from offline 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 online often follow or precede the offline ones.

We need to educate vulnerable groups online on how to protect themselves. How can we safely store passwords, remove personal information that we don’t want to see online and what can we do when facing harassment online? But we also finally seak responsibility with the perpetrators. We must invest in education and prevention of the violent behavior, before it even takes place.

The basis for this needs to be a European approach to gender-based violence online and offline. This is why we are working on the ‘EU directive against gender-based violence’. Only with a common approach can we fight cyberviolence across borders together.

What can we do to combat gendered cybercrimes?

The current response to gender-based cyberviolence in the EU is weak, fragmented, and insufficient.

The interventions against cyberviolence at EU Member State level don’t take the gender dimension into account enough. But also other intersecting discriminatory factors like ethnicity and sexual orientation fall short in these measures against cyberviolence . Instead, they rely only on general provisions of offline crimes to be applied in these cases, such as for stalking or harassment. But standardisation is vital to successfully combating online crimes. Yet, the EU legislation has for far too long been silent on the topic of gender-based cybercrimes.

In the 21st century, while women and girls are still facing violence every day and do not feel safe in their own home. The EU has also still not ratified the Istanbul Convention, that aims to prevent and end gender-based violence.

This is why we as the Greens/EFA in the European Parliament believe that the problem needs to be tackled with the urgency. This can be done with help of the European Parliament’s position on the European Commission’s proposal for an EU directive against gender-based violence. We still call on the Council to activate the passerelle clause by adopting a unanimous decision identifying gender-based violence against women and girls as one a new of the areas of crime listed in Article 83(1) of the TFEU.

In the coming months the Parliament will form its position on the directive. We invite all MEPs to make the most of this historic and incredible opportunity. They can contribute to building a feminist, free and equal internet.

As green feminists, we will show the highest determination to end gender-based violence including gender-based cyberviolence, once and for all.

Gender as a dimension of cyberviolence should influence how we perceive it, and how we take action against it, also in EU laws and policies!