'We're seeing a backlash to policies against online violence'

Asha Allen at the European Women's Lobby talks about perpetrators and forms of online violence – and what's needed to address them.

Claire Provost author pic
Claire Provost Sophie Hemery
23 November 2018

"To be clear, we see online violence [against] women and girls as just a continuum of all forms violence against women and girls", said Asha Allen, policy and campaigns officer at the European Women’s Lobby.

At the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy, which this year was focused on gender equality, she spoke to us about perpetrators and different forms of online violence – and what needs to happen to address this.

"We have stalking, you have economic violence, you have psychological violence, sexual violence, so it’s a broad myriad of issues in regards to online violence", she said, describing work to study and address such cases.

"When we talk about this, there’s often not enough emphasis on the perpetrators, it’s often on survivors, on what they may need to do, or their experiences", Allen told us.

"And what we’re seeing at the moment", she continued, with a warning: "is an opposition movement, a backlash to policies on online violence against women and all forms of violence against women and girls".

Online assaults

The three-day World Forum for Democracy (WFD) in Strasbourg, France, closed on Wednesday. Addressing violence against women was a major theme.

More than 100 speakers presented their work and perspectives, including Allen who spoke along with a public policy and government relations analyst at Google during a session on how to create safe spaces in cyberspace.

“In Spain, there are many feminist activists who have been harassed [online],” delegate Rocío Galvez Serrano told 50.50 after this session, adding that there seems to be “a kind of impunity to this”.

“The internet itself gives you the power to be anonymous and you have a free space to harass people,” she explained, arguing that “it’s the government’s responsibility [to address this]”.

“Independent legal oversight [of online violence] is important”, added Menno Ettema, from the Council of Europe’s Anti-Discrimination Department, but “how can this be done in a context where everything [happens] very quickly?”

Ettema described the goal as “an internet where everybody feels safe, regardless of gender, nationality, ethnicity… to participate, to express, to share information”, with reports of harassment taken seriously with quick responses.

‘Protect and prosecute’

Allen spoke to us about opposition to the Council of Europe's convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (known as the Istanbul convention, which opened for signature in 2011).

This treaty, she explained, aims to protect survivors of violence, prosecute perpetrators, as well as to "make sure there are high levels of impunity to deter violence, to create prevention measures in terms of education".

Although more than 33 countries have ratified it, Allen described a loud and growing opposition towards this convention, including "a lot of misconception, a lot of misinterpretation, and deliberate creation of myths” about it.

This is “the first legally binding treaty we have that aims to eradicate violence against women,” Allen added, stressing its significance to create “a safer environment for all women and girls... [to] not need to live a life in fear”.

She blamed a deliberate “spreading of myths” for turning it “into a politically sensitive issue in several countries”, with “protests [against it] that include thousands of people on the streets of Croatia and Bulgaria”.

“The opposition forces we are seeing are coordinated movements that not only oppose the Istanbul convention but that maintain anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQI+, anti-migration, anti-European sentiments,” she continued.

“The opposition forces we are seeing are coordinated movements that maintain anti-feminist, anti-LGBTQI+, anti-migration, anti-European sentiments”

She described this opposition as “berating the convention, the concept of gender as a social construct and denying that women and girls are at increased risk of violence,” claiming that the treaty “enforces a ‘gender ideology’”.

Opponents are also challenging the treaty’s education provisions, Allen said, “by claiming that the convention promotes homosexuality and gay marriage”.

The convention commits signatory states to include teaching material in formal curricula, at all levels of education, on issues including gender equality, non-stereotyped gender roles, mutual respect, and gender-based violence.

It doesn’t specifically reference online violence but calls on states to work with information and communication companies to create policies and standards “to prevent violence against women and to enhance respect for their dignity”.

Hatred and ‘dehumanising’ messages

openDemocracy's gender and sexuality section, 50.50, also organised a WFD roundtable with reporters from Poland and Italy involved in a special series tracking the transnational backlash against sexual and reproductive rights.

This series has included several reports on how opponents of women’s and LGBT rights have used online and social media platforms to recruit new supporters and target people with hatred and ‘dehumanising’ messages.

While these platforms, including Facebook and YouTube, do have written policies against discriminatory and ‘hateful’ content there’s growing evidence, and recognition, that these aren’t working.

Amid an often toxic climate for women online, the European Women's Lobby has also produced resources to help internet users assess and address the risks they may face online, including from trolls and hate speech.

Their #HerNetHerRights resources were profiled by 50.50 in a recent roundup of tools and networks to help those facing 'targeted hate' online.

They recommend, for example, finding supportive communities online, collecting proof of abuse, blocking trolls and encrypting devices and files.

*50.50 is reporting on this week’s events in Strasbourg as part of openDemocracy’s partnership with the 2018 World Forum for Democracy.

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