Writing on Human Rights Day, Lisa Gormley and Kelsey Kamitomo reflect on their 16 Days of Activism series and see ways forward to tackle the violence that is directed at women, online and off.

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During the past 16 days, the contributions in this series on online violence against women (VAW) have come from a variety of professions – law, journalism, advocacy and campaigning, technology. In our office just off the Strand in London, the process of publishing each post has been a moment to reflect on writing online, and the continuum between digital and physical spaces.

When we first started thinking about this series, we saw online VAW in terms of harm. Too often ‘online violence’ is seen as not entirely real, something that should be ignored or turned off if it causes offence. Yet the women featured throughout this series have shown that VAW online has real and significant consequences in real life. Threats frequently become physical harm. Dr Michelle Ferrier notes that 40 per cent of journalists who have been killed were threatened online first. Women have to move home, change jobs, change the way they travel and work, and for some, it is literally a matter of life and death. Azmina Dhrodia quotes Pamela Merritt, an activist and blogger who says she has “reconciled with the fact” that she is prepared to die for her work. “If you get 200 death threats, it only takes one person who really wants to kill you.”

Why do these threats persist? Dr Louise Arimatsu and Madeleine Rees tell us “it’s not the technology that creates the harm but the social context in which gendered norms and sexist behaviour prevails.” In other words, the online space is an extension of our physical ‘realities’ – the inequality and discrimination women experience offline also exists online. And the result has been a ‘chilling effect’ on women’s freedom of speech and expression.

Semanur Karaman reminds us that speech should be analysed “within a social-political context of sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia and economic disparity that prevents us from accurately analysing who has access to this [freedom of speech] fundamental right, online and off”. This requires us to situate speech in context, the diversity of voices present, and who has the opportunity to speak and who has not.

While the ‘world wide web’ appears to be a free, global space, the reality is that what happens online is subject to regulation by domestic jurisdictions. Without adequate measures to address online VAW, there are many ways to abuse that space but addressing online VAW is possible. Anita Gurumurthy and Amrita Vasudevan gave positive examples of steps states have taken to broaden laws so they include online violence. And, as Dr Louise Arimatsu and Madeleine Rees said, “The protection of women’s rights… including against online VAW, not only constitutes a legal obligation on states but is a necessary condition to securing an environment in which women can participate effectively to further both peace and gender equality.”

At the Centre for Women, Peace and Security’s end of term party students and staff exchanged gifts. Among them were several books by the Londoner Virginia Woolf. One book in particular stood out: Three Guineas. Written in 1938, this series of letters considers whether women can do anything to prevent war. In it, Virginia Woolf tells her male correspondent that a newspaper editor wouldn’t print a letter about peace from a woman:

although it is true that we can write articles or send letters to the Press, the control of the Press—the decision what to print, what not to print—is entirely in the hands of your sex.

Some 60 years later came the advent of the internet. Now, women can write to be read and understood, to speak and influence, to connect, and have an exchange – of ideas, stories, experiences – with millions of other people, without a gatekeeper.

The writers throughout this series also demonstrate this potential for empowerment and equality the internet brings.

Women are using the internet to fight back against online VAW. In the absence of substantial policy, Semanur Karaman explained that women provide mutual aid and support to each other online. Tactical Technology Collective, where she works, has created a digital security toolkit to keep women, and Women Human Rights Defenders in particular, safe online. Dr Michelle Ferrier’s organisation, Trollbusters, provides “online pest control for women writers”. IT for Change shares resources, articles and research with their users online, with the aim of “Bridging development realities with technological possibilities”.

Women are using the internet to mobilise. Coordinators of the Women’s March acknowledged the key role social media platforms played in building momentum, organising and consolidating marches around the world. Women across Mexico have taken to Twitter using hashtags #NiUnaMás, #NoEsNo and #MiPrimerAcoso to protest widespread VAW in the country. In October women around the world, including us, said ‘#MeToo’, bringing their stories to illuminate the reality of statistics on gender-based violence.

Women are using the internet to share their stories – and connect. As Azmina Dhrodia said, behind every number is a story. Tarana Burke, founder and creator of the ‘Me Too’ movement and Just Be Inc., spoke about empowerment through empathy. “The point of the work we’ve done over the last decade with the ‘me too movement’ is to let women, particularly young women of color know that they are not alone – it’s a movement.” Social media allows us to share our stories and acknowledge the stories of others. To end VAW, wherever it exists, each voice is important, and the internet is a powerful medium for those voices.

There have been several public moments in the struggle against gender-based violence which have been identified as “tipping points” – the Clarence Thomas hearings, the scandals across the world of clerical abuse of children, Jimmy Savile and Operation Yewtree, the arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Nigeria, the disgrace of Harvey Weinstein, and many others. Maybe we don’t have multiple tipping points. Maybe a larger conversation and movement has begun.

The 16 Days of Activism – celebrating the period between the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Human Rights Day – are not just hooks for the campaigning calendar, but moments to reflect on how far we’ve come and where we might go. The authors in this series have provided ways forward. Semanur Karaman and Azmina Dhrodia called for concrete actions from social media companies and governments to combat online VAW, and Dr Louise Arimatsu and Madeleine Rees demonstrated states’ legal obligations to do so. Anita Gurumurthy and Amrita Vasudevan outlined a feminist jurisprudence on VAW that “addresses harm as a discriminatory act that impinges upon a woman’s dignity and a violation of her right to privacy seen as the triumvirate of bodily integrity, personal autonomy and informational privacy.” Dr Michelle Ferrier called for an end to impunity for acts of violence against women journalists.

Until these things are fully realised each of us must, if we are able, continue to raise our voices – online and off. As Tarana Burke said:

We keep talking about how many millions engaged with the movement, but even if just 10 percent of those people stay committed to the work, we will have created an incredible army. Because, the power of #MeToo isn’t just naming it. Naming it is just the beginning of the journey.

We can’t wait to see what happens next.

Read more posts from our 16 Days of Activism series or visit the Tackling Violence against Women website for more resources on ending online VAW.  

About the authors

Lisa Gormley is a Research Officer in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. She has a strong background in women’s human rights, including 14 years as legal adviser at Amnesty International’s International Secretariat, mostly specialising in women’s rights in international law. She is also the author of the ‘Women’s Access to Justice for Gender-Based Violence: ICJ’s Practitioner’s Guide’.

Kelsey Kamitomo is a Projects and Communications Officer in the Centre for Women, Peace and Security. She created the Tackling Violence against Women online resource, which explains the global and regional human rights frameworks that exist to end gender-based discrimination and violence against women and girls.