Tackling gender-based violence, it has been anticipated, will be a key priority of the 2020-2024 EU Gender Equality Strategy.
At GenPol we think it is vital that abuse against women is understood and addressed comprehensively. This means, first of all, taking into account intersections between forms of violence based on gender and other oppressive dynamics motivated by race, class, religion, and various forms of economic and social vulnerability. It is also important to pay attention to new and pernicious manifestations of violence.
This is why we welcome the efforts that European institutions have been recently devoting to tackling violent acts that result not only in physical and sexual harm, but in psychological and economic suffering to women. We also applaud any attempt to raise awareness around gender-based discrimination and harassment at all levels.
In order for the new Strategy to be success, it is crucial that digital gender-based violence is openly recognised as one the latest manifestation of patriarchal abuse. It must become a key area of work within the forthcoming EU Gender Equality Strategy.
Even though online vitriol can be directed against people of all genders, existing research clearly indicates that the attacks that women (especially BAME, LGBTQAI+ and disabled ones) face on the Internet are disproportionately more intense, and extremely sexualised. We also know that online and offline violence have a remarkably similar impact on the target, and that they constantly intersect, as digital technologies are increasingly used by both organised misogynistic groups, as well as by perpetrators of domestic violence.
Building on these considerations (which we outline extensively in our policy paper), we suggest that interventions in this area can be usefully incorporated in the forthcoming EU Gender Equality Strategy in at least four ways.
- The new Gender Equality Strategy should integrate inter-State data and information sharing, legal and technical skill exchange, and EU-level training of national legal personnel on digital violence. In order to do this, legislative intervention that falls outside the legislative remit of the EU may be needed to address legal loopholes (in many European states this is the case, for example, with image-based abuse). However, several existing provisions at national, international and EU-levels can be effectively used to respond to digital attacks. In other words, it is crucial that legal personnel and other stakeholders across the continent are trained to recognise the gendered nature of digital abuse, and to apply existing legislation accordingly.
- EU institutions can effectively build on existing EU-level legislation (for example, the Equal Treatment Directive, the Code of Best Practices for Women in ICT, GDPR) to push tech companies to adopt more effective reporting mechanisms, as well as take down and moderation procedures. There is also a need for more transparent data policies and internal gender equality commitments. This last point is particularly important, as gender inequalities in tech companies can translate into a dismissive attitude towards digital harm. Online abuse concerns should thus be incorporated not only in the section of the Gender Equality Strategy that addresses violence against women, but also in those that consider how to advance women’s rights in the context of digital innovation.
- The new Strategy should explicitly cite digital violence survivors (and the groups that work with them) as beneficiaries of specific forms of support. Not only do women’s rights organisations tend to be painfully underfunded, but tackling online harm also adds another layer of difficulty. Domestic and sexual violence charities (together with employers) need specialised training and resources to best withstand digital attacks. In particular, there is evidence that female politicians, journalists and human rights advocates are amongst the principal targets of online assaults. Whilst this leads some to quit their job, it also dissuades younger women from engaging in public life. Awareness raising, training and capacity building initiatives are thus urgently needed for organisations that employ, or work with, professionals in public facing roles. Crucially, this should be a part of EU-sponsored measures to address gender-based violence, as well as of those sections of the new Strategy dealing with gender equality at work and in decision-making.
- Educational interventions, and especially comprehensive sexuality education designed to eradicate the stereotypes and social norms that inform violence are the single most effective, long-term strategy to challenge online violence – and indeed any type of abuse. Coordination of best practices and capacity building in this area are key.
Whilst the 2020-2024 EU Gender Strategy could mark a significant stride towards the eventual eradication of gender-based violence, this intervention must incorporate multi-level solutions targeting digital attacks and online abuse. An awareness of the pernicious nature of digital violence- and its tangible real-world impacts- will help to inform a truly transformational strategy for the new decade.
The GenPol Team