Women and girls in Canada experience deliberate violence because of their gender, and now that violence is impacting them online. Online threats are affecting their lives and freedoms and silencing them as they are driven off of the Internet and social platforms. It’s time we did something concrete to address cyberviolence in Canada, and the solutions will require a cross-sectoral approach.

YWCA Canada uses the term “cyberviolence” to mean any harmful act carried out through networked technology. The term conveys the serious harm that these behaviours can do. It includes much of the online behaviour often described as “cyberbullying”: spreading rumours about someone, impersonating someone, spreading intimate or embarrassing images, and targeting someone with threats or sexist language. It can also include stalking or monitoring individuals, and it might be carried out by peers, friends, strangers, or romantic partners.

At YWCA Canada we have heard many stories of cyberviolence from women, program workers, and RCMP officers across the country.

Jade, a young widow, lived in a small maritime community. She shared an intimate photo of herself with a man she met on a dating site, as they were building their relationship online. When she broke off the relationship the man, who lived in the same town, he threatened to share the photo on Facebook with her family, friends and colleagues, as well as the family of her deceased husband, if she did not transfer a large sum of money to him. Jade was devastated. She went to the RCMP to report it, but there were no solutions. Out of deep fear of what could happen if she did not pay him the ransom, she opted to pack up and move away.

Ruby went to a shelter directly from the hospital emergency room after her husband broke her rib. The next morning, her husband knocked on the shelter’s door, demanding that she come out. He had located her using the “find my phone” app.

Unfortunately, women and girls in Canada like Jade and Ruby often interact with systems and groups that don’t take their complaints about online threats and harassment seriously. Canadian laws around cyberviolence, and the policies of private-sector information and technology companies, must be proactive instead of reactive.

Make it easier to define, report and block online gender violence

Seventy-three percent of women world-wide have been exposed to online violence. Women are 27 times more likely to be abused online than men. According to a UN study, women aged 18 to 24 are at heightened risk for cyberviolence and more likely than any other demographic to experience stalking and sexual harassment. Often technology enables or furthers gender-based violence off-line; it’s part of a continuum.

In response to this issue, YWCA Canada developed Project Shift, a multi-year project that establishes the need for a gender lens in order to better understand violence online. The initiative resulted in a range of recommendations for actors in the information, communication and technology (ICT) sector, in educational institutions, the police, and among parents and counsellors.

First and foremost, the project identified a serious need for the ICT sector to introduce more effective reporting and blocking policies, and that they be enforced quickly and efficiently to enable the immediate removal of online posts or suspension of the people posting them. These policies need to be easy to find and use, and they should include clear consequences for violators.

The pilot project on which YWCA is currently collaborating with Facebook Canada is an good example of such a policy. Through this project, YWCA is working with vulnerable women who suspect that an intimate image of them will be shared on Facebook. The women are walked through a confidential process that ensures that the photo, when uploaded to the platform, will be blocked. Facebook creates a unique digital fingerprint to ensure the photo cannot be shared.

Another important recommendation is that companies in the ICT sector should post more precise definitions of abuse or harassment than the current, limited categories allow. We need clearer rules and definitions around concepts such as harassment, unpermitted use of identity, oppressive language (based on gender, orientation and all intersectional identities). The firms should also ensure there is sufficient monitoring of their platforms, games and apps through the use of tools such as language recognition software, and by monitoring IP addresses to avoid repeat offenders from returning.

More resources are needed to support public education that raises awareness of safety online. We invite social media platforms to use their existing systems, newsfeeds or ads to direct users to information on reporting, on safety and privacy in ways that work.

In the justice and law enforcement systems, the police should take all reports of cyberviolence seriously, and enforce existing laws when it is reported. They need women-centred training on how to work with survivors in a way that is supportive and nonjudgmental (i.e., that does not blame the victim). Police should be trained and encouraged to become familiar with and engage with social media, apps and tools, and to better understand the digital world generally. The police need training on techniques for working with the tech sector more effectively in order to conduct better and timely investigations. This would include what information should be on a warrant/subpoena in a case involving cyberviolence.

The education system also has a role to play. It can develop and enforce clear policies that encourage positive digital space and good digital citizenship. All schools and their administrative boards should ensure that front-line educators and staff have adequate guidance and the expertise to identify and work with students who are facing cyberviolence.

Protecting the most vulnerable women from cyberviolence

As important as it is for ICT, justice and education sector actors to have a better understanding of cyberviolence and introduce stronger policies, it’s also important to ensure the most vulnerable are protected from cyberviolence now.

This week (June 13-15, 2018), YWCA Canada staff participated in a national conference coordinated by Women’s Shelters Canada, called “Shelters of the Future,” which discussed emerging trends and issues in the context of violence against women.

In focus groups conducted by YWCA Canada, shelter managers and violence services staff across the country, it became clear that there is a considerable knowledge gap around digital privacy and security in the shelter system. Workers who are experienced in supporting women fleeing abuse at the most critical points in their lives said that they have only a basic understanding of digital privacy and safety. Agencies and shelters need to increase their workers’ knowledge of technology-facilitated violence, to better protect women.

In smaller shelters where shelter residents use a single IP or computer, replacing outdated computer equipment and software would go a long way in addressing the problem. More funding is needed for organizations like YWCA Canada and Women’s Shelters Canada to address these gaps by increasing training in current online safety and privacy measures.

Cyberviolence is a threat to safety and democracy

Cyberviolence threatens women’s lives. It also threatens our democracy. We know that many women and girls quit social networks after being harassed, which means they are being driven away from the very places where they engage in public conversations.

We are failing as a democracy if we allow cyberviolence to prevent girls and women from exercising their full rights. This isn’t a challenge that one group can tackle, or that can be fixed through unilateral initiatives. We need to bring together actors from the corporate, legal, education and social services sectors to tackle the problem of cyberviolence.

Canada’s government has made gender equity a priority. It is time that it demonstrates that commitment by helping fund and convene the collaborative approaches necessary to end gender violence online. YWCA and our Project Shift partners have started the process, and now we stand by ready move forward in partnership with government. Cyberviolence against women and girls is a global challenge. Canada has the opportunity to lead with solutions.

This article arose from a “Hard Questions” event co-hosted by Facebook Canada and YWCA Canada on April 23, 2018. To learn more, see https://facebookcanadahardquestionsroundtables.com/

Illustration: Shutterstock, by NatBasil.

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Raine Liliefeldt
As a director at YWCA Canada, Raine Liliefeldt is responsible for Project Shift: Creating a Safer Digital World for Young Women; Think Big. Lead Now, a national young women’s leadership program; and other mission impact projects and programs.

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