Tere said the first case was five years ago. A nine-year-old girl who via chat made friends with another girl, both of them crazy for Cowco stickers. One day they planned to meet after school to exchange stampitas. But her new cyber friend didn´t show up, rather she was met by the big brother. Doused with chloroform and kidnapped. Since then the number of cases of trafficking where the first contact is made via internet has increased dramatically. In just the last three months, Tere reports, the Mexico office of the Coalition against Trafficking of Women and Girls in Latin America and the Caribbean (CATWLAC) has received over 300 internet-related complaints.
Tere Ulloa has been a staunch defender of women and girls´rights ever since I met her some 19 years ago in a women´s congress in Mexico City, working with other “defensoras populares” (grassroots defenders) to get the word out to women about their rights. In a recent meeting on the interconnections of the internet with violence against women, convened by Modemmujer, feminist electronic network, and Laneta, ISP for civil society, Tere shared how the Coalition is witness to the steady rise and real danger that internet represents for girls and women in Mexico. “Now they don´t even bother with kidnapping – they tell the girls how to sneak out of their house, how to get a cell phone, they convince them to come directly to them.” Her organisation has found over 650 trafficked women and girls since 2004. Stolen as girls, returning home as women who have worked for years in burdels or on the streets.
The meeting is part of a three-year, 12-country project in Latin America, Africa and Asia to build awareness and skills to stop the increasing incidents of violence against women and girls using ICTs. Modemmujer and Laneta, in collaboration with the Association for Progressive Communications Women´s Programme (APC WNSP) embarked on this journey in 2009 to first understand and surface the interconnections via research. This meeting, a combination of consultation and awareness-raising, brought together several long-established women´s rights organisations who also have years of experience using the internet to dialogue and strategise about solutions.
Telemanita, a feminist video collective, shared how doing video with indigenous women from artisans cooperatives about their production process had collateral effects in the area of VAW. Artisans ranging from basket weavers to artists with embroidery thread helped write the video scripts, learned how to make blogs and found other avenues to commercialise their products via this ICT project. However, their participation made the psychological and physical violence suffered at home more visible and acute. When asked what videos they would like to do next, the result was overwhelming – the women wanted to talk about and document the violence they experience at home and in their communities. They want others to know what is going on, and they want to communicate to their families and communities that this is wrong. Alejandra Novoa from Telemanita was not certain that such videos would ever be public – and certainly it would be up to the women producers themselves to decide – but it was clear that the women were keen to focus on violence. Perhaps, Alejandra speculated, because the women felt the process of making such a video could be as liberating and empowering to fight against VAW as their first videos were to validate their artisan history and skills.
Norma Alegre from Modemmujer presented how ciberbullying is on the rise in Mexican schools, facilitated by such spaces as lajaula.net, a social networking site where any student can log on and go to their school´s space to discover the latest hot gossip about classmates. Virtually every school in Mexico City, not to mention outlying states, has a space on the site. Embarrassing photos, demeaning comments, anything is fair game. Teasing and torment don´t stop at the school yard anymore. Modemmujer developed a multimedia educational module on cyberbullying to help kids identify the problem and seek solutions.
Tere pointed out that sexting messages – cell phone multimedia messages with sexually explicit images and/or text – meant perhaps for one´s boyfriend´s eyes only, sear through schools via cell phone and social networking sites and by the next day or the same afternoon the whole school knows what you said or sent. “It´s resulted in suicides,” she affirms. Yet there are no statistics to tell us how prevalent this is. Just the overwhelming popularity of spaces like lajaula.net. Girls and boys are not just contributing to bullying, they are uploading their own porn. In Metroflog, Tere points out, girls get popularity points if they upload shots of their genitals.
After this consultation, the next step of the Take Back the Tech! To End Violence against Women and Girls project is to meet with decision-makers at different levels – for example within the school systems, or at the preventative level – to galvanise increased action without knee-jerk *RE*actions to limit civil liberties and internet access, especially as internet is not the villain but the medium.
Laws that do exist are inadequate, even in the case of trafficking, where Mexico has signed the Convention on Transnational Organised Crime and its Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons. Prosecution is difficult, and traffickers know where vulnerabilities lie. According to Tere, another weapon in their arsenal is the art of seduction. “There are girls that we have rescued who tell us that they ‘still love’ their captors – which makes bringing legal charges more difficult because of the laws of consent.” Even in those cases where the girls were kidnapped at the age of 8 or 9, in order to get the prized and high-priced first penetration “sale”.