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“In a time when there are 200 million fewer women with access to the internet, where women’s rights activists and advocates are rarely present to disrupt discussions at internet governance and policy spaces and where 98% of sexual rights activists say the internet is crucial to their work, with 51% of them facing violence and intimidation online, how would a feminist internet look like?” This was the concluding remark made by APC’s Jac sm Kee to the “Intergenerational dialogue” panel at the 59th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 59) in New York.

APC Women’s Rights Programme (WRP) team members attended the event and, alongside many other organisations, made a clear statement on why Section J of the Beijing Platform for Action – on women and the media – needs to be reprioritised as we move towards the post-2015 development agenda. APC’s advocacy for the reprioritisation of Section J at the CSW asked governments to recognise the critical role that the media and information and communications technologies (ICTs) play in both advancing and stifling women’s rights. To that end, APC developed the 10 points on Section J which describes the growing impact of ICTs on a variety of women’s rights issues – from access and agency to economics and ecology. In this article we invite you to walk through some highlights of CSW 59.

Critical issues on the human rights of women and the internet

On the first day of CSW 59, APC organised a high-level panel, “Reprioritising Section J of the Beijing Platform for Action: Critical issues on the human rights of women and girls and the internet”, in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of Estonia to the UN and with the support of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Netherlands and the National Women’s Institute of Costa Rica (INAMU).

Discussants included Marina Kaljurand, deputy foreign minister at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Estonia; Alejandra Mora, minister at the Ministry for Women’s Affairs of Costa Rica; Leah C. Tanodra-Armamento, undersecretary at the Department of Justice of the Philippines; Alton Grizzle, programme specialist at UNESCO; and Jan Moolman, APC End violence: Women’s rights and safety online project coordinator. Joanne Sandler from Gender at Work and former deputy executive director of UNIFEM moderated the discussion.

The event discussed how online violence against women (VAW) challenges parliamentarians, policy makers and internet service providers everywhere.

Special emphasis was placed on violence against women, broadly framed around ICTs and women’s rights, and some of the challenges and opportunities – especially in relation to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and post-2015 development agenda.

Not only VAW was discussed in the panel, but also women’s leadership and participation in decision making around ICTs, digital literacy, and the reasons why ICTs and communication rights are so important for women’s rights and how this needs attention in the SDGs.

Based on the experience of some countries, the event identified emerging trends and lessons learned from them. How internet service providers can be more accountable for the protection of users’ privacy and security was one of the main issues on the table, as well as what proactive steps could be taken to eradicate violence against women online.

Grizzle from UNESCO flagged that “citizens must realise that they have the power to stop watching, stop listening, stop reading, stop buying, stop sharing gender biased content from the media. Citizens must realise that they have the power over media of all forms. This is form of radical self-sacrificial advocacy. We must change the culture of how we interact with media and other information providers.” He added, “To be effective in holding media accountable, citizens need to acquire media and information literacy competencies. Media and information literate citizens are able to critically analyse information and media content, assess the potential risks and opportunities of information and media content online and offline, and equally importantly, to effectively engage with media and other information providers for good governance, freedom and advocacy against all forms of inequalities.”

Jan Moolman from APC spoke about how women have achieved empowerment by using the internet, helping individuals to construct and represent themselves online, and how connecting on the internet has promoted and facilitated movement building.

Kaljurand, the deputy foreign minister of Estonia, stressed that access to the internet “creates possibilities for [the exercise of] citizenship.” ICTs are enablers, but there are things that are slowing this down, she noted, including the fact that access to technology lags far behind for women, that technology is used for harm (technology-based VAW), and that gender stereotypes still abound in the media.

On a different note, Alejandra Mora from Costa Rica made a point about how to make women’s work and contribution to science and technology more visible.

Jennifer Breslin from UN Women questioned how to get women’s rights and ICTs issues reflected in national action plans, pointing out that this is currently a gap and, as a result of this, the risks, threats and opportunities are not reflected nationally.

Countering tech-based violence against women

Organised by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), this event discussed how technology-based violence against women challenges parliamentarians, policy makers and internet service providers everywhere. It examined what action can be taken to promote safe and responsible use of online technology.

The event was chaired by Margaret Mensah-Williams, president of the IPU Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians, and panellists included APC’s Jan Moolman and Helen Rubenstein, programme director at Global Rights for Women. Edith-Clare Hall, a 17-year-old student from the UK, gave a testimony of her experiences of VAW online and the reactions and responses of her peers.

Special emphasis was placed on strong legislation to address and provide avenues of redress for technology-based violence against women. Based on the experience of some countries, the event identified emerging trends and lessons learned from them.

Many questions were raised from the floor during the panel. One of them was, How do we create a culture where online violence against women is rejected? Moolman gave as an example of a good practice APC’s Take Back the Tech! campaign, held yearly since 2006. The campaign calls on all ICT users – especially women and girls – to take control of technology and strategically use any ICT platform at hand for activism against gender-based violence, and is open to everyone who wants to take action to end VAW and would like to explore ICT platforms, skills and knowledge.

The European Union survey on VAW Violence against women: an EU-wide survey from 2014 was mentioned in the panel as input for the debate. This survey revealed that of the sample, one in 10 women (11%) has faced at least one of the two forms of cyber harassment studied (“unwanted sexually explicit emails or SMS messages” and “inappropriate advances on social networking websites”) since the age of 15, and one in 20 (5%) in the 12 months before the survey. The risk of young women aged between 18 and 29 years becoming a target of threatening and offensive advances on the internet is twice as high as the risk for women aged between 40 and 49 years.

How do we protect women and girls and not fall prey to repressive governments, who will use this call to do surveillance? was another question introduced. In response, Moolman spoke about APC’s “From impunity to justice: Exploring corporate and legal remedies for technology-related violence against women” research project and the need to be cautious about what kinds of legal remedies we are calling for. In relation to this, she also stressed the need to create allies among freedom of expression advocacy groups, after highlighting the chilling and withdrawing effect that tech-based VAW has on women’s expression online.

Effective responses to promote women’s rights and safety online

APC organised the side event “Ending violence against women online: Effective responses to promote women’s rights and safety” where WRP team members and invited panellists shared the findings of the From impunity to justice: Exploring corporate and legal remedies for technology-related violence against women research project, after three years of intensive work under APC’s End violence: Women’s rights and safety online project. The research explored the adequacy and effectiveness of domestic legal remedies and corporate policies in relation to violence against women online, and was developed with seven partners from Colombia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines. The event discussed the research results in a conversation framed around the experiences and realities of women in the global South.

This research presented in the panel mapped and analysed cases of women around the world who survived technology-based violence. This violence is an everyday event in the lives and experiences of women and girls all over the world. An example is the case of Beatrice, a 53-year-old woman who lives in Nairobi, Kenya with her husband and children. For a large portion of her married life, Beatrice has been subject to verbal and physical violence. In 2000, the daily violence Beatrice was facing shifted to an electronic medium. Beatrice began receiving violent text messages and calls from her husband. As a result of this repeated and aggressive violence, Beatrice’s self-esteem has been affected; she constantly feels intimidated and scared.

During the panel, APC’s Moolman cited one of the cases from Pakistan that are part of the End violence research project. Under the title Gender violence in a volatile political landscape this case tells the story of Baaghi, a human rights activist with a high social and political status living in Lahore, Pakistan, who survived online threats and offline attacks taking place since 2006. Her non-Orthodox beliefs are considered by many conservative factions to be “anti-Pakistani”. As a well-known public figure, Baaghi has an active presence across social media platforms. When the violence online reached its peak, Baaghi initially closed both her and her daughter’s Facebook and Twitter accounts. Baaghi attempted to address the violence in many ways, even by trying to get a verified account on Twitter; however, Twitter has repeatedly refused her requests by saying that they have no more verified accounts to allocate. Today the strategies that Baaghi has come to use most often are blocking and a certain degree of self-censorship. Moolman pointed out how Twitter’s policies related to verified accounts did not respond to women’s realities – especially women human rights defenders (WHRDs), as this case showed.

Then there is the case of Antonia, director of Colombian feminist organisation Mujeres Insumisas, who experienced a series of both online and offline threats along with other employees of the organisation. In addition to threats via mobile phones and electronic pamphlets, the NGO received 12 threatening emails from paramilitary groups in Colombia, admonishing them to stop working for women’s rights. Antonia had a heightened sense that she and her colleagues were under constant surveillance as they went about their lives, and that her privacy had been deeply compromised.

Regarding online violence and how it is now facilitating physical violence offline, Racheal Nakitare, president of the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) in Kenya, expressed that “taking the violence happening online into the physical space is real and frightening. We need, as a matter of urgency, legal frameworks to help us deal with this issue.”

The speakers had an interesting discussion about using existing mechanisms like CEDAW as a way to respond to VAW, and raised the possibility of using the right to be forgotten as a remedy for tech-based violence.

The question raised in the panel on why is it only women’s bodies the ones we are seeing in sex videos, led to some interesting conversations around sex, consent and patriarchy. Another crucial question raised tapped on what to do when women – young ones specially – don’t see this kind of violations as an expression of violence, therefore they remain integrated in the violence spiral.

According to Laura Bretón Despradel from Centro de Investigación para la Acción Femenina (CIPAF) in Dominican Republic, “at the moment, the most important thing women need to know is how far to go on the internet in regard to sharing information and how to protect themselves on various technology related platforms.”

Intergenerational dialogue

On 13 March, UN Women organised a high-level panel which brought together gender equality advocates and stakeholders from across generations to discuss strategies and perspectives that can accelerate the achievement of gender equality by 2030.

APC WRP manager Jac sm Kee gave a poignant speech there. “Twenty years ago, when the Beijing Platform for Action was developed, it was the most visionary piece of global document that recognised and understood the potential of emerging information and communications technologies to transform power and dismantle gender inequality. Today, 20 years later, where is the conversation? ICTs is relegated to the footnotes, deprioritised and made invisible – as though it is only something that belongs to technocrats or schools, mainly a matter of STEM, but not to us, women and girls, activists and advocates who use and engage with technology every day.”

Kee questioned the place where ICTs are located and framed in a forum such as the CSW. She asked: “Is it seen as a central, political revolution that enables a HIV+ woman in Uganda to change the way her village relates to her because she can access information through her phone? Or something that helps a transgendered person in South Africa see herself, and find out about doctors, health info, and a community that supports her in her journey of transitioning? Or a space where feminist activists in Southeast Asia can mobilise with others to communicate and strategise for political change and peace building across borders? Or is it seen as a matter primarily in the service of the economy – that the way women and girls relate with technology is primarily for production, capital accumulation, markets and the commodification of our bodies, energy and imagination?”

She argued that this question is critical especially as we move towards the post-2015 development agenda, and as we articulate development goals to end discrimination and inequality. “Technology and ICTs is not just about economic development, but about how we can control our lives, our bodies, the relationships we have with ourselves and our community, and our rules of engagement.”

She closed her intervention with a booming question that was later addressed for discussion by the panel: “In a time when there are 200 million fewer women with access to the internet, and access for women is prioritised primarily through the narrow confines of mobile phones, where women’s rights activists and advocates are rarely present to disrupt discussions at internet governance and policy spaces and where 98% of sexual rights activists say the internet is crucial to their work, with 51% of them facing violence and intimidation online, how would a feminist internet look?”

Changing social norms to achieve gender equality

The official panel Implementing the Beijing Platform for Action – Changing social norms to achieve gender equality: Expectations and opportunities held on 16 March, considered the various aspects of social norms and stereotypes which condone and perpetuate gender inequality and discrimination. The panel also reviewed expectations and opportunities for facilitating progress towards gender equality through positive action and changing social norms. All of this will feed into the Chair’s summary containing recommendations to contribute to the accelerated implementation of the Platform for Action in the current context.

Many crucial questions were raised, among them, how can ICTs and technological innovation be used to address social norms and gender stereotypes that perpetuate inequality and discrimination, and what is the role of grassroots organisations in this regard.

Among many other presentations, Elisa Salinas, an internationally recognised television and film producer and founder of “The Women ́s Project” in Mexico, spoke about Challenging media and film stereotypes on gender sexuality and women ́s rights.

Dafne Sabanes Plou, the APC WRP coordinator in Latin America, gave a presentation in which she emphasised that for women, the internet is a vital public sphere where they can challenge content in mainstream media and their political representation. “Women have found in the internet an increasingly critical public platform for their claiming of citizenship and civil liberties, including women’s rights.”

Sabanes Plou mentioned APC’s Take Back the Tech! campaign – recently granted an award by the International Telecommunication Union – as an example of the transformative potential of technology to dismantle patriarchal attitudes and norms that uphold gender and sexual inequality. “The campaign demonstrates that women can creatively come together and work from a feminist and liberating perspective to take control of technology in activism against VAW online and offline and more,” she stated.

“In our newly launched research on online VAW, we find that much of the impact of violence against women online stems from the cost of shame that women often have to bear. They don’t have control over their own bodies and sexualities – taken away from them in situation like sexualised blackmail through posting images/videos. And in our research on sexuality and the internet, we find that an important aspect of changing this is to enable women and girls, including LGBTIQ people, to have control over the internet to change the norms around sexuality so that they can have control over how this is valued and defined,” she added.

“We would like to urge a reprioritisation of Section J, including provision of resources, clear targets and indicators for the SDGs that include access to, and control over ICTs for decision making, transformation of discriminatory social norms, and to enable autonomy and the full realisation of the human rights of women and girls,” she concluded.

Nothing about us without us!

Representatives of feminist and women’s organisations and those working to promote the full realisation of the human rights of women and girls expressed their outrage at the way that they were excluded from both the negotiation of the political declaration and the CSW Methods of Work resolution.

“In a context of increasing attacks on the human rights of women and girls and closing space for civil society at all levels, from the national to the global, we had held up the CSW as a place where we could express our views and influence the development of critical policies that affect our lives and futures,” they declared. “Instead, it seems that governments are intent on closing even that door by trying to limit the robust participation of non-governmental organizations (…) It seems they are intent on discussing everything about us, without us,” added the signing organisations.

“We do not come to the CSW to attend side events. We come to the CSW to hold our governments to account to the commitments they have made to guarantee gender equality, eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against us and achieve the full realization of all of our human rights,” the statement stressed.

In order to ensure the continued relevance of the CSW to women’s lives, the statement makes clear demands regarding the Methods of Work resolution and calls on UN Women and member states “to stand with us in ensuring our seat at the decision-making table so that we can make sure that nothing is discussed about us without us.”

Read and know more

  • Read the findings of our research:

Domestic legal remedies for cases of technology-related violence against women
Improving corporate policies to end technology-related violence against women
4 reasons women struggle to access justice in tech-based VAW
Mapping technology-based violence against women – top 8 findings

A full list of background readings for CSW 59 is available here

  • Webcasts available here
  • Compilation by AWID here
Areas of work