Online Violence Against Women: A Global Issue

Jeanne Bourgault
6 min readFeb 25, 2016

The rise of the internet and social media brings with it new platforms for freedom of expression. While the upside is clear, Internews president Jeanne Bourgault explores how women in many countries are being driven away from the online space because of harassment and threats of violence.

Carolina Botero Cabrera is a researcher, lawyer, lecturer, writer and consultant on issues related to law and technology, as well as a columnist for El Espectador. (Photo Credit: Karisma)

Meet Carolina Botero Cabrera, a Colombian lawyer leading Karisma, a civil society organization (CSO) that fights for internet freedom and gender equity in Colombia.

Carolina writes a short opinion editorial in the El Espectador journal that is published every Friday. But like so many other women with a public profile in Colombia, she has been facing harassment online. In the comments section of the publication, people were calling her offensive words and told her she was not as good a lawyer as her husband.

At first, Carolina ignored these comments by not answering them. Ultimately, she found herself avoiding them altogether. Neither of these approaches satisfied her activist instincts. She said, “I realized I was censoring myself by ignoring this behavior and alienating myself from the public debate. This is very ironic since I work for an organization that’s fighting against this very thing.”

Self-censorship online

Karisma recently published its Web Foundation report, which found crucial evidence that high profile women journalists and thought leaders are censoring themselves in the online space.

Karisma published this report on women and how they are censoring themselves online.

Carolina said: “We held workshops in which we spoke to several Colombian female journalists. We found that many decided to leave online media altogether, especially those who were engaged in really sensitive issues, such as mining, bribes and corruption. They simply decided to erase their online profiles because the harassment they were being subjected to was so nasty.”

Thanks to the rise of internet use and social media engagement, more people than ever before have freedom to air their views and have access to information in Colombia. While the positives associated with this are manifold, one of the adverse effects is that it has also led to an increase in online violence against women (OVAW).

A backdrop of violence

In this Latin American country of 47 million people, one woman is killed every two days. If you consider these shocking figures in the context of challenges in Colombia’s society, it is not surprising that so many women are shying away from the online space. As Carolina explained, “We have a patriarchal society where family violence is prevalent. Furthermore, Colombia’s civil war has been raging for generations now and violence against women has been an important piece of it, including the use of sexual violence to silence women journalists. One example is the case of Colombian journalist Jineth Bedoya Lima, who was kidnapped, tortured and raped by paramilitaries because of her journalistic work.”

First Lady Michelle Obama, left; and Hillary Rodham Clinton, right; and pose for a photo with 2012 International Women of Courage (IWOC) Award Winner Jineth Bedoya Lima of Colombia, who was kidnapped, tortured and raped by paramilitaries because of her journalistic work. (State Department photo/ Public Domain)

Despite these horrors, it seems that peace could be on the horizon in Colombia. In September 2015, President Juan Manuel Santos and the FARC leader Rodrigo Londño announced a breakthrough in the peace talks. They have agreed to finalize a deal by March 2016 and that the FARC would lay down its arms two months later.

With the end of the civil war potentially in the cards, can Colombian women finally feel safe enough to engage in the online community? When asked this question, Carolina replied: “The vulnerability of journalists increases when there are armed groups around. So yes, we hope there will be a better media landscape for all when the civil war is over, including female journalists.”

A global issue

While OVAW is prevalent in Colombia, it is a global issue that knows no boundaries, cutting across borders, race and culture. Ironically, while the growth of mobile information and communications technologies (ICTs) and social media have presented ways of tackling violence against women and girls, these very same platforms are also being used as tools to inflict violence on women and girls across the world

Depending on the country you live in, online violence can threaten women’s lives. For example, the Washington Post recently reported that a woman in Afghanistan had her Facebook account hacked and the ‘troll’ then posted fake updates boasting about drug use and illicit behavior. In Afghanistan, this sort of online activity can get a woman killed.

A journalist in Maimana, Afghanistan conducts an interview for her radio program. Women journalists in Afghanistan have had their Facebook accounts hacked, which can threaten their lives. (Credit: knottleslie/CC)

The UN says that the sheer volume of cyber violence against women and girls has severe social and economic implications with threats of rape, death and stalking putting stress on financial resources, due to legal fees, online protection services and missed wages. Furthermore, there are significant direct and indirect costs for societies with the increased need for health care, judicial and social services. On top of all of this, freedom of speech and human rights are threatened.

In a recent column for Index on Censorship, Dunja Mijatovic, OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media, discussed the plight of one female journalist she knows. This journalist’s details were shared on dating websites, she received death threats via Skype and her email account was hacked. This journalist, Dunja said, is just one of many who have had to question their profession because of these online attacks.

The Global Media Monitoring Project 2015 showed that women are under-represented in the news.

With only 26% of the people featured in news stories published online currently women, it is very possible that cyber violence will drive more and more female journalists and thought leaders to ‘go dark’ online. Just imagine what that will do not only to women’s rights but also to the quality of the news we consume.

What next?

As a group that puts internet freedom at the heart of everything it does, Karisma’s main mission in Colombia at the moment is not only to work out how to stop OVAW but also to ensure that the internet’s reputation as a tool for freedom of expression is maintained.

Carolina says that one of the most damaging side effects of this push against cyber harassment is that it has been provoking women to ask for immediate remedies such as strict content controls and forbidding online anonymity. She said: “When we started looking at this issue, we told the former freedom of expression rapporteur of the UN, Frank La Rue, about this and he said that the situation could be characterized as freedom of expression against freedom of expression. This is one of Karisma’s main concerns.”

The findings of Karisma’s Web Foundation project have shed a great deal of light on the issue, including how female journalists are turning away from airing their views online. Furthermore, in December 2015, Karisma’s campaign to raise awareness about violence against women was launched, promoting the idea of a visible tool for reporting violence online. But Carolina says that despite all of this activity, Karisma is still very much at the “understanding phase” of this issue.

Machitroll Alert is an initiative from the Karisma Foundation that supports women expressing themselves freely online as a key to ending violence and promoting respect. (Photo credit: Karisma)

There is no doubt that the challenges Karisma and other groups like it face are huge. The organization clearly recognizes that the introduction of concrete policies to safeguard women online are still a long way off, particularly given the importance of balancing such policies with protecting freedom of expression. Carolina noted: “If fighting violence against women is difficult in Colombia, trying to do it online is even harder.”

All around the world, groups like Karisma are working hard to understand the intricacies of OVAW so that they can begin to introduce policies that will tackle the issue head on. It would be a tragedy if more women were driven away from publishing stories and comments online because of the threat of violence. After all, when women’s voices are heard, the information we all consume improves.

Internews partners with Karisma as part of its Internet Policy Programs, which support the creation of strong enabling environments to support internet freedom by providing direct legal, policy, advocacy, and financial support to leading human rights defenders and civil society organizations.

Learn more about the women journalists that Internews works with around the world and Internews’ new five-year initiative, Women’s Voices, Powering Change.