Blog CSW67 side event “Ending online gender-based violence: how feminist approaches create inclusive online spaces’’

drie vrouwen in discussie

Pictures by Anika Snel, WO=MEN

On the second day of the CSW at 8.30 am, we attended a side-event on online gender-based violence at the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the United Nations. Despite jet lags and the early start of the event, the room was packed and buzzing with energy. 

After the opening statement by the first female prime minister of Aruba, the panel discussed the positive and negative sides of the digital space for feminist organizations and structurally excluded communities. It is a well-balanced panel, with activist from grassroots organizations in Uganda, Bangladesh, Australia, and Kenya, as well as representatives from the Dutch and Belgian governments. 

What is online gender-based violence?

To date, a uniform definition of online gender-based violence is lacking, says Sandra Aceng from the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET). Online gender-based violence is not really recognized as a form of gender-based violence. Yet, what online gender-based violence is, is very nuanced, explains Jules Kim, Global Coordinator of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP). And it is a risky conversation. We need to be looking at harms and not at what is considered as ‘normal’ behaviour. This could result in censoring. Moreover, the question is what we consider as threats. Njeri Gateru, Executive Director at the National Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission (NGLHRC), tells us a terrible story to illustrate this point: in Kenya an LGBTQ rights activist was recently murdered and found death in a metal box. After this, people started to spread pictures of boxes to threaten the LGBTIQ+-community. For people who do not know the context of these pictures, this will not be seen as a threat, while it is extremely scary for people who identify as LGBTIQ+.

vrouw die spreekt door microfoon met twee personen uit het panel achter haar

Importance of online spaces for marginalized groups

Online spaces have been critical for sex workers, explained Jules Kim, a sex worker herself. “Sex workers use digital tools to organize for safety and rights, in a system where we cannot access those rights.”, she argued. For example, to promote safer sex strategies such as condom use, to set up early warning systems and share information about criminals that attack sex workers.

Unfortunately, access is not equal for all sex workers. In some countries, people don’t have access to digital tools, or they have fewer skills to use these tools. Some states actively exclude sex workers from online platforms, by restricting access and use of these platforms under the guise of ‘safety’ and ‘protection’ of sex workers. This is why decriminalization of sex work is crucial, but not enough. “Most advocacy work that we do is voluntary, and we have been kicked off from online platforms many times”, says Kim. She explains that there is a strong need for accessible funding, to protect ourselves from online exclusion.

Tanveer Anoy, founder of Mondro, a queer public archive in Bangladesh, also stresses the importance of online spaces for grass roots organizations. In Bangladesh the queer community has been increasingly shattered, people had to shut down queer webpages because of cultural pressure. “This urged us to create an archive where queer literature and poetry online can be preserved”, Anoy explained.

Fighting for joy online

In Kenya, there is a homophobic and transphobic take-over. This has made the digital space “a hellfire” for people who identify as LGBTQI+, according to Gateru. But the digital space can also be an arena for pushbacks and LGBTIQ+ activism. We have many people from the LGBTIQ+ community putting time and effort in providing facts and information.”, says Gateru. “Moreover, trans and queer people have also used the online space for joy, and I will not stop fighting for joy”, Gateru: “We are not here to survive technology, we also want to play, create and enjoy!”.

We cannot ask women to leave the internet

After hearing from the panellists working at the grassroots level, representatives from the Belgian and Dutch governments talk about what governments can do to prevent and reduce online gender-based violence. Sarah Schlitz (Secretary of State for Gender equality, Equal opportunity and Diversity in the Belgian Federal Government): “We cannot ask women to leave the internet. Internet is a tool for work, education, entrepreneurship, political debate. It is a place to express ourselves, to spread ideas.”, she says. “But every time innovations appear, they also bring new forms of violence. It is really important to understand the phenomenon better.” A recent study on “cyber flashing” (sending obscene pictures to strangers online, often via AirDrop) in Belgium showed that 1 out of 3 girls aged 15-25 have been a victim of this form of gender-based violence. Schlitz argues that online misogyny and the anti-gender movement is increasingly coordinated. This is why the Belgian government is working on a national strategy against gender-based violence.

Where the change happens

Karen Burbach, Head of the Taskforce Women’s Rights and Gender Equality of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, adds that gender-based violence is a priority. “When we exclude half of the population, we are never going to create peace and security.” The Netherlands is currently working on a Feminist Foreign Policy. “We directly fund women’s organizations in the Global South”, Burbach says. “Because this is where the change happens”.

It was very impressive to hear firsthand the experiences of people working in local grassroots organizations in countries where gender-based violence is a daily reality. We learned about the many challenges that structurally marginalized communities are facing and how important an inclusive online space is for their safety and rights.

This panel was organized by the Kingdom of the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Government of Canada, *the Permanent Mission of Chile, the **Count Me In! (CMI!) and the ***Our Voices Our Futures (OVOF) consortia

Atria and WO=MEN are jointly responsible for the coordination of input from civil society to the governmental delegation during the 67th session of Commission on the Status of Women in New York. Follow us on Twitter: @AtriaNieuws and @genderplatform. 


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