Did you know that more girls report suffering harassment online than in the street? During the pandemic, internet use increased between 50% and 70%, and this has made women and girls more likely to become victims of online violence. Women who identify with multiple identities, like LGBTQ+ population or ethnic minority groups, experience even more harassment, and this is leading them to self-censor, says U.N. Women. Some reduce or stop using social media entirely, according to Plan International. In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating the hard work of six activist organizations in Latin America that are making digital spaces safer for women during the COVID-19 crisis and beyond.
This issue matters for human rights. As with other forms of violence, cyberbullying against women has severe consequences on their mental health, such as depression, low self-esteem, and fear or shame, which keep victims from telling other people what is really happening. This has implications for people in their professional life, academic circles, and personal relationships, as online harassment is a constant attack on the reputation of women and girls. Furthermore, this harassment is a tool for sharpening patriarchal repression, where once again women’s bodies, identities, and worldviews become objects of violence.
But while women in Latin America are all too familiar with harassment, they also know about organizing, defense, and action. To address and counteract the online violence against women, several organizations that focus on human rights, gender, and digital rights, have launched creative local and regional initiatives in recent months, extending a digital hand to the women who need it. From Access Now we applaud these initiatives from our allies in the region:
Applause, applause! The organizations fighting for women
From North to South, Latin American organizations recognized the urgency of capturing information on the digital threats to women, especially during the pandemic. This helps to support future projects, secure funding to help women, and show government decision-makers the state and scope of the violence — seeding positive change.
1. Chidas en Línea — In Mexico, the initiative launched a report on the impact of digital violence on female teenagers between 12 and 17 years old in their country. The project is the brainchild of three professionals passionate about the investigation, Mariana Ramos, Candy Rodríguez, and Angélica Contreras. They worked with the Fondo de Respuesta Rápida (Quick Response Fund) of Derechos Digitales, an organization that focuses on freedom of expression, privacy and personal data, and copyright and access to knowledge. The Chidas en Línea report has useful data on the situation for women in Mexico, such as who women and girls decide to talk to when they suffer digital violence. In a survey, 29% of respondents said they went to their friends first to get support; 26% spoke with their family; 6% requested help from school authorities; 6% requested help from their partners; and only 1% approached police, the prosecutor’s office, or the Women’s Institute. No significant percentage came to NGOs. Notably, the highest percentage of respondents (30%) indicated they did not ask for any support at all. In the report, Derechos Digitales concludes there is a “lack of measures to provide access to information and services to women and LGBTQI+ people in these difficult times [of COVID-19].”
“The research itself was a challenge due to the methodology and perspective we have,” says Angélica. “It covers intersections that are challenging: first, to investigate aggressions, behaviors, and effects from the digital point of view; secondly, a feminist perspective and analysis; and thirdly, leaving the adult gaze in the drawer and thinking about ourselves from an active listening perspective, with sincere and reciprocal dialogue, without judging people by their age or lack of knowledge in digital security and seeing adolescents as subjects of rights. Another issue: how do we give teenage girls the confidence to trust our Instagram account? That’s why we tried to reach out to their teachers, their mothers, to help us answer the survey and then when the interviews were held, to listen to their stories. It gave me goosebumps, I learned a lot from listening to them, and I thank them for the confidence to tell me about the situations they went through and how strong they have been. You learn more by listening than by reading without a doubt.”
2. IPANDETEC — In Panama, the Instituto Panameño de Derecho y Nuevas Tecnologías (IPANDETEC), is also monitoring violence against women and the LGBTQ+ population. IPANDETEC promotes the use and regulation of information and communication technologies (ICT) and the defense of digital human rights in Central America. From the beginning of the pandemic, IPANDETEC has documented online gender-based violence in Panama, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and the Dominican Republic.
“Before the pandemic, online gender-based violence was an existing problem with alarming growth. When the implementation of mobility restriction measures started and with it, a greater use of digital media, we were motivated to seek allies to undertake this monitoring and in the future contribute this data for the formulation of public policies that help to better coexistence on the network,” said Abdias Zambrano, Public Policy Coordinator at IPANDETEC.
If you live in any of those countries and have felt vulnerable or were targeted for an online attack, you can report the incident in the IPANDETEC monitoring form.
3. Amaranta — The feminist NGO, located in Chile, runs the Aurora Program, which investigates incidents of violence against women (cis, trans, non-binary) on the internet and through devices. They surveyed more than 500 women in Chile between March and June 2020. The results of the survey, reflected in their first report, highlights recurring problems such as verbal violence, harassment and/or bullying, and receiving nude images from men without their consent. It also profiles those who are the most recurrent attackers: predominantly anonymous users or people using fake profiles, but also partners, ex-partners, and the men close to the target. The most frequent effect of the attacks was to provoke an emotional response.
Remember that if you are at risk, you are not alone. If you need help improving your digital security practices to stay out of harm’s way, reach out to Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline, which has staff connected 24/7 and can help you in Spanish, English, and seven other languages.
4.TEDIC — To empower women, educate them about digital security and legal processes, make digital harassment visible, and get the issue the attention it needs, you need a campaign.
Within the framework of the CyborgFeministas program, TEDIC launched the Digital Violence Is Real campaign in October 2020. TEDIC is a Paraguayan NGO that develops open technology and defends digital rights for a free culture on the internet. The campaign website helps people learn about digital gender violence — the types of violence, types of aggressors, effects of online violence — and explains digital rights and what we can do to stop the violence. TEDIC highlights the case of Belén, a student at the Catholic University who claimed to have been sexually harassed by a professor at the university.
5. Hiperderecho — Digital violence deeply impacts the women who are targeted, yet there are often no legal consequences for the perpetrators. Part of the reason is women lack information about how to bring the attacker to justice. They may also lack confidence in some justice systems, worry about the complicated legal steps they must take, and fear retaliation for taking action to stop the violence.
Responding to these challenges, the Peruvian non-profit civil association Hiperderecho launched the project “After the Law: Seeking Gender Justice for Women and LGBTQ+ People Who Face Gender Violence Online in Peru” at the end of 2020. It is aimed at meeting the needs of women and LGBTQ+ people who have experienced harassment, sexual harassment, sexual blackmail, and dissemination of intimate images without consent while browsing the internet, who seek to report these crimes to the Peruvian justice system. In addition to legal support, Hiperderecho provides social and technical support.
6. Luchadoras — This feminist group in Mexico works to bring joy and freedom to women and girls in digital and physical spaces, and has initiatives specially dedicated to defending their rights and ensuring justice. Their Justicia website offers a guide to penal processes and provides relevant data from their reports, for instance by tracking how many investigations on the dissemination of intimate images without consent remain in process, or how many judgements have been made on these matters.
Now is the time to support women and end online violence in Latin America
Online violence is as real as any other violence. It impacts the quality of life for the women who are targeted, yet in many cases it is not perceived as serious and threatening as it is. Every initiative that has the potential to prevent future violence, and that gives support to its victims, is necessary to counteract the repercussions of digital harassment in all its forms. This International Women’s Day, join us in thanking and applauding the civil organizations that are at the leading edge of the defense, taking to the “digital streets” to meet the challenge. We also encourage you to support the call on governments across Latin America to provide the necessary legal, jurisdictional, educational, and technological resources to support women at risk.