Gender Inequality in the "Black Mirror": How to Overcome Violence in the Digital Dimension?

Gender Inequality in the “Black Mirror”: How to Overcome Violence in the Digital Dimension?

Photo: unsplash.com / Kaitlyn Baker
2 May 2024
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Information technologies have expanded opportunities for individuals to socialize and interact with others, to be recognized, and to advocate for their rights. However, digitalization carries risks, encapsulating various forms of inequality and violence in the online sphere.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to the increased presence of people in online environments, and it is during this time that the issue of digital violence, predominantly against women and children, has gained significant prevalence. Countries and international organizations have begun developing institutional mechanisms to combat violence online, including criminalizing new forms of violence and developing tools for online platform accountability. Ukraine has also recognized cyber violence as a problem; however, comprehensive data on the phenomenon is currently lacking, and existing legal instruments are limited in scope and do not fully ensure legal accountability for violations in the digital dimension.

What is digital violence?

The widespread access to the internet and social media has led to the transfer of violence as a social phenomenon from the offline sphere to the online realm, resulting in real social, economic, and political consequences. The European Parliamentary Research Service (EPRS) estimated the overall losses from cyberbullying and cyberstalking to be between €49.0 to €89.3 billion in 2021. These losses include expenditures on healthcare and legal costs, losses due to lower quality of life, higher costs for recruitment and labor compensation due to lower labor market participation, etc.

Aggression on the internet can take many forms, ranging from insults such as body shaming (discrimination based on physical appearance) to the creation of pornographic content using artificial intelligence based on actual photographs of individuals. In general, these are actions carried out using technologies—mobile devices, the internet, social media, email, geolocation tracking devices, cameras, artificial intelligence, etc.—that cause harm or suffering to the victim. Perpetrators of such offenses can include relatives, acquaintances, sexual partners, and ex-partners, as well as anonymous individuals or strangers. The digital dimension of violence primarily entails psychological harm but can also include physical, sexual, economic, and other forms of suffering. 

For reference. The emergence of cyber violence (digital violence, violence on the internet) as a phenomenon is closely linked to the active development of information and communication technologies (ICT) and thus dates back to at least the second half of the 20th century. The Oxford English Dictionary shows that the proliferation of terms denoting various types of violence in the online sphere largely occurred from the 1990s onwards, while ‘cyber violence’ began to be defined as a criminal offense in the 2000s (1, 2).

In international practice, there is no universally recognized and all-encompassing term that denotes all forms of violence perpetrated on the internet and/or through information technologies. Currently, the most common terms include “digital violence,” “cyber violence,” “violence committed in the digital sphere,” and “tech-facilitated gender-based violence.” GREVIO proposes the use of terms such as “violence […] in its digital dimension” or “the digital dimension of violence,” as they encompass acts of violence perpetrated on the internet and through existing and potential technologies.

Since there is no established terminology, there is also no exhaustive list of types of violence occurring in the digital environment or involving technologies. Some actions mirror those in real life (such as stalking), while others are specific to the online realm (like illegal access to personal data on the internet). Moreover, they can overlap and inflict greater harm on the victim. With the emergence of new technologies, new risks of violence arise, such as deepfake pornography using artificial intelligence.

The Cybercrime Convention Committee (T-CY) identifies six main categories of violence: 

  • Cyberharassment: 
    • Cyberbullying;
    • Defamation and other damage to reputation;
    • Coercion;
    • Insults and threats (body shaming, deadnaming, etc.);
    • Incitement to violence;
    • Revenge porn;
    • Incitement to suicide or self-harm;
    • Threats of violence, etc.
  • Cybercrime: 
    • Illegal access;
    • Illegal interception;
    • Data and system interference;
    • Computer-related forgery and fraud;
    • Child pornography, etc.
  • ICT-related violations of privacy: 
    • Computer intrusions;
    • Taking, sharing, and manipulation of data or images, including intimate data, without consent;
    • Sextortion;
    • Digital voyeurism;
    • Stalking;
    • Doxing;
    • Identity theft;
    • Impersonation, etc.
  • ICT-related hate crime;
  • ICT-related direct threats of or physical violence;
  • Online sexual exploitation and sexual abuse of children:
    • Sexual abuse;
    • Child prostitution;
    • Child pornography (materials of sexual violence against children);
    • Corruption of children;
    • Solicitation of children for sexual purposes;
    • Sexual abuse via livestreaming, etc.

Who suffers most often from cyber violence?

Anyone can become a victim of violence in the online sphere or through the use of technology, regardless of gender, age, ethnicity, social status, or religion. According to the results of a survey conducted by U-Report in 2020, which involved over 8,000 respondents from various countries worldwide, 51% reported experiencing severe mistreatment or violence online, while 64% indicated knowing people who had experienced online violence.

Victims often do not report such incidents due to fear of shame, judgment, and victimization, which complicates the collection of quantitative data that could demonstrate the scale of the problem. Meanwhile, some social groups are more likely to experience digital violence due to power imbalances, which make them more vulnerable. For example, children are victims of cyber grooming (online grooming), as this form of violence involves establishing friendly relationships and emotional connections with individuals who have not reached the age of majority through social networks, messengers, etc., for the purpose of further sexual acts. Children also fall victim to cyberbullying, sexting, and gossip about their sexual lives. However, aggressors can be not only adults but also peers. According to statistics from the National Children and Youth Hotline of the NGO La Strada Ukraine, a third of the calls they receive from children and adults relate to cyberbullying, with over 18% of bullying-related court cases involving harassment, specifically using electronic communication methods. According to a survey of children aged 6-17 in Ukraine, one in ten children was asked to send their intimate photos.

A survey on experiences of cyberbullying conducted in the USA in 2014 demonstrates that men relatively more often experience insults or threats, while young women are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment and stalking.

A study by the Economist Intelligence Unit, covering 45 countries worldwide (including Ukraine), showed that 85% of surveyed women have experienced or witnessed violence online and through technology, with 38% of women reporting personal experiences of such violence. In Europe, 74% of respondents noted their own or other women’s experience of online violence, while in Latin America and the Caribbean, the figure was 91%. In the Middle East, it was 98%.  

Moreover, women and girls from vulnerable population groups (migrant women, representatives of national or religious minorities, LGBT+ communities, and women with disabilities) are more likely to encounter violence.

Violence in the digital realm can cause victims varying degrees of harm (physical, psychological, economic) across various spheres, leading to a form of “social rupture.” Considering that certain forms of digital violence are gender-based, meaning they occur based on gender, some consequences are specific to women: 

  • Reduced diversity in digital spaces (women self-censor and decrease their presence in online environments).
  • Prolongation and/or deepening of the gender digital divide.
  • Adverse socio-economic consequences at the societal and country level (losses from decreased economic activity among women, increased healthcare costs, etc.).

During the development of policies to address domestic violence, international organizations and lawmakers at the country level pay particular attention to the issue of gender-based violence, which is an extreme manifestation of gender inequality. Such violence can be perpetrated against both women (girls) and men (boys). While these policies are primarily aimed at supporting women and girls, they can have a universal character in combating violence.

How is this problem responded to worldwide?

The issue of gender-based violence in the digital realm has received increased attention over the past decade. However, active work on regulatory impact began only during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the number of cases of violence against women surged.

Currently, at the international level, there is no single legal framework focused on regulating violence in the digital dimension. However, in some countries, policies aimed at combating violence against women and domestic violence include measures in the digital environment. 

The primary international legal instruments in this context are three documents, all ratified by Ukraine. The first is the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (the Istanbul Convention). Although it does not directly address the digital dimension, in 2021, GREVIO (the independent expert group monitoring the implementation by parties to the Istanbul Convention) published General Recommendation No. 1 on the digital dimension of violence against women. In these recommendations, experts identified that violence against women and girls in the digital dimension, as a manifestation of gender-based violence, falls within the scope of the Istanbul Convention. Therefore, regardless of whether such actions occur offline or online, they should be prosecuted by law.

The second important international legal instrument related to the digital environment and having binding force is the Council of Europe Convention on Cybercrime (the Budapest Convention). It defines procedural powers and mechanisms for international cooperation regarding cybercrime and any offense involving electronic evidence, but it does not directly regulate issues of violence against women. Together with the Istanbul Convention, it can provide mechanisms for judicial prosecution of violence in the digital dimension.

The third document is the Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (the Lanzarote Convention). It obliges the criminalization of all forms of cruel treatment of children, including forms of violence in the digital dimension related to sexual exploitation and sexual violence online. 

Among the international instruments of “soft law,” meaning those that do not have mandatory legal force, are the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on combating hate speech, the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on preventing and tackling sexism, the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers to member States on the roles and responsibilities of internet intermediaries, etc. 

Currently, countries and international institutions have limited experience combating violence in the digital dimension. For example, according to World Bank data, only 30% of the 190 countries worldwide have adopted legislation regulating cyber harassment (see Figure 1), one of the most common forms of violence in the digital environment.

Figure 1. Number of countries in respective regions that have adopted laws regarding cyber harassment

Source: World Bank

Note: The data results from research conducted by the Women, Business, and the Law team in 2021 and 2022 to understand how current legislation protects people online in 190 countries worldwide.

*High-income OECD countries are not included in other regional groups.

The results of the 2022 legislative study of EU member states showed that cyber violence is covered by general provisions of criminal law in all 27 countries without specifying ICT or other means. Twenty-one countries have criminalized at least one form of cyber violence (see Table 1 in the appendix). As a rule, legislative provisions regarding cyber violence are gender-neutral.

Most countries incorporate specific provisions on various forms of violence into existing legal frameworks. This includes amendments to the criminal code and clarifications in laws. For example, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines adopted the Cybercrime Act in 2016, which defines specific offenses and corresponding penalties without regard to gender. In 2018, France classified online sexual harassment through social media or electronic communication as criminal offenses, while Italy in 2019 classified the unauthorized dissemination of sexual images or videos, as well as revenge porn, as criminal offenses. However, such changes are sporadic. 

Furthermore, countries and groups of countries are developing comprehensive policies and action plans regarding gender-based violence. For example, in May 2023, the United States published the National Plan to End Gender-based Violence: Strategies for Action, which includes a dedicated section on online safety.

The EU currently does not have a specific legal instrument that comprehensively addresses the issue of gender-based violence against women. However, certain forms of it, including those in the digital realm, fall under the scope of existing legislation. The Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025 notes that “online violence targeting women has become pervasive with specific, vicious consequences.” To address this issue, in October 2022, the EU Council and Parliament signed the Digital Services Act. Among other provisions, it defines the responsibility of online platforms for user-generated content and expects them to combat illegal activities online.  

In March 2022, the European Commission presented a proposal for a Directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence to legislatively establish minimum standards for criminalizing gender-based violence (both offline and online), protecting victims, and preventing such crimes. In particular, the regulations include criminalizing the most common forms of cyber violence (such as the non-consensual distribution of intimate images, including deepfakes), cyberstalking, hate speech, and others). Discussions on the proposed norms lasted for almost two years, and in February 2024, the draft law was adopted.

What legal mechanism is in place to combat digital violence in Ukraine?

Like most countries worldwide and in Europe, Ukraine has individual tools but lacks a comprehensive mechanism for protecting or holding individuals accountable for violence in the online sphere or through technologies. One reason for this is that this problem is relatively new. The overall framework for online security in Ukraine is defined by laws such as “On Information,” “On the Basic Principles of Cybersecurity of Ukraine,” “On National Security,” “On Cloud Services,” “On Electronic Communications,” “On Personal Data Protection,” “On the Protection of Information in Information and Communication Systems,” and others.

The issue of violence in the digital dimension (cyber violence) is recognized by the State Strategy for Ensuring Equal Rights and Opportunities for Women and Men until 2030. The action plan for 2022-2024 includes specific steps to address the problem and support victims of violence: providing psychological assistance through hotlines, conducting research, preparing information-analytical reports on identified cases, and responding to them.  

The Istanbul Convention, ratified by Ukraine, obliges the country to take explicit steps to criminalize a range of crimes against women, combat gender discrimination, and address domestic violence. Given that GREVIO has recognized the extension of the norms of the Istanbul Convention to the digital dimension, implementing the convention’s provisions should become one of the tools to combat violence online.

Currently, Ukrainian legislation does not have direct legal norms providing for liability for cyber violence. Therefore, specific provisions of the Criminal Code of Ukraine (Articles 120, 126-1, 129, 153, 161, 163, 182, 189, 301-2), the Code of Ukraine on Administrative Offenses (Articles 173-2, 173-4, 173-5), and some of the laws above can be applied to relevant offenses. 

However, there are several obstacles to applying these tools. Firstly, there is inadequate legislative regulation. The Law of Ukraine “On the Basic Principles of Cybersecurity in Ukraine” defines “cybercrime.” However, within the country’s legal framework, there are no terms specifically addressing violence in the digital realm (such as digital violence, cyber violence, etc.), nor its various forms (the only exception being bullying of participants in the educational process). Thus, no criminal punishment is defined for such offenses.

Secondly, there are difficulties in proving such crimes, especially when deepfakes are involved. The victim must collect and preserve evidence confirming the harmful actions (screenshots, chat logs, emails, audio recordings). However, this may not always be feasible to do in a timely manner or to consider the need to collect evidence in a state of stress. Moreover, the aggressor may delete such information before the victim manages to capture the data. Additionally, law enforcement agencies may lack sufficient technological capability and training to investigate such offenses, and identifying the aggressor can be challenging. Furthermore, not all such crimes fall under one country’s jurisdiction, as the aggressor and the victim may be located in different countries.

Thirdly, stereotypes that harm inflicted online is less significant than in real life pose a challenge. Acts of digital violence do not always result in physical harm that is “visible” and indisputable, so it is necessary to prove that the actions taken online have caused damage. However, research from Swansea University showed that young victims of cyberbullying are twice as likely to self-harm and attempt suicide compared to those who have not been victims of such violent actions.

Fourthly, there is a lack of digital literacy and awareness of online safety among the population. According to a study on digital literacy among Ukrainians in 2021, nearly 48% of respondents had digital skills below the “basic level” (according to the methodology used by the European Commission to assess digital skills). Only 40% of surveyed Ukrainians backed up their files on external devices or in the cloud, with those who did not make backups mostly being individuals aged 40-70 years old, as well as those with “absent” or “below average” digital knowledge. Additionally, 45% of respondents indicated that online safety skills were a top priority among the skills they would like to develop. 

Another problem is the lack of statistical data. The aforementioned state strategy for ensuring equal rights and opportunities explicitly mentions the absence of data collection on cases of cyber violence in Ukraine, and there is no mention of disaggregating such data by gender. The available data from judicial statistics do not specify the commission of offenses in the online sphere or through ICT and, therefore, cannot be used. Currently, the only source of information on cyber violence is surveys, but they are sporadic in nature. As a result, it is impossible to conduct an objective and comprehensive analysis of the problem of violence (including gender-based violence) in the digital dimension in Ukraine.

What does Ukraine need to do?

Ukraine needs to continue implementing actions outlined in adopted strategies to address gender inequality and its extreme form (violence) and develop and implement tools and mechanisms not only to support and protect victims of violence but also to prevent it and hold perpetrators and facilitators accountable.

  1. Necessary steps in the legal field include:
    • The legislative definition of terms such as “violence in the digital realm” or “digital dimension of violence,” “cyber violence”;
    • Fulfillment of obligations undertaken after ratification of the Istanbul Convention;
    • Determination of legal responsibility for violent actions in the digital dimension, i.e., their criminalization; clarification of the method of committing a crime under Article 153 of the Criminal Code of Ukraine “Sexual Violence”; introduction of administrative liability for offenses that are not crimes;
    • Implementation of the provisions of the Digital Services Act (DSA) into national legislation to harmonize with EU law; development of rules and standards of accountability for internet intermediaries and online platforms to increase transparency and accountability in the dissemination and use of data, which may also be part of violent actions.
  2. Closing gaps in data regarding violence in the digital realm involves ensuring their regular collection for analysis and forming a comprehensive understanding of the situation. Achieving both quantitative and qualitative measurement of violence in the digital dimension requires multisectoral cooperation between governmental and non-governmental entities: statistical agencies, law enforcement agencies, NGOs, and online platforms (which may disseminate information about forms of violence occurring on their platforms). Data on digital violence can be collected through surveys, administrative data from relevant authorities (such as police or social services), interviews, focus groups, and “big data,” including the use of artificial intelligence from social media.
  3. Integrating courses on digital security, digital etiquette, and sexual education into the school curriculum to foster positive social norms and prevent violence in the digital realm. Sexual education helps reduce the level of gender-based violence (1, 2, 3, 4) and may, therefore, have a similar effect regarding violence in the digital dimension.
  4. Implement an information campaign aimed at raising public awareness about violence in the digital realm, its various forms, and the necessity of responding. The results of several scientific studies (1, 2) have shown that programs disseminating information about cyberbullying are effective in increasing adolescents’ awareness of this form of violence and developing their skills to combat cyberbullying.
  5. Gender mainstreaming should be applied to all policies and legislation related to information technologies. 
  6. Expanding opportunities for women and girls to participate in the political process, acquire STEM education, enter the workforce, and take up leadership positions in the technology sector, as well as participate in the development of digital tools and the advancement of the digital environment. Globally, women hold less than one-third of positions in the technology sector worldwide, making this sphere less gender-sensitive and failing to incorporate the experiences of women in ICT development, particularly in addressing violence in the digital realm.

This publication was made possible thanks to the European Union’s support provided within the project “Network of Gender Think Tanks: Capacity Development for Advanced Policy Design, Impact Assessment, Strategic Advocacy, and Specialized Policy Communications,” implemented by the Ukrainian Women’s Fund. The content of the information is the responsibility of the NGO Vox Ukraine. The information presented does not always reflect the views of the EU and UWF.

APPENDIX

Table 1. Overview of EU-27 National Legal Frameworks on Cyber Violence

Source: European Institute for Gender Equality


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