Cyberviolence is a Powerful Silencing Tool Against Women – The European Parliament’s first reading of the Draft Legislative Report, “Combatting Gender-Based Violence: Cyberviolence”

Cyberbulling illustration.

The FEMM and LIBE Committees of the European Parliament (EP) held a first reading on 1st July 2021 to discuss the draft of the own-initiative report on ‘Combatting Gender-based Violence: Cyberviolence’. The report will conclude in a Legislative Report to be adopted by the EP that will call on the European Commission to table a Directive on Combatting Gender-Based Cyberviolence. WIDE+ and Creación Positiva had previously sent a letter of recommendations to the rapporteurs of this report. WIDE+ is pleased to see the developments in the drafting so far. This article provides an insight into the current parliamentary discussions.

A Comprehensive First Draft Proposal

The first version of the draft legislative report is very comprehensive and reflects many of the recommendations also made by WIDE+, its members, and partners. We would like to thank the rapporteurs and their teams for their excellent work in putting together such a detailed report that will be an important milestone towards better protection of women and girls against cyberviolence. The report is complemented by the European Added Value Assessment (EAVA) publication that calculates the costs of cyberviolence on individuals and society. The EAVA publication strengthens and affirms the report’s objectives and arguments that there is a need to urgently combat cyberviolence.

MEP Sylwia Spurek, Greens/European Free Alliance group, one of the main rapporteurs of the report. Image copyright: European Union 2021 – Source EP/ Jan VAN DE VEL

Conservatives Attack Intersectional Approach and Definition of Gender-based Violence

Gender-based violence disproportionately impacts migrant women, young women/girls, women from ethnic minorities and indigenous and racialized women, LGBTIQ+ people, women with functional diversity, and women from other vulnerable and marginalized groups.  These layers of oppression stem from misogyny, racism, classism, and other forms of discrimination. Intersectionality not only serves as an analytical tool, but also provides the fundamental basis for social justice action for victims.

“It is essential to have an intersectional approach, as black women human right defenders, women activists with disabilities, LGBT politicians, Muslim women, all have suffered from diverse forms of cyberviolence.” MEP Gwendoline Delbos-Corfield, Greens/European Free Alliance group

The legislative report calls on using an intersectional approach when it comes to defining and understanding gender-based cyberviolence. The shadow rapporteurs for the report also acknowledge the importance of intersectionality in providing justice to the victims of gender-based cyberviolence. When an intersectionality approach is adopted, legislators and policymakers can develop context-specific measures in responding to gender-based violence. This applies to cyberviolence because, as strongly emphasized in the legislative report, it is part of the continuum of gender-based violence. Without a doubt, WIDE+ welcomes the adoption of an intersectional approach in this legislative draft effort.

The proposed definition of gender-based cyberviolence based on the report (p.10)

The proposed amendments by shadow rapporteurs from Eurosceptic and far-right political groups, namely the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group and the Identity and Democracy (ID) group, aim to water down the language around gender-based violence, removing the acknowledgment that this form of violence stems from the unequal distribution of power between women and men. They propose to frame the problem of violence as the result of a “lack of solid family foundations within which mutual respect between men and women and gender complementarity are a given” (p.34). “Radical Islam” was also put on the table as a cause of violence against women and thus legitimizing the racist perspectives within these political groups. Free-floating MEP Milan Uhrik, not part of any political group in the European Parliament but representing a far-right ideology, proposed the removal of the consideration that gender-based cyberviolence especially affects women in prominent political or public positions, like politicians, journalists, and human rights defenders.

Clearly, these right-wing groups have no interest to contribute to the creation of a directive that is needed to address a grave problem that will only continue to manifest in our increasingly digital world. There is a blatant disregard of the gender-based aspect of violence that cuts across social class, culture, and relationship status. This is yet another example of how women’s human rights are under attack by right-wing ideology. As seen repeatedly, right-wing politicians continue to attempt to stymie ongoing legislative processes, inflame stereotypes drawn around gender and cultural boundaries, and attack fundamental values enshrined within the European Union.

At the moment, ECR and ID represent around 20% of the European Parliament. And while reports show that these two groups are currently not on good terms due to power tussles, if they join forces, they would be the second largest political group after the European People’s Party. It means that at the moment, these political groupings will not be able to block substantial elements of the report, as long as other large groupings stand behind the recommendations. It is thus important to keep advocating with other political parties for a strong intersectional women and gender non-conforming rights-based approach into the next stages of the drafting and reviewing.

The EU’s Accession to the Istanbul Convention

The draft report also calls for the ratification of the Istanbul Convention, something the European Parliament has done previously and keeps pushing for. 21 out of 27 member states have ratified the Istanbul Convention, and in recent years the pushback has increased with Poland recently announcing its decision to withdraw from the treaty. This presents an imminent danger to protecting women’s rights and such actions have been widely criticized by Members of the European Parliament, among others. Today, the Istanbul Convention remains the only legally binding convention that provides a comprehensive set of measures to address and combat gender-based violence. Current attempts from Member States to block its ratification are slowing down a process of harmonization of strategy and legislation among European countries. Several shadow rapporteurs stressed the need for the EU to accede to the Istanbul Convention. MEP María Soraya Rodríguez Ramos of the Renew Europe group said that EU legislators cannot just wait passively for the accession to the Istanbul Convention to protect women and girls from violence; there needs to be other legislative tools put in place to ensure women, girls, and gender non-conforming persons have the right to a life free from violence. Once again, in an unsurprising move, the European Conservatives and Reformists Group have submitted amendments to remove the consideration of the Istanbul Convention into the legislative report.

Education on Digital Skills

The shadow rapporteurs concurred that it is important to criminalize cyberviolence and prosecute perpetrators effectively. As MEP Yana Toom of the Renew Europe group pointed out, impunity online is much more widespread due to legal loopholes and a sense of anonymity. Relying on legislation to address impunity is insufficient. As the draft report outlines, combatting cyberviolence requires a holistic approach where the root causes of violence are deeply addressed. To this end, education is a crucial pillar in efforts to combat cyberviolence. The report highlights the key role of education in tackling the root causes of gender-based violence, providing digital literacy to the wider society and in promoting responsible behavior online. For instance, policies and other efforts should promote the inclusion of girls and young women in the STEM industries by working with schools and institutes of higher learning. Apart from mainstreaming digital education literacy and skills, specific educational programmes are necessary to shift socio-cultural norms around gender roles and stereotypes and to promote values of gender equality from an early age.

“Cyberviolence is a powerful silencing tool. The best tool to combat gender-based violence is the Istanbul Convention. The committee should come up with a legal framework that mirrors the Istanbul Convention especially in the aspects of prevention and detection of gender-based violence.” MEP Yana Toom, Renew Europe group

Next Steps Ahead

The committees will meet in October to vote on a new version of the report, and a plenary discussion is scheduled in November. WIDE+ will keep monitoring the process, advocating for strong intersectional language in the final report so that no one will be left behind in efforts to eliminate gender-based violence.

Article by Nurhidayah Hassan, WIDE+ Migration and Gender Working Group 

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