WOMEN'S WRITE
22/06/2020 10:46 AM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.

The escalation of gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic has been referred to as a “pandemic within a pandemic”. Following lockdowns to control the virus, there has been both a rise in physical gender-based violence at home, and in gender-based cyber violence – resulting from the shift of everyday activities online.

Malaysia’s current legal framework is inadequate to protect survivors of cyber violence or provide them with redress.

To fill this gap, the government must enact anti-stalking laws. This can be done immediately. Draft amendments have already been prepared by an inter-ministerial committee in early 2020.

Rise in gender-based cyber violence

A new publication by UN Women, entitled “Online and ICT* facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19”, highlights the marked rise in gender-based cyber violence since the start of the pandemic, citing examples from around the world.

For example, Australia experienced a 50 per cent increase in online bullying and harassment over a one-month period, while one county in the US experienced a 700% increase in online harassment from the period of April 1 to 20, as compared to the same timeframe last year.

According to the UN Women publication, quarantine and self-isolation measures implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19 have resulted in increased Internet usage of 50 to 70 per cent globally, whether for professional, educational, or social activities. With this rise, individuals who are less digitally savvy are more at risk of cyber violence, whether in the form of unwanted communications, sex trolling, threats of violence, or sexual images sent or distributed without consent.

More often than not, the recipients of this form of violence are women.

According to the International Telecommunication Union, a specialised agency of the United Nations, there exists a digital gender gap wherein only 48% of all women globally use the Internet as compared to 58% of all men. This digital divide is attributable in part to existing gender inequalities such as a lower overall literacy rate among women and the prioritisation of boys over girls in access to at-home technology, but it is also attributable to gender-based cyber violence, which can curb Internet usage by women.

In Malaysia, data on gender-based cyber violence is extremely limited, but Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) and other NGOs routinely respond to inquiries of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and stalking that involve components of cyber violence – including through WhatsApp and social media.

The increased reliance on technology during the pandemic, coupled with the lack of a comprehensive framework for responding to cyber violence in Malaysia, likely means that many instances of cyber violence go both unreported and unaddressed.

Consequences of gender-based cyber violence

With the pandemic, everyday activities and access to critical services have become dependent on the use of technology. The UN women publication cites research suggesting that as a result of cyber violence, women tend to restrict their online activities.

Women are thus doubly victimised – first by the violent act itself, and subsequently by the restricted ability to engage in online activities. This in turn could have even farther-reaching effects on women, including on their ability to work, to access healthcare, or even simply to engage with friends and family online.

Without laws on cyber violence, the impact of gender-based cyber violence will continue to adversely affect women both online and offline.

Need for anti-stalking law

To both curb the spread of gender-based cyber violence and ensure that survivors have access to redress, it is critical that Parliament acts swiftly to pass anti-stalking laws.

There is no reason for delay. Draft laws – proposing new offences in the Penal Code and a protection order in the Criminal Procedure Code – have already been formulated by an inter-ministerial committee coordinated by the Legal Affairs Division (BHEUU), in early 2020.

The anti-stalking law would address both offline and online stalking and harassment, including various forms of gender-based cyber violence like harassment, spying, and doxing. The anti-stalking law would also make available protection orders for survivors.

With anti-stalking laws in place, survivors of online stalking and other forms of cyber violence would have a path to protection and redress.

Gender-based violence is rooted in gender inequality, and thus, wherever such inequality exists, gender-based violence will follow, whether offline or online. With the COVID-19 pandemic simultaneously exacerbating many existing gender inequalities and blurring the line between the virtual and real worlds, it is critical that the government takes a swift and decisive approach to address gender-based cyber violence both during the pandemic and beyond.

-- BERNAMA

Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) has, since 1982, provided free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. WAO helps women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities. Learning from women’s experiences, WAO advocates to improve public policies and shift public mindsets. Together, WAO changes lives.

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)

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