Latin Americans take on Online Violence against Women

By Patricia Grogg (IPS)

COVID-19 has forced many to be locked down at home. Young Cuban journalist Claudia Rafaela works from home in Havana on her laptop. Gender-based violence in Cuba and the rest of Latin America now uses the Internet and social media, with women becoming the victims of crimes such as cyberbullying and revenge porn. Photo: Jorge Luis Banos/ IPS

Machista technology-related violence or digital/online violence or gender-based cyberviolence are terms used to talk about the abuse women suffer via information and communications technology (ICT).

HAVANA TIMES – More people are interacting in Latin America’s digital space, for longer too, because of the COVID-19 pandemic. This has exposed women a lot more to cyberviolence, according to activists and experts.

“Different forms of structural violence have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, and we are realizing just how much power technology has to perpetuate them,” Candy Rodriguez explained to IPS, from Mexico’s capital where she works with the collective project, (online harassment). The group brings activists together, from Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Colombia too.

Founded in 2017 by five young people, the non-profit organization declares itself to be the first in Latin America to provide information about intimate images being shared without consent. Such comprises the most widespread form of cyberviolence in the region. Some countries such as Mexico have already included this crime in its legislation.

“Women are being oppressed on two fronts: in the physical space and in the virtual space. Being near their aggressors and always being under their watchful eye, not only physically, but also virtually. This is putting them in an even more difficult situation,” the spokesperson said about the situation of many women made worse by the lockdown for most of 2020.

Machista technology-related violence or digital/online violence or gender-based cyberviolence are terms used to talk about the abuse women suffer via information and communications technology (ICT). It’s a term that is still being defined as new variants are appearing. Likewise, ways to tackle it and incorporate it into some legal frameworks.

Without demonizing technology or cyberspace, groups with this profile on the continent are promoting the responsible use of these tools, digital literacy and a comprehensive response searching for a safer web. It comes as international organizations are raising the alarm about the increase in machismo-related violence during the pandemic.

“It’s extremely important to talk about intimate content being shared without the sender’s consent, because it’s the form of digital violence that most affects women. There is also cyberbullying and cyber extortion, but our societies stigmatize female sexuality a lot,” Rodriguez emphasized.

According to Rodriguez, “we need to talk about this in order to break it down, inform people that it isn’t bad to engage in sexting (sending sexually explicit images, messages), which is another expression of one’s sexuality, so as to break this chain of violence that is sharing intimate content without consent.”

One example that gives us an idea of the magnitude of this problem is what is called “ethnopornography”. Its a type of sexual exploitation of indigenous girls and women, that is on the rise in Mexico. It can even involve extortion, and erotic images and videos are obtained from this vulnerable group. Then they are shared on the Internet, on social media and in businesses.

There are hardly any statistics about this kind of abuse in the world’s deadliest region for women. A study by the Organization of American States (OAS), underlines greater vulnerability when ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, language and disability also come into play.

It also highlights the situation of human rights activists, feminists and in politics.

A campaign in Peru to raise awareness among women about their rights in the digital space. Photo: Taken from:

Karen Vergara coordinates the Aurora Project in Santiago de Chile. “We interviewed over 530 women across Chile, between March and June, in order to learn their experience with digital violence.” The project focuses on a gender-based approach within the NGO about digital rights Amaranta.

“Over 73% of women interviewed had experienced this,” she revealed. “Many of them first realized that they experienced this form of violence by taking the survey. It was very hard for them to put a name to this kind of violence. During lockdown, virtual relationships increased,” added Vergara.

Differences that exist with ICT access and digital literacy persist in Latin America. However, gender equality has pretty much been achieved in use on the whole, according to 2019 statistics published by the International Telecommunication Union. More men have been reported to be connected than women in countries such as Mexico, Canada, Peru, Bolivia and Chile.

“There are many Chiles: it’s a very unequal country, where there is also a gender gap in tech access,” she continued. “In this sense, women are thrown into this virtual world without anyone with them, without any guidance. They are unable to find answers to their own doubts and this exposes them,” the expert in gender issues explained.

Related to the systemic violence against women worldwide, cyberviolence has very particular characteristics that transcend national borders, race, culture and deeply hurt its victims and their loved ones, because of how far this content can spread and how hard it is to delete viral content completely.

This is why an immediate response is one of the main recommendations from activists and experts to update legal frameworks and to administrate justice.

“This form of violence particularly affects women, as well as breakaway groups,” Vergara pointed out. “On the other hand, legislation and policy aren’t ready to receive this kind of complaint: victims are sent back home a lot of the time, the police don’t want to file this complaint, there is judgement on how they are dressed…,” she says sadly.

As Internet access grows in Cuba, so is gender-based digital violence. Information campaigns about the problem and tools for women to defend themselves, illustrate the situation. In the picture, two women living in Havana interact with their mobile phones while waiting for the bus.  Photo: Jorge Luis Banos/ IPS

The young woman is a member of a group of organizations that have joined efforts to draw up a draft law in Chile about gender-based violence on the Internet. “There are many things we’ve been demanding for a long time, and neither government authorities or society have answered them,” she recalled.

Since 2018, Brazil has special articles to penalize revenge porn. This was incorporated during the reform of Law 13.772, popularly known as the Maria Penha Law.

That same year, the Peruvian government published Decree Law 1410, which added four new crimes to the Penal Code. In the meantime, in December 2019, Mexico managed to amend its Penal Code in some states. These added a law penalizing the crime under the Law of Access of Women to a Life Free of Violence.

Puerto Rico also incorporated a sentence into its Penal Code, in 2018, for anyone who shares “without consent, any material that jeopardizes the protagonist’s reputation, whether it has sexually explicit content or otherwise.”

According to the OAS, other countries with legal initiatives currently underway are Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Due to greater Internet access in Cuba since 2018, many communication campaigns shine a light on the problem. However, it’s still unknown whether legal changes are forthcoming for these specific crimes.

“At a regional level, recognizing how this violence responds to very specific contexts in each country, but with very similar characteristics, is key,” said Marieliv Flores, the director of Hiperderecho, an NGO based in Lima, Peru. The group has been carrying out exclusively gender-based work for the past three years.

The lawyer stressed that “it’s normally white, heterosexual men on the Internet.” “The fact that women and other vulnerable groups face violence in this space, in a very unfortunate way, limits their presence,” she said about the consequences of this issue.

“Violence ends up silencing voices, pro-human rights discourse, it takes away our body…, it kicks out of the digital space anyone or any line of thinking that goes against the hegemonic, patriarchal and machista line,” Flores said, giving an example.

This is why NGOs and groups tackling the problem give citizens toolkits and emergency kits so that women can learn to interact safely on the Internet. Likewise, how to gather evidence about these crimes that can help them file a complaint with the police.

Read more features on Havana Times here.