From fake accounts to harassing phone calls: talking about technology-related violence against women in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIH) was one of seven countries covered by the Association for Progressive Communications’ (APC) research project “End Violence: Women’s rights and safety online”. The research in BIH was done in association with One World Platform for Southeast Europe (OWPSEE), a Sarajevo-based civil society organisation advocating for human rights and internet rights through a gendered lens. The report, which you can find here, uses three in-depth case studies to assess legal instruments, corporate policies, and women’s access to justice.

Here, writer Lamia Kosovic speaks to two members of the OWPSEE research team, Valentina Pellizzer and Aida Mahmutović, taking us behind the scenes of the BIH research.

Lamia Kosovic: In mapping technology-related violence against women (VAW) in Bosnia and Herzegovina, what methodologies did you use to build an understanding around these complex issues?

Valentina Pellizzer: If we take a step back to when we started the whole project, what we tried to understand was the level of knowledge that women’s organisations and activists had about technology itself. In other words, we wanted to find out if you, as an activist or as an organisation, — as someone working to prevent violence — are aware of the ways technologies operate and are used for committing virtual violence. That was the kind of participatory approach that we took in the beginning.

Aida Mahmutovic: As many of us working in the field may know, it is very hard to collect and map cases individually. We thought about other ways of collecting data and started working with the Centre for Legal Assistance to Women in Zenica. When we spoke to women working at the Centre, they realised they did have cases connected to ICT violence, though they never thought of it as anything other than regular violence. We researched all their cases from 2012 up to 2014. That was also when there were like a hundred cases mapped on the global APC map, which is how we came to these three cases.

LK: Your research shows how prepaid mobile SIM cards allow abusers to easily change their phone numbers without registration and thus continue harassing women. In what ways are telecom companies addressing this problem?

AM: That was one of the problems we emphasised in our research: the entire scenario of going out, getting a phone card, abusing a victim, throwing the card away, and then getting a new card. This makes it so easy for the perpetrator, because it is so difficult for the victim to prove anything. Basically, telecom companies cannot do anything because you can buy those prepaid phone cards anywhere, and the only thing a survivor can do is to change her phone number. This then brings us to another issue, of the perpetrator being capable of finding the survivor’s phone number again. In most cases, the perpetrator is usually someone close to the survivor and always has ways of finding her information.

VP: I just want to add one more thing about the freedom you have with prepaid cards. In one way it is actually good that people can buy such phone cards and stay anonymous, but on the other hand it gets complicated when it comes to protecting a survivor. All telecoms have generic terms of reference, and not a single one has protocol to recognise violence against women. That is something we need to pay more attention to. But again, I would not like to say that these prepaid cards are not good so let’s remove them. If everyone had to register their number, we would all be exposed to surveillance.

LK: Your research indicates that even after survivors report abuse to the police, little is done to help them. What measures need to be taken in order to change this?

VP: If the police do not have the correct protocol, they cannot do their job. And to get the protocol, we need to do something on the legislative level. The problem here is at two levels. The first is that Bosnia and Herzegovina has no unified state level statistics when it comes to VAW. We have two numbers that women can call, but both are managed by non-profit organisations. What is also very important is that where statistics do exist, they do not record the technology used in the act of violence. That’s something we have now started with the Centre in Zenica, so those who make the laws can finally realise what the problem is. Second, under criminal law, the police cannot do anything until your life is in danger – meaning, until you get beaten.

LK: Through the women’s stories it is possible to observe how psychological harms are minimised in comparison to physical harms. What are some mechanisms to raise awareness around this issue and increase women’s protection from such harms?

VP: Psychological violence is hard to prove. Women have to save text messages, photos, and so on, because you need to have evidence that someone is abusing you. In addition, there is no place where you can actually record this. When you go to the police, there is no form to fill out for this type of violence. And on top of that we have our own cultural barriers. For example, if you are an older woman then they ask you why you have a Facebook account or other similar questions.

Thus we have to work on awareness raising, which we have already started. Now we have indicators, case studies, and a pattern of how this is taking place. We can start formulating how to record online violence, and once it’s recorded, how the police can deal with such cases. Now we have an instrument through which we can operate — the Istanbul Convention — that Bosnia signed and ratified, which contains a whole chapter on online violence including psychological harms.

LK: The concept of justice is wide and complex. In what ways did the women understand justice in their own lives?

AM: Each of the survivors of virtual violence had the exact same behavioural pattern as any woman who experiences violence – that is, they all felt guilty. They felt what was happening to them was their fault. When they became aware of the situation, they would first go to the police, because they thought the police was the body through which they could ask for some solution to the problem. But after not receiving any help from the police, they would again blame themselves and start feeling isolated. In one case related to abuse over Facebook, the survivor publicly spoke out about the problem. But this partly backfired because she started receiving more friendship requests online, and not always by people who meant well. So generally speaking, yes, accessing justice is wide and complex when it comes to virtual violence.

VP: The concept of justice, if we speak of traditional justice, is too slow for people exposed to violence on social networks. On here, your reputation is immediately compromised and you need to have some network of support made up of people who trust you and are willing to help you.

LK: In the case of Sandra, she felt alone and isolated in her fight for justice. Would you say this would be something common to all victims of technology-related violence in BIH?

AM: In the answer to this question, I can recognise every woman in the study – which means that we are talking about something that is common to all victims. Sandra, who faced violence through Facebook, was not only isolated but went through complete torture. This started with the school authorities turning their backs on her children. I will say I was happy, though, because when I approached her through Facebook we succeeded in closing the fake account. This experience for her was revitalising, and she wanted to talk about it; she wanted to help other women who were experiencing the same kinds of violence. So it is very important that victims in such cases don’t feel alone. Especially in such cases as this one, in which a single mother thought the whole world had crashed down upon her.

VP: You are always alone in violence. The first thing that violence does is to try and isolate you. Second, you lose your voice. For example, if someone hacks your account and if you have no other voice, then we can say you had your voice taken away. When it comes to traditional domestic violence, women suffer beatings and then go back to their maternal families. All the while, the neighbours pretend they don’t hear anything because it’s a “private” thing. On the internet, you have the same people doing the same things, but it’s happening in a space where they feel they can judge you more freely and loudly.

LK: What are the next steps for OWPSEE’s research?

AM: Now we are going to search for cases and try to establish communication and partnership with two new organisations, the Foundation for Local Democracy in Sarajevo and another one in city of Banja Luka called Udružene žene. The plan for further research is to conduct it on the same principle; in other words, every organisation will research and map cases in accordance with the strategy we developed with the Centre in Zenica.

We will also form a working group to formulate a proposal for amendments to criminal law. The plan is to submit these to Parliament by October, prior to our 16 days of activism event. I think this is going to be a big step for BIH, because we will be addressing major actors and telling them that these matters are important. Prior to that, we also plan to meet women politicians who have recently been elected so that we can introduce them to the significance of the issue – especially because most of them are also frequent targets of virtual violence.

VP: First we need to continue raising awareness about virtual violence, improving ways and means of protecting victims, and developing a community for real time support. We are also interested in the rural aspect because although we do not yet have proof, there is a sense that women and girls in rural areas have greater problems with getting support to address such types of violence. Our plan for the future is to look into this issue and do some research in rural areas to see how much support they have and can get.

Further on, it is important to continue work with legislative bodies and all actors and organisations working on the issue. It is important to show politicians and people in power how important and serious this problem is, and that solutions to the problem are possible – we just need to work together to provide them.