After four years working as an advocate of sexual and reproductive rights, Lorena M., had already gathered quite an experience for the type of insults that could come across her path in meetings and public events. The tough debate with pro-life organizations and religious fundamentalists was expectable, even when a member of these organizations would pass by her on the street. But she never thought her life would get dangerously complicated when anonymous hands hacked the defenders’ network site and began receiving insults and threats of all kinds in her e-mail and social networks’ accounts, creating a harassment and persecution atmosphere in her environment, filled with fear and insecurity.

What happened to Lorena M. has become common for many activists in social and political issues. It seemed that for these women having a voice and independent actions, of commitment to sensitive or controversial issues, or an expertise in issues and areas that are not usually considered suitable for women means inciting the merciless attack of trolls, who whether organized or not, invade cyberspaces to insult, despise and attack others. These actions create a hostile atmosphere whose purpose is to drown the online activism of women and restrict their work in physical spaces as well, restraining their access to information and work over the internet, and threatening the free development of activists.

After the site of the Health Network of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean was hacked and disabled and its Facebook profile was cancelled twice a few days before the September 28 commemoration (Day for the Decriminalization of Abortion in Latin America and the Caribbean), the global alliance WHRD – that brings together women’s rights supporters – issued a statement in which it affirms that “this digital attack is a deliberate attempt to silence legitimate feminist voices, cancel the debate and stop the political participation of women in public spaces through stigmatization and sabotage”.

Worrying data on the most common attacks emerged in the preliminary studies conducted by the Women’s Rights Programme of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) on violence against women in digital spaces, which have women as preferred target and threaten the exercise of rights such as freedom of expression and freedom of partnership on the internet, in addition to free access to information and the ability to share such information in their activism spaces.

In a survey conducted by APC in 2013 among sexual rights activists, 99% of respondents recognized that the Internet is a crucial tool for the advancement of their human rights work. However, 51% confessed having received online threats due to their activism. A third mentioned intimidation (34%); a similar number said they were blocked and filtered off websites and messages (33%); and only a small percentage (29%) mentioned they were subject to censure. For this reason, 27% of respondents admitted they have stopped doing their work online.

The situation worsens at the lack of response from the authorities when women decide to report the online violence or when the platforms of social networks, iinternet service or mobile telephone providers ignore or take time to respond to complaints. A few days ago, the CEO of Twitter, Dick Costolo, decided to face the situation and acknowledge his responsibility for the lack of response to numerous complaints against the trolls attacks, which are everywhere in this social network. He observed on his intervention that this aggressive activity against users scares them off the network. Twitter will soon release a set of tools for users to fight the abuse and persecution, and provide an online complaint service.

Violence silences

As part of the task of preventing violence against women in digital spaces, the “Take Back the Tech!” campaign, created and developed by APC since 2006, decided to centralize last year’s activity of making public and debating the way in which freedom of expression is limited by online attacks.

“Violence silences” was the motto chosen and included solidarity actions with bloggers and journalists from around the world, whose voices and writing are silenced and censored to a greater extent when they defy gender norms, denounce sexism, oppose the exploitation of women’s bodies and use policy analysis to promote a feminist perspective of reality and oppression situations that discriminate against women and prevent them from developing as complete citizens.

With the decision of documenting, creating solidarity ties and creatively resisting violence, we put into action a campaign to discuss women’s rights to live a life without violence and to express their ideas in public spaces, focusing on these determinations as fundamental rights. Women of different ages and activities, communicators, social organization activists, school students and spontaneous participants sent their messages, shared the actions of their groups and commented on the importance of the right to freedom of expression in daily life, according to the various forms of life and personal choices.

The 16-day activism campaign that ended a few months ago (on December 10, 2014) was also an excellent online and offline exchange exercise. We received contributions in the form of texts, tweets, videos, and audios, which gave us an idea of how we can create an enabling environment that boosts expression, creativity and exchange of information among women and girls.

These campaign activities intertwine with our view of considering that it is essential that states, companies and civil society prioritize access to information, freedom of expression and association on the Internet, so that women and girls may reap the social, cultural and economic benefits of information society. Similarly, we have taken a step forward, and we asked women and young girls to be given the opportunity of participating in the decision making process on the development and appropriation of the ICTs, including internet governance.

That’s the purpose of our work of incorporating technologies in everyday life as accessible ways to share what we think, but also to discuss and participate in the decision-making process of public policies that ensure our rights to communication in the broadest sense. This means provide and encourage empowerment of women through access to information, content creation and exchange of opinions online. So that all women may participate, without risks, in a political debate where real digital rights and access to greater equality of opportunities are settled, and in which communication is the central agenda.

We believe that by strengthening the rights to communication and broad access to ICTs, women’s rights will be made possible. From there, we are able to stimulate effective changes in gender relations.

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