Empowering women against cyber-violence

MOST people equate violence against women (VAW) with physical, sexual or psychological harm. Not many realise VAW can also take place online and may be more widespread than what they think.

ALL EARS: A participant presents the results of her group’s discussion.

The United Nations defines VAW as “any act of gender-based violence that results in or likely to result in physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

The statistics are at once both heart-stopping as they are heartbreaking.

According to a 2006 UN study, at least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten, coerced into sex or otherwise abused in her lifetime ——with the abuser usually known to her.

This has lead the UN to declare VAW as “a problem of pandemic proportions”.

In 2007, Sarawak accounted for 11 per cent or 416 cases of the total number (3,756) of domestic violence cases in Malaysia recorded by the Royal Malaysian Police, according to data available from the Women’s Aid Organisation’s website.

This figure represents the second highest number of domestic violence cases by state for that year.

Since 2003, the number of domestic violence cases reported to the police has been rising. Bearing in mind that traditionally, many cases of domestic violence do not get reported, the actual number is likely to be much higher.

Information and hard data on the incidences of online violence perpetuated against women in Malaysia are quite scant although it is believed to be on the increase.

It was recently reported Malaysians are among the most frequent users of Facebook and Twitter.

Anecdotal evidence suggests women are more likely to be subjected to cyber-violence but Maria Chin Abdullah and Mohd Mustaffa Fazil Mohd Abdan were quick to point out that men too were vulnerable.

Maria, executive director of Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti Selangor (EMPOWER), and Mohd Mustaffa, executive director of the Communications and Multimedia Content Forum of Malaysia (CMCF) were recently in Kuching as invited speakers for ICT and Cyber-Violence Against Women — a two-day workshop, organised by Lina Soo of Persatuan Janadaya Komuniti Sarawak in collaboration with EMPOWER.

thesundaypost spoke to them about how to create safe digital spaces for women online, the risk of falling victim to cyber-violence, as well as the present state of laws in Malaysia addressing the issue.

At its core, cyber-violence is just another form of VAW albeit facilitated by the use of ICT and the Internet.

Common forms of cyber-violence include sexual harassment and personal attacks on the Internet as well as through phone text, cyber-stalking, threats to post malicious information or pictures (real or digitally manipulated) with the purpose of humiliating or coercing a person into sexual favours and exposing a person to sexually explicit photos without that person’s consent.

Many people are also still unaware or find it difficult to believe cyber-violence can lead to actual physical violence off-line such as date rape or gang rape.

Malaysian law

The CMCF is an independent body set up in 2001 under the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) which is tasked with enforcing the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Content Code (CC).

The CC is a set of guidelines and procedures for good practices and standards in content dissemination bound by the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA). It covers TV, Internet, radio, audio text and mobile content — any content which goes through a network.

The CC is mostly a voluntary undertaking within the Malaysian communications and multimedia industry with the exception of broadcasters who must adhere to it. The Code also applies to laypersons, concurrent with the proliferation of user-generated content.

Mohd Mustaffa said under Malaysian law, content deemed illegal in the real world is also illegal online and will be subject to existing laws.

“Currently, anything illegal offline is illegal online. That includes things against the Penal Code as well. So it does not mean if a person is aggrieved, he or she has to rely on only the CMA or the defamation act or indecent advertisement laws and such like.

“It’s already wrong under the Penal Code — it just appears on a digital platform.”

However, he acknowledged the CMCF had very little jurisdiction on content posted on websites hosted overseas.

If the content relates to Malaysians or the government, the CMCF can help investigate and compile a dossier. This is then passed on to the MCMC which does have legal authority to pursue cases overseas.

Depending on the merits of the case, the MCMC can decide whether to take further action or not.

Mohd Mustaffa said the MCMC worked closely with the police and other relevant authorities and government bodies to monitor cyber-crime, of which cyber-violence is just one component. He could not confirm whether there is now a department or task force, specifically dedicated to tracking online violence.

However, Mohd Mustaffa thinks Malaysia’s communications and multimedia laws are on par with what is practised overseas. Nevertheless, the extremely fluid nature of the Internet means it is difficult for laws to always keep up with the latest developments.

“There are areas for improvement, definitely, because this sector is ever evolving. What we have covers the basics quite well. There’s still room for improvement in terms of the ever expanding and ever evolving nature of the digital world.

“So more areas need to come in because there will be so many new cases which come up. It will take some time and more research to be done.”

Meanwhile, according to Maria, although there are various government bodies such as the CMCF to address the broad issues of online content, online security and cyber-crimes, cyber-violence is an issue that needs specific and specialised attention and understanding.

She pointed out that current measures and laws to track cyber-violence and VAW in general still leave a lot to be desired even though the law was recently amended to expand the definition of rape to cover forced penetration using objects.

“There’s a lot of grey areas — like spiking of drinks — which the police and lawmakers have yet to include in existing laws, so it covers all kinds of things which are happening.”

She also highlighted the challenge of securing sufficient evidence under the law to successfully prosecute a case because victimised women are often so traumatised by what has happened to them that they get rid of evidence which may be crucial such as deleting email, text messages and digital photos.

The lack of data available on VAW and cyber-violence is a major hurdle which must be addressed to form more comprehensive laws and an effective national strategy to combat these two issues.

Maria said now, national statistics only keep track of cases which got reported to the police and did not keep up with the realities on the ground.

She urged the government to be open to suggestions and recommendations from NGOs and to build mechanisms into existing procedures and systems whereby women will not be fearful of coming forward to report incidences of violence and seek protection as well as justice and legal redress.

Self-protection

Maria and Mohd Mustaffa agreed education, awareness and vigilance are still the best tools people could employ when it comes to protecting themselves as well as their children online.

Teaching children how to protect themselves online and parents how to effectively monitor their children’s online activities were among issues which came up quite frequently during group discussions during the workshop.

Mohd Mustaffa explained the public was now exposed to greater influx of online content as well as a growing range of new devices to access these contents.

“It’s impossible for any individual or body to completely monitor and control what information can be put online as well as limit access to it. For every website blocked, there are hundreds, if not thousands, more available to take its place. Self-regulation begins at home with you as a person,” he said.

Changing attitudes

Ending VAW is as much about breaking society’s stereotypes of men as it is about changing the traditional perceptions it has of women — education and awareness within both sides of the gender divide are crucial.

Cyber-violence is an extension of existing and often, entrenched  attitudes in society towards women — not just men’s attitudes towards women but also women’s attitudes to their own sex.

To effectively tackle cyber-violence, society must deal with the issue of domestic violence against women as a whole.

Maria stressed the need to educate society on creating awareness and increasing gender sensitisation efforts, especially among men, as most perpetrators of domestic VAW are male.

Women must also know their rights, be willing to take a stand for them and hold society up to basic standards of those rights.

“We have not culturally educated people what respect means — you don’t go and simply take people’s photos, turn them into nude photos and post them on the Internet,” she said.

“Of course, you don’t see the person when you do it but by doing it without seeing the person, you’re not even asking their permission. You’re violating the person. Whether you do it in jest or whatever, the fact that you do it means you’re not respecting the person.

“No laws can really cover that. It’s really about your thinking. We haven’t done enough in that area — to educate young people, particularly boys, about what you mean by respecting women.

“And also girls — young girls who feel they want to have a good time and hang around with reasonably rich people and go to the nice places like hotels — but they are dangerous. You have to know the consequences when you behave in a particular manner.”

Maria said not enough had been done on that kind of education, adding: “We cannot stop them and we shouldn’t stop them but we can actually give them the information to say yes, you can do that but there are certain consequences”.

She stressed if people were not educated, cyber-violence would become a more serious issue in the future.

“We have to handle it now.”

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