The surge of digital media and the forced hyperconnectivity due to the restrictive measures and ways to curb contagion during the pandemic have resulted in an increasing number of victims of this type of violence with no legal regulation to control it.
Digital gender-based violence includes all forms of discrimination, harassment, exploitation, abuse, and assault perpetrated through social networks, e-mail, mobile phones, and all other media or channels associated with information and communication technologies.
Firstly, it can be said that violence in the online world affects victims in their offline lives and causes health disorders. The victims of this kind of violence are likely to develop mental conditions, such as depression and anxiety, which can eventually have an impact on their general health (e.g., dietary issues, high blood pressure, etc.).
Furthermore, their intellectual development may be impaired; they have trouble socializing and suicidal thoughts arise; family communication starts to change and become more difficult; they are increasingly isolated (they abandon social media) and experience a constant feeling of fear, loneliness and may even experience paranoia. This is compounded by self-incrimination, potential addictive behaviour, and the general distress that ensues when victims' claims are not taken into account. Incidentally, 65% of the victims do not report these crimes.
One of the confirmed long-term outcomes is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) due to physical or mental ailments, which can cause severe damage to their overall health and in particular, mental health. Among the harmful consequences identified by victims, some studies mention: a permanent state of alertness (stress or anxiety) in the face of the online threat; frustration and helplessness due to the constant flow of attacks; a sense of exhaustion from coping with violence; indifference, resignation; insecurity and fear in virtual spaces even similar to street harassment. It should also be noted that in most cases virtual threats seek primarily to intimidate those who receive the messages and make them feel watched, which leads to severe emotional instability: sadness, depression, anxiety, self-destructive thoughts (especially in non-consensual pornography), with a high impact on the victim's mental health.
It is becoming increasingly common to hear about cases of women who suffer virtual harassment, with the non-consensual dissemination of intimate images having become the most common practice, along with verbal abuse, extortion, threats, blackmail, and discrimination.
One of the most extreme examples of digital violence is the case of Belén San Román, a policewoman from the Rural Patrol Police of Bragado, in the province of Buenos Aires, who on November 30th, 2020, committed suicide with her service weapon because her ex-boyfriend, Tobías Villarruel, had circulated an intimate video and photos of her to extort, harass and threaten her. For that reason, one of the bills related to this issue that is currently under discussion in the national legislature is called "Belen’s Law. It seeks to incorporate digital violence as a crime, and to sanction the non-consensual gathering and dissemination of intimate material and/or nudity, pornographic montages, among others, from a gender perspective. Although the Argentine Criminal Law punishes revenge pornography, the amendment seeks to increase the fine and impose a two-month to two-year prison sentence for anyone who publishes this type of content as a way to establish appropriate punishment for such violent acts.
The global report "Online Violence against Women Journalists: A Global Snapshot of Incidence and Impact", conducted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) in 2020, reveals interesting (and worrying) data in this regard. Out of the total women surveyed, 73% reported having experienced online violence; 25% received threats of physical violence and 18% sexual violence; 41% reported being the target of online attacks apparently related to planned disinformation campaigns; 30% journalists responded to online violence by self-censoring on social media; 47% identified coverage of or comments on gender issues as the main trigger for online attacks.
In August 2022, for the first time in Argentina, the judiciary classified the non-consensual dissemination of intimate material as a form of digital gender-based violence (Chamber M of the National Civil Court of Appeals). The case concerns a woman who had reported her ex-boyfriend to the Domestic Violence Office of the CSJN for various episodes of physical and psychological violence, and for sharing videos of them engaging in sexual activity. As a novelty aspect, the judges ordered the defendant to remove from his devices, "including those in the cloud or stored in any type of system or support", all the intimate material he had of the complainant within a period of 48 hours under penalty of a one-million-peso fine.
While this is a matter of great concern, it is worth noting that an OAS report published in 2019 states that the Inter-American human rights system has not yet established a definition of gender-based "online violence". This is a critical outstanding debt to further the formulation of public policies that address this issue from a human rights perspective.
On the other hand, one of the reasons behind this type of violence is the gender digital divide, i.e., inequality in access to and knowledge of the use of digital resources. Consequently, one of the key tools to prevent it is to create a more equitable Internet, to raise awareness of the risks, to learn how to block and report online, to avoid stereotypes, to learn how file claims, etc.
In this regard, the first recommendation to fight against this kind of violence is to "de-naturalise the idea that because digital gender violence is virtual, it is not real and, therefore, does not affect the lives of people and their environment". Additionally, it is necessary to implement awareness campaigns by creating prevention materials and promoting more protective regulations for women.
In conclusion, besides acknowledging the reality and existence of this sort of violence, government agencies and civil society organisations should develop and implement protocols for dealing with digital gender-based violence within the framework of human rights, with a gender and intersectoral perspective and a psychosocial approach in order to both prevent and put an end to the negative impact that such violence has on women's health.
Claudia Zalazar is a member of the 5th Civil and Commercial Court of Córdoba, Argentina, member of AMJA- Association of Women Judges of Argentina, and President of the Right to Health Section of the Institute for Research in Legal Sciences of the Universidad Blas Pascal.