Online victimization and changing landscape of violence against women and girls in India

It might be prudent to pass the amendment to the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986 (IRWA), to include virtual spaces, that has been pending before the Indian parliament for nine years, writes Aaliya Waziri for South Asia Monitor

Aaliya Waziri May 28, 2021
Violence against women and girls

As recently reported, India has slipped to 140th among 156 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021, becoming the third-worst performer in South Asia. However, when deciphering India’s performance on the above index, we must bear in mind that the Global Gender Gap report is a measure of the gender gap on four parameters - economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival and political empowerment - which makes the aforementioned areas crucial for India to advance towards Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) in the next few years. 

The reason here is that we as a country must pursue the auxiliary factors that increase India’s proximity to gender equality. In light of this, we must account for a specific bracket to violence against women and girls (VAWG) within the larger periphery of cyber abuse.

With access to smartphones and cheap cellular network, women and girls face cyber violence on a much larger scale when compared to men as reported by UN Women. The policy brief on violence against women and girls during Covid 19 also flags the economic cost of cyber violence that is expected to increase exponentially as the number of internet users continues to multiply. 

The Association for Progressive Communications in its report titled “Global Information Society Watch” states that in the context of Information and Communications Technology (ICTs), out of the total 150 million internet users in India, around 60 million are women. 

While it is a globally accepted fact that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, there exists a vacuum in place of a definite policy that tackles cyber VAWG in our country.  In contrast, countries such as Australia and Scotland are now directing their resources and attention towards propounding a policy that facilitates enforcement of legal sanctions against perpetrators of cyber-bullying, harassment and pornography.

Gender justice and digital world

With this as our frame of reference, it is important to understand the nexus between women rights in the digital world and our commitment towards achieving gender equality and gender justice. Multiple forms of cyber violence are prima facie acts of gender-based violence that infringe upon women’s right to privacy. The UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development defines online violence against women and girls to include hate speech, hacking or intercepting private communications, identity theft, online stalking, harassment (sexual), revenge porn and threats of rape, sexual assault or murder. 

In 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences, submitted a report to the Human Rights Council highlighting the fact that use of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) without the prohibition of online gender-based violence could exacerbate sexual and gender-based VAWG in society even further. 

The report explicitly outlines that Article 1 of the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women defines ‘violence’ to include cyber violence as the former extends to “any act of gender-based violence against women that is committed, assisted or aggravated in part or fully by the use of ICT, such as mobile phones and smartphones, the Internet, social media platforms, or email, against a woman because she is a woman, or affects women disproportionately”. 

But the seamless flow of technology demands a dynamic and flexible approach to protecting women’s rights as opposed to a straight-jacket definition. As space-age technology continues to mold and develop, the implementation of human rights to this issue must be adequately acclimatized.

Armory of digital laws needed

In August 2018, the G20 group of nations committed to addressing ‘cyber violence towards girls and women to facilitate their online participation’. Within the larger framework of the Digital Economy Ministerial Declaration, a hidden annexure titled Bridging the Digital Gender Divide — Delivering Impact is precisely the push we need to work under the purview of our domestic human rights network. This will help us to foster measures that “identify, prevent, counter the sexual and gender-based abuse, harassment and the threat of violence against women and girls” in the digital sphere.

But given the demographic of our crime rate, this thematic will not be enough in isolation. We need an armory of digital laws that provides a safe space and a mechanism for women to address the digital divide. This cannot be made possible until we have state-sponsored sex-disaggregated data that will aid in drafting gender-responsive national policies. This, in turn, will allow us to prioritize those digital policies that allow for an integration of a much-needed gender lens into our policies and budgetary allocations.

The United Nations Broadband Commission quotes that 73 percent of women worldwide have already been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence and India is no exception to this. According to a research report by Japleen Pasricha titled “Violence” Online in India: Cybercrimes Against Women & Minorities on Social Media, 28 percent of women reported that they had intentionally reduced their online presence after suffering online abuse. 

In a ground-breaking report titled “Towards Violence Free Lives for Women: tracking of union budgets (2018-2021)” by Oxfam India, it is evident that women-specific allocations on VAWG  in the 2020-21 budget of NCT of Delhi, have gone up, which in part can be attributed to centrally sponsored schemes approved under the Nirbhaya Fund such as Cyber Crime Prevention.  However, this stop-gap measure is not commensurate to the impediment that is cyber harassment.

The National Commission for Women, in 2014, had submitted a report titled “Ways and Means to Safeguard Women from Cyber Crimes in India” in which it recommended an amendment to Information Technology Act to make it “more women-centric” to combat cybercrime. As an ancillary measure, it might be prudent to pass the amendment to the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act 1986 (IRWA), to include virtual spaces, that has been pending before parliament for nine years. 

The parliamentary standing committee in its approval report said the amendment to the Act calls for the bill to be passed owing to “rapid technological advancements, indirectly leading to the opening of more avenues for cases of indecent portrayal of women”. 

In its current form, the IRWA primarily prohibits indecent representation of women through advertisements or in publications, writings, paintings, or figures. Enacting the amendment will broaden the definitions of “distribution”, “material” and “publish” to include electronic form and address the demon that threatens the everyday life of women. But viewing this amendment in isolation is of no ameliorative value since a legislative measure cannot operate in a vacuum without a supplementary system to bank upon.

Exclusive legislation

Another solution to the encumbrance that is cyber VAWG is to leverage the power of technology within the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Our goal, in light of SDG 5 (Gender Equality), should be to imbibe digital rights into the existing framework of laws. This will allow for women’s cyber rights to be protected within an umbrella of human rights framework accountable before any domestic court. 

If we chose to implement an arsenal of measures to combat cyber VAWG similar to how countries tackle physical VAWG, we will not be as helpless as we are today. In other words, we must create exclusive legislation to combat cyber VAWG, one that corresponds to India’s international obligations and commitments, to refurbish cyberspace as an open, safe and free platform for the exchange of ideas.

(The writer is a lawyer working as a consultant with UN Women India. The views are personal)

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