The escalation of gender-based violence during the Covid-19 pandemic has been referred to as a “pandemic within a pandemic.” Following lockdowns to control the virus, there has been both a rise in physical gender-based violence at home, and in gender-based cyberviolence – resulting from the shift of everyday activities online.
Malaysia’s current legal framework is inadequate to protect survivors of cyberviolence or provide them with redress. To fill this gap, the government must enact anti-stalking laws. This can be done immediately – draft amendments have already been prepared by an inter-ministerial committee in early 2020.
Gender-based cyberviolence has risen with the pandemic
A new publication by UN Women, entitled “Online and ICT* facilitated violence against women and girls during Covid-19”, highlights the marked rise in gender-based cyberviolence since the start of the pandemic, citing examples from around the world.
For example, Australia experienced a 50% increase in online bullying and harassment over a one-month period, while one county in the US experienced a 700% increase in online harassment from the period of 1-20 April, as compared to the same timeframe last year.
According to the UN Women publication, quarantine and self-isolation measures implemented to curb the spread of Covid-19 have resulted in increased internet usage of 50-70% globally, whether for professional, educational, or social activities.
With this rise, individuals who are less digitally savvy are more at risk of cyberviolence, whether in the form of unwanted communications, sex trolling, threats of violence, or sexual images sent or distributed without consent.
More often than not, the recipients of this form of violence are women.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, a specialized agency of the United Nations, there exists a digital gender gap wherein only 48% of all women globally use the Internet as compared to 58% of all men.
This digital divide is attributable in part to existing gender inequalities such as a lower overall literacy rate among women and the prioritization of boys over girls in access to at-home technology, but it is also attributable to gender-based cyberviolence, which can curb internet usage by women.
In Malaysia, data on gender-based cyberviolence is extremely limited, but WAO and other NGOs routinely respond to inquiries of domestic violence, sexual harassment, and stalking that involve components of cyberviolence – including through Whatsapp and social media.
The increased reliance on technology during the pandemic, coupled with the lack of a comprehensive framework for responding to cyberviolence in Malaysia, likely means that many instances of cyberviolence go both unreported and unaddressed.
Women’s ability to participate in social and economic life may be curbed by gender-based cyberviolence
With the pandemic, everyday activities and access to critical services have become dependent on the use of technology. The UN women publication cites research suggesting that as a result of cyberviolence, women tend to restrict their online activities.
Women are thus doubly victimized – first by the violent act itself, and subsequently by the restricted ability to engage in online activities.
This in turn could have even farther-reaching effects on women, including on their ability to work, to access healthcare, or even simply to engage with friends and family online.
Without laws on cyberviolence, the impact of gender-based cyberviolence will continue to adversely affect women both online and offline.
Anti-stalking laws are needed to safeguard against gender-based cyberviolence
To both curb the spread of gender-based cyberviolence and ensure that survivors have access to redress, it is critical that Parliament acts swiftly to pass anti-stalking laws.
There is no reason for delay. Draft laws – proposing new offences in the Penal Code and a protection order in the Criminal Procedure Code – have already been formulated by an inter-ministerial committee coordinated by the Legal Affairs Division (BHEUU), in early 2020.
The anti-stalking law would address both offline and online stalking and harassment, including various forms of gender-based cyberviolence like harassment, spying, and doxing. The anti-stalking law would also make available protection orders for survivors.
With anti-stalking laws in place, survivors of online stalking and other forms of cyberviolence would have a path to protection and redress.
Gender-based violence is rooted in gender inequality, and thus, wherever such inequality exists, gender-based violence will follow, whether offline or online.
With the Covid-19 pandemic simultaneously exacerbating many existing gender inequalities and blurring the line between the virtual and real worlds, it is critical that the government takes a swift and decisive approach to address gender-based cyberviolence both during the pandemic and beyond.
- Yap Lay Sheng, Senior Research and Advocacy Officer at Women’s Aid Organisation, which has provided since 1982 free shelter, counselling, and crisis support to women and children who experience abuse. We help women and their children rebuild their lives, after surviving domestic violence, rape, trafficking, and other atrocities.