Fighting gender-based violence — let’s step up the effort

The various episodes of online hate speech levelled at a number of women in the past days and months were not just plain abusive and unacceptable. They also represent a major obstacle to the carrying out of decent public debate in this country.

 

Hate speech drains the strength out of our common spaces of social interaction. And it stifles the will of those women who would wish to come forward and pitch genuine ideas for country or government ideas that are not coming from spaces of hate, bigotry, or misogynism.

 

I could not help but note that the verbal assaults we have seen of late were directed at women who are in public life or in public office, and with high public profiles women in administrative ranks, politicians, activists, women in the media.

 

Most of the attacks had sexual connotations, and were based on the understanding that women are at the end of the day some kind of sexual object and that it is okay to represent us in this way, to describe us in whichever way appeals to your fantasies, to hurt us by making degrading references to our bodies and other cheap potshots at our dignity.

 

I also took note of the sense of social elitism that underpinned these assaults. Those of us who see these hateful attacks as coming only from a patriarchal point of view would be reading just one aspect of the ugly scenario of gender-based violence that we are going through.

 

In many cases, the aggressors somehow feel privileged enough, be it socially or economically, to carry out these attacks and assume they can count on enough support from others of their kind to get away with this violence without many repercussions.

 

Of course, hate crime and abusive language go beyond attacks on women. We know that cases of hate speech often come from racist, homophobic, bigoted sources, and for other reasons as well.

 

But the common motivation across these forms of violence remains one based on hate, with a victim at the receiving end.

 

Moreover, we should not tolerate a state of affairs in which the efforts done by government, NGOs and various other stakeholders to ensure equality, dignity and equal opportunities for women in our society are obscured by the criminal behaviour of aggressors and online predators seeking the next woman to shame and humiliate for their own ends.

 

A study for the FEMM Committee within the European Parliament has shown that women are specifically targeted by cyber violence, and that gender is a significant factor in the prevalence of cyber violence. Young women are particularly under threat of sexual harassment and of online stalking.

 

This research also shows that violence against women harms in ways that endure, infringing womens fundamental rights and freedoms, their dignity and equality, and impacting their lives at all levels.

 

Both the physical and mental well-being of our women, as well as their social and financial development, the study shows, are at stake.

 

Eurobarometer findings two years ago showed that Malta has some of the highest amounts of online hate speech in the European Union, with more than 55% of the Maltese saying that the illegal content they were most likely to come across by accident online consists in fact of hate speech.

 

Being subjected to abuse in sexual terms is not just a matter of discouraging women from taking up public roles, or indeed of putting forward their opinions in public. Yes, there is that, and it is a very real sentiment among many women I speak to.

 

The heart of the matter, however, is what we can do to curb this violence.

 

Since 2019, Malta has a Hate Crime And Speech Unit that has been set up to provide victims of hate crimes with psychological and legal support, with data showing that the number of reports of hate speech and hate crime are in fact on the increase.

 

We need to strengthen the educational avenues that prise our children of the dangers of hate speech and provide them with the necessary training to understand the value of decency in online and public behaviour and debate.

 

The Council of Europe itself has developed and offers its HELP courses on Hate crime and Hate Speech, which are available online and were set up in collaboration with the OSCE Office of Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODHIR), and with the contribution of the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA).

 

We also need to increase existing resources and to facilitate more synergy between the agencies providing personal and local support, the law courts and the police in order for each reported case  of hate speech to be addressed with the urgency it requires, and the perpetrators brought to justice in a timely and efficient manner.

 

From this space, I would like to encourage victims of online hate crime, and especially those women who become victims of shaming, degrading or hate-based online abuse, to report immediately and to use the professional services provided, including those by the Victim Support Agency, the Hate Crime And Speech Unit, and the Cyber Crime Unit at the Malta Police Force.

 

Both as women and as a society more broadly, we must continue to step up the pressure on online aggressors by ensuring that we take the leap and refuse to tolerate abuse by seeking immediate and effective action.

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