Amid a federal election campaign, all major Canadian political parties are running on promises to address gender-based inequities widened by the COVID-19 pandemic, but they have remained silent on the rise of technology-facilitated violence.
No party has highlighted the startling rise of gender-based and anti-LGBTQ+ violence online, despite the fact they have all made promises related to addressing the gender-based violence that has only increased amid a global pandemic.
Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) can take many forms, from the non-consensual release of private images without consent, to deepfakes of such images, to death threats and online stalking. According to the United Nations’ 2015 report on cyber violence against women and girls, women are 27 times more likely to be victims of such online violence, and women and LGBTQ+ people in the Global South are even more likely to be victimized. According to UN Women, the UN entity dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “shadow pandemic” of rising gender-based violence, including TFGBV. The ongoing crises in Afghanistan and Haiti will leave women in both countries even more vulnerable to violence and exploitation, online and off.
“In any time of crisis, violence against women increases,” said Suzie Dunn, a CIGI senior fellow, Ph.D. candidate and part-time professor at the University of Ottawa’s Faculty of Law. “Women often have less access to technology in times of crisis, which can make them vulnerable and less able to access the help they may need.”
Dunn is part of a team at CIGI working on a two-year project titled Supporting a Safer Internet: Global Survey of Gender-Based Violence Online, a project exploring the prevalence of online gender-based violence (OGBV) experienced by women and LGBTQ+ individuals in the Global South. The research project aims to both quantify the problem and seek solutions to it. According to the project website, “The survey and papers produced under this research initiative will help to develop policy recommendations and navigate shared governance issues that are integral to designing responses to OGBV — whether that be through the regulation of online social media platforms, educational programming or legal recourse.”
Dunn said the federal election campaign presents an opportunity to Canadian political parties to take a more holistic approach in developing policies and platforms designed to tackle TFGBV. She encouraged parties to speak with survivors and those who work with them directly and to look beyond the courts for a solution.
“Political parties in Canada need to start communicating with people who have actually been harmed by technology-facilitated violence when developing their positions on these issues,” Dunn said. “Many people want supports outside of the criminal justice system and simply need support in getting the content taken down and safety planning online. Yet the typical response of governments is to address this solely through a criminal justice lens.
“I’d like to see the parties committing to funding research, anti-violence education and organizations that support victims of technology-facilitated violence. We need community-based responses as well as criminal justice ones,” she said.
Thus far, no major political party has released a campaign promise or platform pledge designed specifically to address TFGBV. No political party responded to a request for comment on how its platform will address TFGBV; however, the Liberal Party of Canada pointed to several measures its party undertook while in government.
That statement highlighted the Liberal government’s work on a national strategy to end gender-based violence writ large, which includes some measures to study and combat online gender-based violence. The research project underway at CIGI is partially funded by the federal government through the International Development Research Centre as well.
The Conservative Party of Canada platform includes promises related to domestic violence, but not the wider issue of how that same violence can play out online.
The New Democratic Party has pledged, broadly, to “end gender-based violence” but does not outline specific measures to address such violence online. It also includes a promise to “counter online hate” that includes gender-based violence but offers no specific measures to do so.
None of the parties makes mention of the global challenge TFGBV presents or the need to tackle it across jurisdictional boundaries. However, as the work by Dunn and the team at CIGI highlights, TFGBV is a global problem requiring a global solution — and women in the Global South are increasingly vulnerable to this form of violence.
That’s why it’s important that Canadian politicians and institutions like CIGI look beyond the country’s borders when making broad promises to end gender-based violence. They can start by supporting efforts to understand the problem — efforts such as the Supporting a Safer Internet Project.
“Most of the existing research on technology-facilitated violence is focused on the United States, Australia and Europe,” Dunn said. “Technology-facilitated gender-based violence is a global and cross-jurisdictional issue. We need to understand how this issue impacts people across the world, and having empirical data from multiple countries will help us do that.”