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Digital violence against women: a criminal issue but also an issue of social justice and democracy

Standing Committee meeting in Reykjavik

Opening an event organised on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, marked every year on 25 November, PACE President Tiny Kox underlined that while important gains in the fight against gender-based violence have been made over decades of activism, “it is clear that recent technological developments have introduced new forms of violence against women, such as digital violence, and it is urgent to address them”.

Indeed, new online tools, which have proven to be extremely useful in preventing crime and protecting victims, "have also created new threats if they are not used well”. New forms of violence, such as cyber-harassment, electronic blackmail, doxing or cyber-flashing, are a particularly worrying development, especially - but not only - for the younger generation which is very active online.

"The pressure is on and we need to keep it on. In all our member States there is backsliding, there is polarization and there is an increase in online hate speech and violence. We as parliamentarians need to say no to violence against women and set an example in showing how to stop it, especially in its digital forms,” he concluded.

Ragnhildur Arnljótsdóttir, Permanent Representative of Iceland to the Council of Europe, took the floor on behalf of the Prime Minister and Minister for Equality of Iceland. “It is unacceptable for women of all ages to be unsafe – both in the physical world and the digital world. We know that safety and security is necessary to be able to participate in society and for a just, equal, and prosperous society, women must have the chance to participate and contribute fully. Digital gender-based violence is therefore not only a criminal issue but also an issue of social justice and democracy”, she said.

It has been a priority for the Icelandic government to address gender-based violence, she said. “An action was put in place to address the increase in online digital sexual violence by reforming the criminal law. Iceland is also proud to be a co-leader of the gender-based violence action coalition in the UN Women's Generation Equality Forum, and the Icelandic Parliament passed a parliamentary resolution on a plan for 2019-2022 on measures against violence and its consequences.”

But with all the efforts made in this important fight, “there is still work to do, and we must keep working until we have completely and comprehensively ensured that our policies and laws protect all women from all forms of violence and harassment. We will never have full gender equality until gender-based violence in all its forms has been eliminated,” she concluded.

“The essential factors of success in the combat against digital violence are political will, developed social discourse and public awareness,” said Maria Rún Bjarnadóttir, a lawyer in the office of Iceland's National Police Commissioner and a member of GREVIO.

The Icelandic approach in the field, she said, is based on targeted prevention and education, updating the criminal justice system and comprehensive victim support. This latest aspect, she explained, is based on building up existing support services, combined with focusing on technical measures to take down or limit the spread of material and co-operating with platforms and ISPs.

Prevention and education is key, she said, through co-ordinating with a wide range of stakeholders in the field, focus on perpetrators, collaborating with the 112 helpline and providing general access to information on digital safety.

Ævar Pálmi Pálmason, head of the Sexual Offences Investigative Division of the Reyjkavik Police, stressed that to combat this digital violence against women “everyone has to act in some way. Access to the internet and smart devices is constantly increasing – not just for children, but also for the elderly. “The elderly are a growing group that must not be forgotten, because they are already at risk of isolation, and if they are exposed to online breaches, they risk being further isolated,” he pointed out.

Violence on the internet is a growing problem according to all studies. Women are at a much higher risk of being exposed to online violence. “We must educate the children and younger generations on how to behave on the internet. But we also have to educate adults. We must educate and train professionals working in the judicial system, police officers, prosecutors, judges. We must focus on prevention and, finally, “increase efficiency and update the legal system such as the mutual legal assistance treaty”, he concluded.