Yesterday, Wednesday 25th November 2015, Women’s Aid shone a light on the issue of digital abuse of women in intimate relationship at a national conference at Wood Quay in Dublin. The event heard from Irish experts on the nature and extent of digital abuse in Ireland and legislative gaps including Margaret Martin from Women’s Aid, Pauline Walley SC and also the Garda Commissioner, Noírín O’Sullivan. It also heard from Ann Moulds, , a Scottish campaigner who was previously a victim of stalking. The Women’s Aid conference was organised to address this growing phenomenon of digital abuse and to learn from best practice approaches in other jurisdictions.
Margaret Martin, Director of Women’s Aid, told the 120+ strong audience:
“Domestic abuse is about fear and control and perpetrators will use all and any means to harm their partners and exes. In recent years, Women’s Aid has heard from women who are being harassed and monitored online, through mobile phones and texting. We recently took a snapshot of the issue on our National Freephone Helpline and One to One services and found that women were experiencing digital abuse as well as offline abuse and stalking by a current or former intimate partner. 25 women had experienced overlapping forms of digital abuse including 16 cases where offensive or threatening emails, text or instant messages had been sent to the woman, her family or friends while 7 women reported that they were being tracked and monitored through technology on their PC and mobile phones. A larger study in the UK found that 41% of abused women had experienced online and technology abuse.”
“Abusers often combine digital abuse with more traditional offline stalking tactics such as following, damaging property and abusive calls. We know that abusive partners use the internet and social media to control and stalk women. While some women have had personal details shared or lies spread about them and are impersonated by their abuser online. The very common form of digital abuse we hear about are damaging rumours being spread about women both personally and professionally and having sexually explicit images and videos that were taken with consent posted online without consent (‘revenge porn’).”
Women's Aid knows the impact of this type of insidious abuse cannot be underestimated. Women feel that their privacy has been invaded and that they have no control over their lives. Women experience anxiety and feel vulnerable and fearful. They also have difficulty in concentrating and sleeping. Women have to change their contact numbers and email addresses, close down social media accounts and in some cases, move out of their homes. Women have to try to repair damage done to their reputation with their family, friends, at work and with their online communities.
While the Women’s Aid snapshot is a small number of cases, we know that the phenomenon is real and growing year on year, especially for younger women. A recent EU wide study on violence against women showed that 12% of Irish women and girls over the age of 15 had experienced stalking with 50% being stalked, physically and online, by a partner or ex. We know that Stalking by an (ex) partner is one of the most predictive factors of both further assault and homicide, including in cases where there is no history of physical violence. We also need to recognise that stalking victims need extra support, not only because of the increased risk posed by their partners or ex-partners, but because they have information about them as well as insight into their daily lives.”
There is a growing awareness in policy circles of the need to address cyber-harassment and related harmful internet content and of its damaging impact on young people who are active users of social media. However, awareness of the extent and impact of women being abused by their intimate partners is significantly lower. That is what we want to start changing today. We are also looking ahead to see what we need to do as a society to meet this issue head on. We are in the early stages of collaboration with Her.ie, the leading website for Irish women, on a reader’s survey on digital abuse to help build a better picture of how many women and in what ways women are being harassed and stalked online.
Women’s Aid also believes that our current laws are simply unfit to meet the 21st century challenges of digital abuse and domestic violence. In its experience, the definition of harassment in law is complex and hard to prove, and rarely used to protect women who are stalked by their boyfriends or exes.
At the conference Women’s Aid called for new, all-encompassing legislation to better protect women from digital abuse and stalking and for a better understanding of the harmful and insidious nature of digital abuse. Women’s Aid recommends that a specific stalking offence be introduced in Irish law, with a comprehensive but not exhaustive definition, including new forms of cyber-stalking, and that stalking be recognised as grounds for a safety order.
It is hugely significant that we held the conference on the International Day Opposing Violence against Women, a day when activists and organisations nationwide joined together to show solidarity with the one in five women experiencing domestic violence. We must show women who need our services that we are listening to their concerns, believing them when they tell us they are in danger, supporting them to a safer life and acting to change the law when we see that it is no longer fit for purpose.
The stalking and online and technology abuse of women is an issue that arose for women who participated in our Women’s Testimony Project
He stalked me after I left him. Sometimes in the dark, I’d see him in the back garden. I was getting texts saying things like ‘get back to work, you bitch’ or ‘don’t go out tonight bitch’ and calling me a ‘slut’ and a ‘cunt’ and a ‘whore’. He was still trying to control me. I used to think he was under my bed and that he was going to pounce and finish me off. I had this feeling that he wanted to kill me and that he wasn’t happy that he hadn’t before things ended. It finally stopped because he’s got a new woman. So he’s got a new focus now and I feel very sorry for her.
For a long while, I believed what he said about me; that I wasn’t attractive, that I was stopping him from enjoying his life. He would text me, saying that I was old, fat and used up. That I wasn’t able to take care of our son, and he could take him away from me. He constantly hacked away at my self-esteem. It gave me a hole in my stomach that I thought would never leave me. He still texted me a lot after I had escaped him, threatening me, telling me I was sick, that I didn’t know who I was dealing with. It made me so anxious. One time I was with my son at sports training - he was only five - and the texts just kept coming. I felt so alone. Guilty too, that my son didn’t have a dad there for him. I was frightened. Women’s Aid explained I had to go to court to get a domestic violence order to deal with the abuse. I have to thank Women’s Aid.
If you are affected by any form of domestic abuse and stalking please contac the Women's Aid National Freephone Helpline 1800 341 900, 10am to 10pm, 7 days a week or visit www.womensaid.ie
Digital Abuse of Women Guide including what to do if someone shares sexually explicit images of you (downlod here)
Women's Aid Animation on Digital Abuse of Women (key information and statistics), Click .