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MALTATODAY 4 April 2021

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13 NEWS maltatoday | SUNDAY • 4 APRIL 2021 LAURA CALLEJA THE problem of online violence and harassment is being overlooked in dis- cussions about violence against women, the Commissioner for the Protection of Equality, Renee Laiviera, has said. Citing research showing women are 27 times more likely to be harassed online than men, Laiviera said that with daily lives becoming increasingly intertwined with the online sphere, online violence is a growing problem with a significant on people, especially women. "The public must bear in mind that experiences of online violence may be an extension of or a precursor to offline physical and sexual physical and sexual violence, harassment, and stalking. It is often an expression of gendered and sex- ualised abuse that seeks to devalue and traumatise women," she said. Laiviera said it was important to give due importance to online violence and harassment as part of wider efforts to eliminate gender-based inequalities. "If we ignore the specific gender impact of cyber-violence, and also how this impact may be different for women hailing from different social groups such as their cul- tural background, age and sexual orien- tation, we risk missing a very important element of the social reality of violence against women," she said. Laiviera said people's online world be- haviour was no less influenced by their social context than their behaviour else- where. "The patriarchal society and the atti- tudes it engenders are bound to be re- flected in the online world… This means that the different forms of violence against women occurring in the online sphere and those taking place in the physical world are not mutually exclu- sive. They generally overlap with one an- other. Online violence is an extension of violence and discrimination that women face offline throughout their lives. "Online violence is a form of discrimi- nation and negatively impacts the enjoy- ment of human rights. In this context, it is essential to address online violence against women since it limits women's right to freedom of expression, their right to safety and privacy, and limits their full participation in society." In 2018, the Maltese parliament ap- proved the Gender-Based Violence and Domestic Violence Act that fully inte- grated and implemented the Istanbul Convention's provisions in national law. The laws promote and protect women and girls' right to live free from violence in both public and private spheres, in- cluding the online sphere. A unit that tacklers hate speech on social media was also introduced in 2019. Yet despite this, Laiviera said more work needs to be done to prevent and combat violence against women, par- ticularly awareness-raising on identi- fying online behaviour that can lead to online abuse. "Many cases of online harassment go unreported since victims feel either pow- erless or intimidated," she pointed out. Besides prevention, Laiviera said Malta still needs an environment where vic- tims can come forward and report cases. "Laws and enforcement measures should ensure that perpetrators are brought to justice." All this has become even more urgent and important since the COVID-19 pan- demic increased women and girl's ex- posure to online gender-based violence, facilitated by the increased use of digital communications over this period. "On- line and offline violence are two sides of the same coin. They may have different dynamics and impact, but, ultimately, both can be traced to the same problem that of gender inequality, stereotypes and sexism," Laiviera said. "It's important to give due attention to the problem of sexist hate speech and violent and sexualised threats online. Access to the internet is becoming a ne- cessity for economic well-being and is increasingly being considered as a fun- damental human right. Hence, it is vital to ensure that this digital public space is a safe and secure place for everyone, in- cluding women and girls," she said. Laiviera said the first step to addressing online violence against women is to rec- ognise that it is a harmful manifestation of gender-based violence. She said policymakers also must act on the main principle that an unsafe digital sphere will mean that women will use the internet less freely, amongst other negative impacts on their lives. This has far-reaching societal and economic im- plications, she said. "Therefore, addressing online vio- lence will require collective efforts from all stakeholders to end online violence against women. This requires both tar- geted campaigns on people's behaviour online and the strengthening of laws and enforcement measures that cover online violence against women to increase the public's trust in the institutions. It also necessitates challenging sexism and ste- reotypes within the broader social con- text," Laiviera said. Laiviera said safeguarding equality, both online and offline, should be prioritised. "Everyone has the right to participate in public life without fear of intimidation due to personal characteristics such as gender, sexual orientation, age, religion and race/ethnic origin. Online technol- ogies can make people's lives better and easier. However, we have to ensure that such technologies do not serve as a plat- form for hate and fear, neither for wom- en nor for men," she said. Equality czar says the problem of online violence and harassment against women is often overlooked Women increasingly targeted online, in a reflection of offline behaviour "The patriarchal society and the attitudes it engenders are bound to be reflected in the online world… This means that the different forms of violence against women occurring in the online sphere and those taking place in the physical world are not mutually exclusive. They generally overlap with one another" Equality commissioner, Renee Laiviera

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