By Sami Zaptia.
London, 11 March 2021:
In a new report released Wednesday, Lawyers for Justice in Libya (LFJL) call on the Libyan authorities to act immediately to stop the widespread and dangerous pattern of online violence against women (OVAW) in the country.
The report exposes the full scale of online harassment, threats, misogyny, text-based abuse, image-based sexual abuse, the use of deep fake pornography, doxing (publication of personal information such as a private address) and cyberstalking suffered by women in Libya. The report shows that this violence, which started following the 2011 uprising and its ensuing armed conflicts, goes unchecked by the authorities, leaving women to be intimidated, silenced and forced out of public spaces.
LFJL carried out a detailed survey of 163 respondents, documenting their experiences online. Ninety six percent of respondents saw OVAW as a serious problem in Libya and over two thirds of them had been the victims of attacks themselves, with the primary targets being women expressing views online, activists, human rights defenders and women working in political affairs.
“The impact is significant, as many women prefer to withdraw from public space due to the attempts to undermine, defame and slander them, not to mention death threats,” said political activist Abeir Imneina.
Following the 2011 uprising, women in Libya have increasingly used social media to engage in online activism, but an intense backlash against them as the conflict in the country intensified has led many to self-censor or stop their public activism altogether to protect themselves and their families. Numerous victims told LFJL that online violence had had negative psychological effects on them, such as anxiety, panic attacks, a sense of powerlessness and poor sleep and concentration, but it doesn’t always end there.
“Tragically, far too often in Libya online abuse has been followed by physical attacks including enforced disappearances and brutal killings, committed in broad daylight,” said LFJL Research Fellow Dr Olga Jurasz. “Over 80% of survey respondents said that online violence against women was just as serious as offline violence.”
While it is often difficult to identify perpetrators, 60% of respondents believed that OVAW in Libya is committed by state actors and affiliated militias, as well as private actors, with the sole aim of silencing women. As OVAW can result in significant mental suffering, when committed by state agents or their affiliates it may amount to torture in some cases.
Despite the scale of the problem, Libya does not have laws which specifically criminalise online or offline violence against women. Since 2011, several draft laws have been proposed to tackle violence against women, but all of those seen by LFJL fall short of international law and standards. For example, they did not cover violence committed online, did not address women’s right to personal integrity, focused primarily on physical pain inflicted on the victim with disregard to psychological suffering, and did not ensure access to safety or redress for victims.
The Libyan authorities have also failed to carry out effective investigations under provisions of the Penal Code, which criminalise violence more broadly and could be used to hold perpetrators accountable, despite women reporting incidents to the police and prosecutors. This sends a clear message to the public and perpetrators that online violence against women will go unchecked.
“Online violence is a weapon used to silence women, undermining respect for human rights and the rule of law,” said Marwa Mohamed, LFJL’s Head of Advocacy and Outreach. “This issue needs to be given the attention it deserves. Libya must pass a law on gender-based violence, including online violence against women, and prosecute perpetrators in line with its international obligations under key human rights treaties.”
While 76% of survey respondents said that social media platforms should also take responsibility for the issue, most had not reported such incidents or were not aware of the existence of complaints mechanisms. Where respondents had reported incidents, they also had to get groups of other users to report the issue before platforms would carry out investigations and delete abusive accounts. Several respondents told LFJL that one or two people reporting an abusive account would usually not prompt social media platforms to conduct investigations.
“Social media platforms must do more to tackle abuse on their platforms,” said Mohamed. “As a first step, social media platforms must commit to the eradication of online violence against women by adopting a human rights-based approach, ensuring that data evidencing online violence against women is made available for use in investigations and legal proceedings aimed at establishing accountability.”