Govt urged to include online GBV in Domestic Violence Act
Cape Town-based digital policy and regulation think tank Research ICT Africa, in collaboration with advocacy groups, is calling on government to consider online violence against women in the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill.
The group – consisting of members from Research ICT Africa, the Association for Progressive Communications, ALT Advisory and feminist group Feministing While African – will today be making a public submission to Parliament’s Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services in response to the Domestic Violence Amendment Bill.
The group says it will argue that while the Internet and other ICTs introduce a number of opportunities for South Africans, the proliferation of online harms, or harms facilitated, abetted, or aggravated by the Internet, social media (eg, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter or TikTok) and the use of other ICTs, is a challenge that has grown increasingly prevalent over the last two decades.
The groups are urging policymakers to strike a careful balance between protection and empowerment, also as far as dealing with domestic violence aided, abetted or aggravated by ICTs is concerned.
Focusing on the prevalence of emerging technologies and the potential for harm, violence and abuse in the digital environment − for example, the non-consensual distribution of intimate images by intimate partners − the group says it will urge Parliament to ensure the Bill reflects these emerging and developing challenges to enable victims and survivors of domestic violence, both on- and offline, to benefit from the maximum protection the law can provide.
“The image of the perpetrator of online harms has changed over time,” says Mutondi Mulaudzi, gender and law researcher and PhD candidate based at the University of South Africa and the University of the Witwatersrand.
“It isn’t the person who sits in some basement with multiple computer screens and advanced [tech] capabilities. We no longer exist in contexts that require an individual to be a tech savant in order to cause harm to victims and survivors of gender-based violence. All a person needs is a basic smartphone. Because of this, the Domestic Violence Act has to respond to this new reality in order for it to be effective.”
“For anyone still in doubt, the COVID-19 pandemic has confirmed the growing importance of ICTs like the Internet for our everyday lives – crucial to everything from continuing schooling, working, or even checking symptoms online,” says Anri van der Spuy, PhD fellow at Research ICT Africa.
“While only about half of South Africans are online today, it is important that policymakers (and private sector actors like social media companies) take appropriate steps to ensure those people who are online, along with those who are yet to come online in the months and years to come, are able to benefit from the risky opportunities of the Internet and other technologies.”
The oral submission the group will make follows a written submission made earlier this month. These submissions encompass three key issues, namely: ensuring the Bill adopts a nuanced and evolving understanding of online domestic violence and domestic violence aided, facilitated or abetted by ICTs; reporting responsibilities in relation to directions; and the need for data protection requirements in respect of the integrated electronic repository for domestic violence protection orders.
Samantha Malunga, research associate at the AIDS and Society Research Unit, UCT, and member of Feministing While African, points out: “More and more minors are accessing online spaces unsupervised due to the move to have classes online during lockdown.
“With many households in SA sharing only one Internet-accessible device – usually a smartphone – it is imperative that online spaces become safer for all who use them so that children and young people are not exposed to gender-based violence online in the form of unsolicited sexual images, messages or advances. With many parents and caregivers having fewer digital skills, it is difficult to supervise the online spaces their children access and keep them safe and this is one place where the Bill can step in and help.”
Other recommendations made in the group’s submission include the need tosupport more research efforts to provide a proper understanding, not only of the factors that may make some South Africans in particular more vulnerable to harm from online risks, but also the supporting environments available or unavailable to help them deal with such potential exposure to online risk.
It also recommends providing disaggregated gender and domestic violence data to include the use of ICTs in the perpetuation of violence and to gather the input of various stakeholders – including through consultations with relevant communities, like feminist and civil society organisations and communities – before developing this Bill further.
“The same digital technology relied on to document and report gender-based domestic violence may be used to perpetrate it. The guarantees for safety offline must be extended to digital technologies to guard against online gender-based violence and ensure they can be used as part of the solution to document and report gender-based violence,” says Chenai Chair, tech and gender policy researcher and co-ordinator of Feministing While African.