Transformative Technology: Harnessing the Power of Tech to Address Gender-based Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean

8 minutes read time
Rafael Sanchez-Cruz, Univision Washington;  Shauna Dillavou, Security Positive; Alex Palacios, National Network to End Domestic Violence; and Wendy Gutierrez, Futures Without Violence discuss tips and tools to combat gender-based violence online and off-l
Rafael Sanchez-Cruz, Univision Washington; Shauna Dillavou, Security Positive; Alex Palacios, National Network to End Domestic Violence; and Wendy Gutierrez, Futures Without Violence discuss tips and tools to combat gender-based violence on and off-line.

Transformative Technology: Harnessing the Power of Tech to Address Gender-based Violence in Latin America and the Caribbean

As part of the International Day to Eliminate Violence Against Women and the #16Days of Activism against Gender-based Violence, we are highlighting innovative efforts the U.S. Department of State has taken to address how technology, human rights, and gender equality intersect. Earlier this year, nearly 1,200 people came together from across the Western Hemisphere to talk about how to harness the power of technology to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls using digital tools. The U.S. Department of State, together with representatives from Google, Twitter, Univision Washington, and Zoom Latino partnered with civil society experts to launch a series of three interactive, Spanish language webchats. The #TecnologiaTransformadora series explored various challenges, opportunities, and tools to address GBV as it is experienced in both online and offline spaces. 

A promotional graphic for the #TecnologiaTransformadora series. (State Department photo)

In the Western Hemisphere, women and girls are disproportionately affected by conflict and violence and must be equal partners in, and beneficiaries of, the pursuit of peace and security. Violence against women, particularly domestic violence and femicide, is an obstacle to security and development in the region. Although many countries in the region have passed laws and created public services intended to protect the rights of women, implementation and enforcement still present obstacles. Women and girls with disabilities as well as indigenous, African descendent, lesbian, and transgender women and girls often face multiple forms of discrimination, making them even more vulnerable to insecurity when conflicts arise. 

Violence against women and girls in digital and online spaces is a growing global concern with wide ranging economic, political, and social implications. Women and girls are especially vulnerable to violent and sexualized threats, stalking, and impersonation online that have serious, and sometimes criminal, offline impact. For examples, in Brazil, 65 percent of cases of cyberstalking, harassment, and threats impact women. In Honduras, young women who are most vulnerable to this kind of violence are the same people that are most active on social media platforms - 82 percent of Honduras’ 750,000 Instagram users and 39 percent of its three million Facebook users are women under 35. Despite the fact that violence online, which often occurs in tandem with offline violence, is serious, efforts to address the targeting of women in cyberspace remain nascent. In 74 percent of countries globally, law enforcement fails to take appropriate actions for violence against women online. With governments and companies struggling to effectively respond, the time is ripe to explore creative solutions, together.  

Effective diplomatic engagement on a sensitive topic like violence against women often starts with acknowledging that addressing this form of violence is a challenge in every country, including the United States. Progress is achievable by working together across borders and in tandem with civil society, governments and the private sector.  Because we can all benefit from sharing unique experiences and best practices in addressing violence against women, the U.S. approach to preventing and responding to such violence globally is founded on the principle of collaboration and exchange. Toward that end, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs’ Race, Ethnicity, and Social Inclusion Unit, and the Bureau of International Information Programs teamed up for a unique collaboration. We brought together a variety of civil society experts and representatives from technology companies who have used technology to creatively and positively engage on the issue of gender-based violence both online and offline in a cross-cultural dialogue with local audiences.

In order to better understand these problems locally, U.S. Embassies and consulates in 14 countries throughout the region organized over 40 local viewing parties, where the webchat was streamed and the opportunity for on-camera Q&A with webchat experts was provided to the local groups.  After the webchat, many embassies and local experts facilitated discussions for participants to share their own ideas, concerns, and solutions.  Civil society groups also independently convened viewing parties in Mexico and Bolivia.

Audiences around the region were eager to discuss avenues to address violence against women.  High school students were involved, along with civil society advocates with diverse expertise on issues such as gender equality, intimate partner violence, public health, internet freedom, freedom of expression, and human rights. We were pleased to have involvement from various government officials from national law enforcement and police, from Ministries of Education and Health, and even a representative from an Attorney General’s office

These dialogues spurred unexpected interactions with experts from different sectors.  Cross-sector relationships are being fostered with the aim to improve rule of law and accountability around cybercrimes, provide direct services to victims and survivors, and consider preventative actions. The creative solutions fell into three categories: data and documentation for accountability, digital citizenship and cyber education, and public policy around privacy in online and digital spaces.

Here are a few examples:

  • Of those who watched and participated in the live polling following the webchat, over 60 percent of viewers plan to review their personal safety and digital security measures for their online accounts. Nearly 40 percent plan to connect to an organization that supports activism against violence against women with technology, and over 20 percent plan to talk to a public official about the topic.

  • Civil society experts highlighted how crowdsourced data collection with open source mapping tools, such as SafeCity, Harass map, Háblame de Respeto or Hollaback, has spurred law enforcement to take action to #TakeBackTheTech.  Experts from Justice for My Sister and Futures without Violence highlighted that when crowdsourcing and digital storytelling are coupled with in-person community engagement, government capacity and accountability to respond to gender-based violence cases increased, and those who have been targeted with online harassment are less likely to disengage or self-censor online.

  • Local dialogues discussed the importance of taking online privacy and security into your own hands with various tools, apps and guides.  Panelists from Security Positive, Hollaback and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV) shared how different tools can support women to protect their privacy and security, document abuse, contact the police, or get a lawyer.

  • Recognizing the key role youth have to play in shaping the norms of tomorrow, the Binational Center in San Salvador, El Salvador, hosted a film screening of Audrie and Daisy with discussion on dating violence, cyber bullying and social media moderated by an International Visitor Leadership Program alumna psychologist and expert on GBV prevention. Mission Ecuador will also host Wendy Gutierrez of Futures Without Violence for public screenings of Audrie and Daisy during the #16Days of Activism. 

  • In Colombia and Peru, 2017 International Women of Courage awardees participated in the webchat series, and Embassy Lima staff participated with International Women of Courage awardee Arlette Contreras Bautista in a #NiUnaMenos march, where use of social media has been a powerful tool to raise the visibility of gender based-violence in the region.

  • The Belize Embassy in  Belmopan  initiated the country’s first-ever youth cyber bullying campaign on prime time TV, “Be Bold For Change and Show Cyber Respect,”  which included this moving testimony from a teen survivor and parents. The campaign was also featured at the Caribbean’s first ever cybersecurity conference, and in workshops to address cyber violence at the University of Belize.

  • At Embassy Tegucigalpa in Honduras, discussions revealed a knowledge gap in civil society and law enforcement's ability to protect victims online The effort was successful in framing violence within a broader set of U.S.-Honduran goals, namely promoting a civilian-first approach to security.
  • Experts discussed how violence is especially targeted at women in politics or in leadership positions. From online harassment to impersonation, privacy violations, or sexual violence and threats, it negatively affects women’s participation in democracies globally. An expert from Rutgers University shared research from the #NotTheCost Global Call to Action to Stop Violence Against Women in Politics developed by the National Democratic Institute. Local groups observed that online harassment harms democracy by silencing the voices of women and girls in online and offline spaces. Check out this video to learn how it can affect democracy – from student government to national legislatures. 

  • In Cuba, young private-sector IT programmers who attended Embassy Havana’s viewing party teamed up with civil society gender activists to brainstorm how they could address the problem locally. The end result was a prototype cell phone app developed by the group that works both on- and off-line to provide guidance and resources to individuals who are targets of gender-based violence.

A promotional graphic for the #TecnologiaTransformadora series.  (State Department photo)

This year during #IDEVAW and the #16Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence, consider how you can harness the creative power of technology and diverse partnerships to prevent and respond to gender-based violence to make your community a safer, more inclusive, and vibrant place.

About the Author: Betsy Bramon is a Senior Policy Advisor on Gender and Technology in the Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.