TECH

The persistence of online violence against Filipino women

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Take Back the Tech is an ongoing campaign that seeks to reclaim technology to fight against misogyny and create safe online spaces — actively educating the public on how online and offline VAW can be recognized, reported, and ultimately, ended. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — In June 2018, desperate for income in Cordova, Cebu, a 22 year-old mother of two coerced young girls from her barangay to perform live sex shows online. In exchange for ₱3,000, she agreed to sexually abuse them in whatever way her foreign customer wanted — offering to “do it all.”

Authorities barged in the house where she lived, rescuing two 12-year-olds and one 15-year-old, just as they were to be stripped naked and exploited.

Five months later, a 45-year-old DJ was caught after a car chase with the police in Iloilo City. The man speeding off was accused of sending nude photos and videos of his 22-year-old ex-girlfriend to her family and friends after she ended their relationship.

When his car engine finally blew out and he was forced to pull over, the police confiscated his phone, laptop, and hard drive. He was later charged with the Anti-Violence Against Women and their Children Act and the Anti Photo and Video Voyeurism Act.

Earlier in 2018, a Manila-based reporter covering and critical of President Rodrigo Duterte revealed on a video posted by Rappler that she constantly receives threats of rape, violence and murder on social media.

Forced to be strong and brave in public, she has learned to take these intimidations as “part of the job.”

The online mapping of Take Back the Tech reports cases and tracks the trends and places where violence is saturated. Photo courtesy of TAKE BACK THE TECH

Fighting against online VAW

On November 23, 2018, two days before the launch of an 18-day campaign to end violence against women (VAW), these words were posted on the Facebook page of Take Back the Tech Philippines:

“Gender-based violence is alive and well in digital spaces. It impacts women who express their thoughts, identities and sexualities on the Internet, as well as human rights defenders who are willing to challenge misogyny online.”

Highlighting the pervading threats to women and children in the dark and sinister depths of the digital world, a group of feminists refuses to tolerate this violence. The women behind the Take Back the Tech campaign are reclaiming technology to fight against misogyny and create safe online spaces — actively educating the public on how online and offline VAW can be recognized, reported, and ultimately, ended.

In 2006, Jac sm Kee, leader of the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) Women's Rights Programme, wrote a research paper investigating the connections between VAW and information and communications technologies (ICT). The paper opened up the critical dangers that women face in today’s digital age — from blackmail, online harassment, cyberstalking, to hate speech. This research sparked the birth of the Take Back the Tech campaign.

Take Back the Tech has since gained momentum across the globe, spreading to countries like India, Cambodia, and South Africa. It has also won prestigious awards for its innovative awareness efforts. In 2010, the campaign finally reached the Philippines — where online violence plagues across classes and communities.

Case of Katrina Halili and the rise of legal action against online VAW

Lisa Garcia, executive director of the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) — the nonprofit NGO that brought Take Back the Tech to the Philippines — recalls one of the first high-profile stories her team investigated in the country.

In 2010, Filipina actress Katrina Halili filed a case against cosmetic surgeon Hayden Kho, Jr. after their sex video circulated online — eventually leaking to a porn site and spreading worldwide. Halili claimed that she never consented to the video to be shared publicly. But because of a lack of evidence on who posted the video online, the judge dismissed the case.

The effects of public scrutiny and backlash on Halili left permanent psychological damages.

Lisa Garcia (pictured above) is the executive director of the Foundation for Media Alternatives (FMA) — the nonprofit NGO that brought Take Back the Tech to the Philippines — recalls one of the first high-profile stories her team investigated in the country. Photo courtesy of TAKE BACK THE TECH

“We interviewed her, and she told us that when she’s old, the video will still be there. It’s in the digital world — it can’t be erased, everything leaves a footprint,” reveals Garcia. “If you read the comment threads of the news back then, she was being vilified online. They called her a pokpok, a prostitute. Ang sama-sama daw niya.”

Since she was a public figure, Halili dreaded leaving her home out of fear that people would look down on and condemn her — consequently affecting her ability to work. Kho, however, did not receive the same level of public criticism, recalls Garcia.

Nonetheless, Garcia applauded Halili for her bravery in speaking out and fighting for herself. After her case, the passage of the Anti Photo and Video Voyeurism Act was fast-tracked — protecting victims of sextortion and the non-consensual sharing of sex videos today.

Garcia, however, urges people to look beyond high-profile cases and at marginalized victims: “What about those who do not know people who can help them? Those who do not have the capacity to file cases?”

Understanding the damages of online violence

After an explosion of cyberporn cases in Cordova, Cebu a few years back, Garcia shares that their team flew there to meet the children under the protective custody of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD). In many cases, poverty-stricken parents had exploited their children, selling their sexually explicit photos to foreigners online. In addition to suffering the wounds of the abuse, the children were agonized by the separation from their parents after they were caught and imprisoned.

Oftentimes, victims of online VAW do not consider their experiences as violence, because they have no evidence to show that they were hurt. Likewise, perpetrators think that because they hide behind screens and leave no physical scars or bruises, their words and actions do not harm.

“Kawawa ang mga bata. Their parents were already in jail, yet the kids wanted them out of jail because they missed their parents. The parents claim that they don’t have jobs, that they need to feed their families.”

Garcia says many Filipinos still lack a proper grasp on online violence — causing victims to downplay their pain. And meeting with victims of online VAW has made their team understand the real and urgent damages that they suffer through.

Oftentimes, victims of online VAW do not consider their experiences as violence, because they have no evidence to show that they were hurt. Likewise, perpetrators think that because they hide behind screens and leave no physical scars or bruises, their words and actions do not harm.

Garcia believes that it is crucial for people to understand the gravity of online violence — that even though it occurs in the virtual space and no visible marks are seen, the damages it inflicts on victims are just as deep and disturbing.

Female journalists and activists, for instance, are constantly threatened and harassed online, especially during election season. These threats can easily move from online to offline — causing the women to perpetually live in fear.

“‘Pag tinatakot ka na, it does something to you. You wouldn’t know whether someone is stalking you in the offline world, and it might lead to something physical,” says Garcia.

Garcia and her team thus aim to move beyond exposing the crimes and violations of online VAW, and onto stressing the aftermath of their physical or psychological harms.

“Some cases lead to suicide,” reveals Garcia.

The Aksyon-VAW is an app that shows true cases of identity theft, cyber-bullying, and harassment, which then gives users a chance to make step-by-step decisions if they were the victims. Photo courtesy of TAKE BACK THE TECH

Campaigning and educating the public

After listening to the harrowing stories and silenced cries of victims, the Take Back the Tech Philippines team has grown active on social media, amplifying the voices of survivors and partnering with other women’s organizations to get their simple yet vital message across to the general public: it’s time for women to take control of technology to end VAW.

The FMA maps reported cases and tracks the trends and places where violence is saturated — using this data to brainstorm campaigns for Take Back the Tech.

Recognizing the privacy risks in sharing personal information online, they produced digital postcards on basic online safety and security. Understanding the power of sharing narratives, they created an interactive application called Aksyon-VAW, where they show true cases of identity theft, cyber-bullying, and harassment — giving users a chance to make step-by-step decisions if they were the victims.

The team is also active offline. They hold talks and trainings around the country to educate students, government workers, and members of other NGOs on both the risks and benefits for women online. The team actively joins rallies and mass actions against VAW, where they are unafraid to call out influential men in power — denouncing public officials and the president himself for their misogynistic remarks or actions, refusing to let them perpetuate a patriarchal culture that dehumanizes women.

On their Facebook page, they revisited history and featured the brave women leaders and organizations responsible for paving the way in fighting misogyny in the country: from the Women of Malolos (1888), who lobbied for education reforms at the end of the Spanish era, to the MAKIBAKA (Free Movement of New Women) (1970), who picketed against the commercialization of sex and degradation of women during a beauty pageant.

Almost a decade since they began campaigning in the Philippines, it may not be far-fetched to say that the feminists behind Take Back the Tech have rightfully earned their place among the ranks of these revolutionary women.