Revealing the roots of cyber-violence

On March 8th, we celebrate International Women’s Day.

As more and more girls grow up online, it’s important to explore the ways that technology can be a tool used for violence – or empowerment. This International Women’s Day, we look at how the same old gender stereotypes can manifest in online communication, and what girls are doing about it.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” As most of us know, there is not much truth to this old adage. And as the girls at the YWCA Girls’ Centre tell us often, in today’s online world, the power of words to hurt is mammoth.  

Words and language have always played a key role in perpetuating, concealing and dismissing violence against women. Today’s online world has given us even more words to dismiss it with terms like “cyber-bullying.”

Watch our new video, “It’s not funny”, about the kinds of sexist jokes and gender stereotypes girls face on social media every day.

We often use the term “cyber-bullying” when what we are actually talking about is gender-fuelled harassment and online violence. Think of the cases of Amanda Todd, Rehtaeh Parsons, Audrie Pott and Felicia Garcia, all of whom subsequently died by suicide.  

A depoliticized term like “cyber-bullying” clouds the misogyny at the core of the violence these girls experienced. The real roots of the torment to which they were subjected were sexist attitudes about gender and sexuality. Amanda Todd was sexually extorted. Rehtaeh Parsons and Audrie Pott had both reported they had been raped and then were brutally harassed online. Felicia Garcia experienced wicked online harassment about her  sexual behaviour. 

As a feminist organization, YWCA Toronto knows that if we do not acknowledge and address the sexism that is at the root of the violence, our efforts to combat it will be fruitless.

Of course, we all want to address cyber-bullying and build safe schools and communities for our kids. Schools are hosting anti-bullying programs and cyber-bullying awareness weeks in droves. However, many of these programs fail to directly address the sexist stereotypes and attitudes that drive many bullies.

As a result, we are not making the necessary headway in our efforts to protect our teenage girls, who are nearly twice as likely as teenage boys to be cyber-bullied”.

At YWCA Toronto, we are working with our girls’ programs to find ways of creating workshops that are focused on girls’ specific experiences and needs. Recently, our Girls’ Council learned about online communications and safety with organizations including Mozilla and Symantec. They then developed and facilitated a workshop on internet safety for a group of girls new to Canada at YWCA Toronto’s JUMP settlement support program. Being around the Girls’ Council is inspiring and empowering. With workshops like this one, and other projects, the girls are tackling sexist violence and stereotypes with images and ideas of strong, empowered, healthy girls.

Learn more about what YWCA Toronto is doing to address these issues through our Girls’ Centre. Support programs like the Girls’ Centre by donating today.