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Pushing Back Against the Pushback: How the Nordics Tackle Online Gender Violence

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Nordic panel event at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67): PUSHING BACK THE PUSH-BACK
At the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, UN headquarters, March 6, 2023. The theme of a high-level Nordic event, above, was pushing against the backlash on advancing women’s rights, specifically addressing online gender-based violence. The panel included Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland, center (wearing glasses). JOHN PENNEY/PASSBLUE

Nordic countries may be gender progressive globally, but they quickly admit they have not figured out how to combat the wide-ranging, rampant instances of gender-based violence online. They roundly acknowledge that the problem stems from what happens in the “real world.”

“We all know that the world as we know it was designed by men for men” — including the Internet and politics, said Katrin Jakobsdottir, the prime minister of Iceland, at an event held on the opening day of the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women, the United Nations’ annual conference on women’s rights, running March 6 to 17.

The theme for the Nordic-led discussion, “Pushing against the pushback” — advancing gender equality, the rights of women and girls and LGBTQI people — neatly falls under the theme of this year’s gathering: using innovation and technology to promote gender equality.

As UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in his remarks on the opening day, “We cannot let the Silicon Valleys of our world become Death Valley for women’s rights.” He noted that the UN’s first report on technology, innovation, education and gender equality recommends, among other steps, “gender-responsive education and skills training; algorithms that align with human rights and gender equality; and investment in bridging the digital gender divide.”

“More than ever, we need collective action by governments, civil society, the private sector, and the technology community,” Guterres added, saying that the UN is working to promote a code of conduct “for information integrity on digital platforms.” The goal is “to reduce harm and increase accountability while defending the right to freedom of expression.”

The Nordic forum featured not only Iceland’s head of government but also government ministers who oversee gender equality in Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland, respectively; the relevant ministers from the Faroe Islands and Greenland were also panelists. The moderator, Maria Bjarnadottir, director of Internet safety for the Icelandic National Commissioner for Police, kept the session brisk and efficient, asking the “politicians” on the panel to avoid being boring. They followed that advice by keeping their remarks brief and laced with honesty and humor.

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Here are highlights of what they said about violence against women and girls online (and offline), basing their remarks on the “road map” established last fall by the Nordic Council of Ministers for Gender Equality and LGBT. The declaration draws attention to the regression of gender equality in the Nordic region and across the globe, especially women’s rights to sexual and reproductive health, such as abortion. Legislation remains utmost in protecting women’s rights, the panelists repeatedly said, but each speaker brought national color to the refrain.

The road map’s goal is to “amplify the Nordic voice” for “universal human rights and gender equality” through alliances, collaborations and advocacy among themselves, focusing on health, violence and antidiscrimation.

The comments have been edited and condensed.

Bjarnadottir: What is your political and personal approach to the forum’s theme of pushback?

Jakobsdottir, prime minister, Iceland: The Nordics have worked for decades together to advance gender equality and recently added LGBT rights to the agenda. The road map reflects that one aspect of growing resistance to human rights is happening digitally. New technology gives us “profound opportunities” for all genders, Jakobsdottir said, but artificial technology, or AI, and technology in general are “designed by men” and built on “data by men.” The most important way to counter “pushback and backlash” to gender equality is “speak out very clearly against hate speech and violence. . . .”

Paulina Brandberg, minister for gender equality, Sweden: The political measures have not kept up with “technological development.” The Internet is used more as a tool than as a “place”– where offenses against women and crimes against women occur. “Women’s bodies have been up for grabs with no consequences.” Her ambition: to find a new strategy for addressing gender-based violence “in line with technical developments.”

Gry Haugsbakken, state secretary, Ministry of Culture and Equality, Norway: The tools of social media and the Internet have the “possibility for more equality and for women to speak their voices,” but they have also become more an arena where “women and girls avoid it [not] to be harassed.” From Norway’s viewpoint, “We should do what we can when we can, by talking to the big tech companies” to make the platforms an “equal, accessible area for women as much as for men.”

Naaja Nathanielsen, minister of finance and equality, Greenland: The world may be created by men and designed for men, she said, paraphrasing Jakobsdottir, “but also for some men.” All forms of inequalities stem from the belief that “women are inferior and less reliable” than men. Passing legislation [against gender violence] does not address the “core problem: patriarchy and toxic masculinity.” These problems are much harder to tackle because they are “centered on inherent behavior and widespread.” One solution is to educate children in school at an early age about the problem as well as offer education in “manners [and] values.” The problem should be approached from many sides, since online violence comes from the “same toolbox,” of “misogyny, homophobia” and other “isms.” In Greenland, new curriculum in schools includes how to “understand” technology.

Jakobsdottir: Iceland has an education program in primary and secondary schools that started a year ago to prevent sexual harassment and gender-based violence and “eradicate” the problem. She noted that in talking to LGBTI youth in her country, she was “shocked” when they told her how they felt constantly facing hate speech and how they are “dehumanized” and “barked at.” She added, “I thought my society had traveled further . . . but we are not.” An action plan against hate speech is being proposed this week in the legislature.

Marie Bjerre, minister for digital government and gender equality, Denmark: Sharing photos online “without content” is a crime that is being prosecuted in a case right now.

Thomas Blomqvist, minister for Nordic cooperation and equality, Finland: Online gender-based violence “is strongly linked to violence women encounter outside the Internet,” he said. Legislation is needed but also a “strong change in attitudes,” adding that as a middle-aged “white male,” “I feel the responsibility we men have in that job.” Finland, he noted, granted women the right to vote in general elections in 1906, but in 1965, he said, “when I was born, a woman couldn’t go to a restaurant without a male.”

Sirio Stenberg, minister of social affairs and culture, Faroe Islands: It’s important “to tell small children about boundaries” in dealing with violence online. [We] “need to educate young people about digital behavior and behavior in general.”

Brandberg of Sweden: It’s vital “to distinguish between the real versus the digital world,” she said. In Sweden, people can be sentenced for rape even if the offense is committed online. Young girls and women are “raped” on the Internet when they are “forced” to do sexual things to themselves.

Jakobsdottir: It’s important to raise awareness, noting that as a “middle-aged” woman, “I have never been asked by anyone to send them a nude picture. . . . ” Yet young girls are asked by “an unknown man to send nude pictures.” “So shocking for me,” she added.

Bjarnadottir: How can Nordic countries add more to the debate on gender-based violence online and offline?

Nathanielsen of Greenland: “Female sexuality is shamed everywhere” and needs to be discussed more; “sextortion is horrendous” and “adds to the shame/blame” of a person.

Jakobsdottir: Violence online has “no geographical borders” and the discussion needs to happen “in the UN” and with Unesco to “increase information literacy and media literacy.”

Haugsbakken of Norway: Most men don’t like violence, she said, so they need to be included in the discussion. The role of men can “sometimes be so small it can lead to more discrimination against women.”

Bjerre of Denmark: It’s important that gender equality benefits both men and women. “Men are confined by stereotypes,” so “make sure not to stigmatize them further.”

Stenberg of Faroe Islands: “We must talk with men about equality,” she said, adding that sex education is also important in school, especially for boys.

Bjarnodottir to the audience: “As I promised, they were not boring.”

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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