Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.
I grew up reciting this nursery rhyme and believing its message, but now that I’m an adult living in the digital age, I no longer believe this. Words can hurt.
Cyberviolence can be launched against women with the stroke of a key at any time, day or night. Cyberviolence refers to online stalking by known or unknown perpetrators, posting sexual photos or content of someone without consent, or threatening someone with death or rape threats through social media.
Despite the prevalence of violence against women and girls online, it often isn’t taken seriously by authorities or the general public. A typical piece of advice given to someone experiencing cyberviolence is “Don’t feed the trolls”—or, in other words, ignore the Facebook posts, emails and tweets and you will be fine.
If only it were that easy to shake off online abuse.
Some YWCA clients experience cyberviolence as an extension of the violence and abuse they endure in their lives. Social media is another avenue for their abusers to deliver threats and exert power over their victims. It’s a common misconception that when women leave an abusive partner, their suffering is over, but it rarely ends there. For example, one YWCA client needs to remain in contact with her abusive ex-partner because of his visitation rights with their child. She cannot ignore or delete his emails because they include pertinent information about the child’s activities, but in addition to that information, taunts and put-downs are almost always woven into the body of the email. It has now reached the point where YWCA staff read the emails to the client, informing her of the pertinent information but leaving out the abuse. Where does it end? When will this be taken seriously?
Victims are often cautioned to stay offline and change their social media passwords, but there are few consequences for the perpetrator. Authorities should treat online violence in the same manner they address threats levelled face to face.
The YWCA is working to raise awareness on the implications of cyberviolence to keep this issue top of mind and visible because chances are that you know a woman who has experienced abuse online. There must be consequences for this behaviour and collectively, society cannot be a bystander. Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words can, too.
How YWCA helps
The YWCA supports women leaving abuse with the following services:
- Our housing communities Munroe House and Arbour House provide second-stage transition housing and supports for women leaving abuse by intimate partners
- Our Legal Educator provides information about how to navigate the legal system and provides referrals to other agencies supporting women and families leaving abuse
- Our Children Who Witness Abuse program offers individual and group support to children
- YWCA Violence Prevention Program at Crabtree Corner provides individual and group support for women experiencing intimate partner violence, including one-to-one support, referrals, resources and information