This afternoon I will be speaking at the United Nations in New York City for the fifty-ninth session of the Commission on the Status of Women. Representatives of Member States , UN entities, and ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from all regions of the world will be attending various sessions and talks.
My talk is part of the Violence in the Digital Age: New Approaches to Cyber-Abuse of Girls and Young Women discussion and panel.
Panel Description: Cyber violence against girls and young women is a fact of life in the digital age. With the advent of the internet, violence against girls and young women entered the online world, finding insidious new ways to threaten their well-being. Girls and young women can be victimized 24/7 in school, at home and throughout the community. Often they feel there is no escape. These new forms of violence and abuse require new responses. UN CSW 59 presents an opportunity to bring together national and international partners to share knowledge and new approaches. Only a global community response will keep young women safe in both the cyber and the physical world.
In April of 2013 my daughter, Rehtaeh Anne Parsons, ended her life. She was seventeen years old.
Her death was directly related to the cyberbullying she suffered following a sexual assault at the hands of four young males. During the assault, a trophy photograph was taken and widely distributed through social media across four Halifax area high schools. The image, along with a story that painted Rehtaeh as a willing participant, was the main reason she would never know peace in her life again.
Since her death, her mother Leah Parsons and I have been advocating for victims of sexual assault and cybercrime. The last two years have been challenging, not only due to the death of our daughter, but also because of the realization that her case and her experience is far from unique.
We have heard from numerous women, parents, and teenagers who are suffering from the same type of abuse that led to our daughter’s death. Cyber-abuse, cyber-bullying, and cyber-hate.
For many women and teenagers suffering from online abuse, reporting incidents can be heartbreaking and the results are far to often – futile.
It is indeed a new age of communication. The Internet came into being just two decades ago with the promise it would make our world smaller and better. In the last five years, with the advent of social media, doors have been opened into our lives in a way we could never have imagined and for many that has led to terrible consequences.
Governments have been slow to enact measures to address online abuse and law enforcement agencies either don’t have the laws in place to help, don’t have the resources, or they don’t have the appropriate training. What I hear most often from victims is that they are being treated as if they are part of the crime. Victims are told to stop going on Facebook, or Twitter, or to just stop using the Internet altogether.
Giving in to predators, trolls, and abusers is not how we will end online abuse. We would never expect a family to keep their children at home if a predator was lurking in the park, or for bullied teenagers to quit school for their own good, or for women to remain indoors as a means to address sexual violence.
Yet this is exactly what is expected of victims when it comes to online abuse.
A couple months after my daughter’s death I met a very brave young lady in Halifax. She was 17 years old when she was named one of Canada’s Top Twenty Under Twenty in 2011. She took a Christmas cash gift of $72.12 from her Grandmother and turned it into $16,000 to help a school in Mali.
This young lady was about to end her life due to the online abuse she suffered only because she was so promising and talented. Her tormentor spread an image around her school that showed him standing in front of a tree that had a photo of her face nailed to it. He was standing next to the tree in the photo holding a rifle and her eyes were shot out.
The response from authorities in her case reveals very well the systemic failure when it comes to responding to abuse online. No charges, no help, no accountability at all. She was told to just stay off Facebook. Her abuser was told nothing.
She is alive today only because her mother happened to walk into her bedroom at just the right moment.
Our history is filled with discovery and invention. It is unforgivable when we turn greatness into weapons and it is just as unforgivable when the unrestricted use of those weapons is met with apathy and indifference. Our children deserve better.
Amanda Todd, Audrie Pott, Jamie Hubley, Courtney Brown, Jenna Murchison, Rehtaeh Parsons – I could literally stand here all week reading off names.
Almost 300 years ago the Irish political philosopher, Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
I am here in memory of my daughter – Rehtaeh Anne Parsons. I am here with the knowledge that we can do better and with the hope that this new and amazing tool of communication will enrich our lives and bring us closer.
The was promise of the Internet and social media. We will lose that promise only if good people do nothing.