CSOs call for an end to online sexual harassment against women activists

A network of civil society organizations issued a statement on 29 April calling for an end to online sexual harassment against activists after student activist Sirin Mungcharoen faced a storm of social media attacks, the majority of which can be considered sexual harassment.

Sirin was one of the organizers of the “CU Assemble” student protest at Chulalongkorn University in late February. She has been outspoken about issues of gender equality and has posted content about feminism and gender equality on her social media accounts.

Recently, Sirin’s picture was posted in a public Facebook group and received comments which are sexual in nature and amount to bullying and sexual harassment, later escalating to her personal information being shared on social media.

“This group of people uses the principle of free speech to support expressions which are considered sexual harassment and online bullying, even though freedom of speech does not cover actions which support sexual violence, sexual harassment, incite hate, or any other action which leads to the incitement of crime and creates unsafe spaces in society,” says the statement.

“Such incidents have happened several times to activists who speak about gender equality, such as the case of online bullying against Sirisak Chaited, whose picture was shared on Facebook and who received comments which amount to sexual harassment, sexuality shaming, and threats, or the Buku sexuality classroom, which faced similar attacks.”

The statement says that such attacks create fear and reduce the space in which activists can safely speak about gender equality through attacking the person, shaming them and making them feel threatened. The statement also notes that many activists attacked in this way are women and LGBTQ people, and that issues of sexual harassment both online and offline are often overlooked.

The statement calls for an immediate end to sexual harassment and online bullying which can lead to hatred and threats towards activists. It then calls for human rights activists and organizations, the government sector, the media, and the general public to be aware of online sexual harassment, to not overlook the issue, and to join together to find a way of protecting activists working on issues of gender and gender-based violence. 

It also calls for the creation of spaces both online and offline in which people can discuss issues of gender equality with respect for others’ human dignity, and ask that said spaces do not support the reproduction of gender-based violence and condone personal attacks and violations of privacy on the ground of free speech.

The statement was first published on the Facebook page thaiconsent, inviting people to sign the statement. So far, it has over 200 signatures.

According to the 2019 Amnesty International report “Challenging Power, Fighting Discrimination: A Call to Action to Recognize and Protect Women Human Rights Defenders,” while human rights defenders across the world continue to face verbal and physical attacks, among other threats, women human rights defenders face gender-specific challenges because of “who they are as women or gender non-conforming people, and/or because the rights they defend are connected to women’s rights, gender equality and sexuality, which are structurally repressed in patriarchal societies.”

Women human rights defenders are working “in a context of discrimination, inequality, violence (or threat of violence) against them as individuals” and “against patriarchal structures, institutions, and practices that resist change,” says the Amnesty report, which also noted that they are more at risk of “certain forms of violence” including sexual violence and shaming or smear campaigns based on gender norms.

Women human rights defenders also face frequent online gender-based attacks, which the Amnesty report says are “part of a continuum of violence and structural discrimination women and gender-diverse people experience.” These attacks often target not only women human rights defenders but also women journalists and politicians, and often led to self-censorship. Forms of online attacks against women human rights defenders include “harassment and attacks on reputation and credibility through social media, cyberstalking, violations of their privacy, unlawful surveillance, censorship, hacking of e-mail accounts, devices and platforms; as well as online threats of sexual violence, verbal abuse, sexuality baiting, doxing […] and public shaming on social media.”

The 2020 CEDAW progress report card on Thailand’s compliance with the 2017 Concluding Observations of the Committee on the Convention to Eliminate all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), complied by Protection International, also noted the increase in online sexual threats and harassment against women human rights defenders, which “seems not to be taken seriously by authorities,” in addition to judicial harassment, violence, and intimidation from state authorities as well as business enterprises. The report cited the case of activist Nuttaa Mahattana, who received online rape threats, and former human rights commissioner Angkhana Neelapaijit, who was also harassed online. 

The report also noted that no known action has been taken by the Thai authorities regarding this issue. 

Not only that, as activist Anticha Saengchai noted in the panel discussion “Women human rights defenders in a pseudo-democracy,” organized by Protection International in February, women activists also face sexual harassment from within their own organizations. Anticha also noted that some human rights defenders still lack an understanding of gender issues and that civil society organizations need to have a policy on gender as well as on physical and mental health, since the health issues facing activists combined with the stress of legal prosecution will undermine the movement.