BOGOTA, Nov 8 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When teenager Olimpia Coral Melo found a video of herself having sex online, she fell into depression and attempted suicide several times - before vowing to outlaw revenge porn in Mexico.
Melo was 18 when the explicit video of her and her then boyfriend was shared on social media and posted on porn sites in 2013. Her ex-boyfriend denies he shared it online.
“Everyone pointed the finger at me and judged and blamed me. I didn’t leave home for months. There was no place to run,” Melo told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “You can’t forget this quickly. It’s like a tattoo you can’t rub off.”
Melo could not seek justice as Mexico did not have a specific law against revenge porn - the sharing of private sexual photos or videos without consent - which is a growing problem globally as more people go online using smartphones.
Britain, Japan and numerous U.S. and Australian states have passed laws criminalising revenge porn, and social media giant Facebook said in March that it would use artificial intelligence to remove accounts that share such images.
Melo, now 28, decided to fight back and launched a campaign to make digital violence a specific crime - state by state.
In the past year, the ‘Olimpia’ law, named after her, has been passed in 13 out of 32 Mexico’s states, with prison sentences ranging from three to 12 years depending on the state.
Melo said she hoped revenge porn would soon become a crime nationally too as lawmakers debate a law that aims to legally define online violence, which could include revenge porn, threats, hate speech, stalking and sexual harassment.
“The law aims to make visible, punish and to recognise the different forms of violence against women,” Melo said.
“It’s certainly not a panacea, but it’s a reform that’s been made from the victims’ perspective.”
Most revenge porn victims are women and girls, often targeted by current and former partners to distress, extort or humiliate them. Strangers also hack into people’s devices and social media accounts to steal private images to post online.
“I see digital gender-based violence as a new way in which violence against women manifests itself,” said Lilia Giugni, head of GenPol, a UK-based gender equality think-tank.
“It is essentially the last expression, the new frontier of patriarchal oppression.”
A 2018 European Parliament study found 20% of young women in the European Union have experienced cyber sexual harassment.
Women who are victims of violence in the real world are often targeted online as well and by the same person, it said.
Giugni said many people do not realise how damaging digital violence against women is because it happens in cyberspace, and affects women and men in different ways - with men attacked for political views while assaults on women tend to be personal.
“Digital violence is not seen as real violence and .. it is not understood as a form of gender-based abuse,” she said.
“Online violence against women, compared to the digital harassment experienced by men, tends to be overtly sexualised and motivated by gender,” said Giugni, who is also is a research fellow at the University of Cambridge.
Even when online violence is criminalised, law enforcement officers often do not appreciate its gravity, Giugni said.
“The problem so very often is that judges, lawyers, and police are not quite trained to see digital abuse against women as violence, and to apply legislation accordingly,” she said.
“They do not understand the impact ... and they tend to dismiss it.”
Authorities in Latin America - where a macho culture fuels widespread physical violence against women - are slowly starting to recognise - and punish - digital violence.
A man in Colombia was arrested for child pornography and “violating personal data” this month, after 15 women and girls said he secretly filmed them having sex without their consent and posted the videos online, Colombian prosecutors said.
A student in Peru was sentenced to almost five years in prison in October for sending abusive WhatsApp messages to his 16-year-old ex-girlfriend and for threatening to publish intimate images of her after she broke up with him.
It was the first conviction made in Peru under a 2018 law about online sexual harassment and marks an important precedent, according to local digital rights group, Hiperderecho.
Women’s ministry data shows about 900 cases of online sexual harassment were reported in Peru in 2018, mostly by women aged 18 to 29, with nearly 80% taking place on Facebook.
For Melo, she hopes the ‘Olimpia’ law will encourage more victims to come forward, seek justice, and not to feel shame.
“The fight is to tell women that they aren’t to blame,” she said. (Reporting by Anastasia Moloney @anastasiabogota, Editing by Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)