For many First Nations women living in remote and regional areas, the internet, mobile smartphones and social media platforms are a lifeline for connection and support.
However our research, funded by the Commonwealth e-Safety Commissioner, has found First Nations women in regional and remote areas often experience technology-facilitated abuse.
Technology-facilitated abuse refers to abusive behaviour using phones and other devices, as well as social media and online accounts. This form of violence remains relatively unexplored.
First Nations women in regional and remote areas experience technology-facilitated abuse in different ways to other women. For example, First Nations women also experience racialised sexism online.
Being in regional and remote areas means there are further barriers to accessing help, and fewer resources and available support services.
First Nations women in regional and remote areas in the study experienced technology-facilitated abuse in a range of ways. These included intimate partner violence, online racist abuse, family violence, and lateral violence (violence perpetrated between oppressed groups).
These acts of abuse took the form of impersonation, verbal abuse, threats, and emotional abuse - and often escalated to physical violence.
What is technology-facilitated abuse?
We conducted yarnings with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women and interviews with frontline services in three regional and remote areas in Australia (NSW, NT and WA) earlier this year.
Our research found the impacts of technology-facilitated abuse towards First Nations women are serious and long-lasting. We also identified a general lack of awareness among community, First Nations women and frontline workers about technology-facilitated abuse; of what it is, its legality, how to identify it, and how to reduce the risk and impact of it.
First Nations women reported experiencing technology-facilitated abuse through different means and platforms such as:
text messaging and phone calls: often abuse would begin with messages and then escalate over time. This included threats to harm or to kill
online banking and government websites: accessing women’s online banking or other personal details in order to take out loans in their name, or as a means to contact them and further the abuse
social media: the use of social media accounts to harass, threaten and humiliate women. This often included image-based abuse, such as sharing private images without the woman’s consent. Also racist threatening comments in open Facebook groups from non-Indigenous people. Social media was also used to impersonate women in order to create backlash against them, which often escalated into physical violence.
First Nations women most commonly reported experiencing technology-facilitated abuse from a current or former male partner. This would involve threats, monitoring, stalking and image-based abuse. Both First Nations men and non-Indigenous men were reported to be perpetrators in this way.
Our research found there were also varying experiences of technology-facilitated abuse across different age groups. While younger women were more likely to report experiencing image-based abuse and stalking, Elders were more likely to experience technology-facilitated financial abuse.
The impacts of technology-facilitated abuse
The women who participated in this study reported how technology-facilitated abuse impacted them and their children. The most commonly reported impacts were fear, financial impacts and isolation.
Isolation was often twofold, where an intimate partner cutting off a woman’s access to communication technology reduced the woman’s access to support. Some women often responded to abuse by further disconnecting themselves, which would reinforce isolation, impacting their existing relationships and networks.
One participant reflected:
You know, obviously, he was an abusive person, period, but to go to that extent. In the end, I just didn’t have a phone because he would take it from me. He didn’t want anyone to talk to me at all in the end. Just the behaviour of control, it’s all about control.
Because of the nature of technology-facilitated abuse, women often feel exposed to abuse even when they are physically safe. Several women in the study reported feeling fearful long after abuse, some for years after the incident. This was the fear of always being watched, being “found” by the perpetrator, and that they could always be accessed and re-contacted by the perpetrator through technology.
This led to long-term trauma and in some cases resulted in behavioural changes. These changes involved deactivating social media accounts, being triggered by mobile phone notifications, moving towns or even states, and looking for their abuser in public spaces long after the abuse had ended.
In addition to the social and emotional impacts of technology-facilitated abuse, women also reported the financial cost of abuse, both direct and indirect. This included having to change mobile phones and numbers multiple times, having to move homes, and loss of employment.
This also included perpetrators accessing and controlling their bank account, monitoring their transactions and creating debt in their name, among others. Financial impacts of technology-facilitated abuse make it harder for women to access help, leave the relationship, and can impact the victim long after the abuse has ended.
How can platforms improve safety of First Nations women?
In this study, women reported it wasn’t just the technology-facilitated abuse that impacted them, but the response – or sometimes lack thereof – to this abuse. Some women felt supported by response services, but many women described how difficult it was to report abuse to police. Many times they were disbelieved or their experiences dismissed as trivial, which left them feeling powerless.
Rather than focusing on the perpetrator’s use of violence, more often the burden was placed on the woman to respond to and end the technology-facilitated abuse she was experiencing. Either by relocating, ending the relationship, blocking numbers and social media accounts, or seeking an intervention order.
While some First Nations women reported a positive experience with police, police’s relationships with First Nations communities needs to be improved. First Nations women would then have the confidence and trust to report their experiences.
The study makes several recommendations to improve safety of First Nations women in regional and remote areas, and hold perpetrators to account.
Firstly, social media and technology companies, as well as banks and financial institutions must have more accountability and take a more active role in preventing technology-facilitated abuse on their platforms. These companies must raise their awareness internally about how their platforms can be used to perpetrate abuse, and how additional safeguards can be put in place to prevent further harm.
Secondly, service providers must be supported and resourced to educate communities about women’s rights and online safety and privacy. These providers can also aim to increase digital literacy in regional and remote First Nations communities.
This would be best done through culturally appropriate and accessible resources and services, available in local Indigenous languages.
Technology-facilitated abuse needs to be taken seriously – there must be clear and consistent laws to address it.
Reports of technology-facilitated abuse must be responded to consistently in ways that hold perpetrators to account for their behaviour.