Many survivors of gender-based violence are unable to use technology safely, reports say

A person uses a cellphone in Montreal in July 2023. Today, two new reports from Women's Shelters Canada reveal the prevalence of technology-facilitated gender-based violence. (CBC/Radio-Canada - image credit)
A person uses a cellphone in Montreal in July 2023. Today, two new reports from Women's Shelters Canada reveal the prevalence of technology-facilitated gender-based violence. (CBC/Radio-Canada - image credit)

WARNING: This story contains details of abuse and intimate partner violence.

Abusers are frequently using technology to harass, threaten and track the locations of their victims, according to a pair of new Canadian reports that highlight the prevalence and danger of this form of gender-based violence.

But while being able to use technology such as their own smartphones is critical for survivors — whether it's to access supports, pay bills online or connect with family — the existing policies at the major telecommunications companies create barriers for them, note the reports from Women's Shelters Canada officially released on Wednesday.

The first report surveyed front-line workers at shelters and transition houses across Canada. The second studied three telecom companies and their policies, and specifically found two major barriers: the cost of changing one's phone number, and the hurdles in trying to opt out of a family plan or abuser-owned plan without alerting the abuser.

"It really puts survivors' safety and lives at risk," said Rhiannon Wong, a report author and the Tech Safety Canada project manager at Women's Shelters Canada, a national charity that supports shelters across the country.

Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC
Gian Paolo Mendoza/CBC

Those trying to escape or protect themselves from domestic violence may not be able or equipped to navigate the differing policies at Bell, Rogers and Telus, the three companies that the researchers contacted, Wong told CBC News.

They also may not have access to money or credit to change their number or plan, or even have the time to get answers from representatives and make those changes, she said.

And some of the companies have long wait times, she said, pointing to examples where her research team was on hold for over an hour to wait for an agent, or the process for an agent to get answers from management took 45 minutes.

"A lot of times, survivors are calling these telecom companies for help when they have a moment in time when they know that their abuser is not monitoring them, like a quick trip to the grocery store," Wong said.

"They don't have a lot of time to spend on their phones."

WATCH | How abusers are using e-tranfers to target their victims: 

A growing threat

Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV) is widely recognized as a growing threat. At least 38 per cent of women globally have personally experienced online violence, and this rate is rising, according to a 2021 report by the United Nations Population Fund.

TFGBV refers to any violent and/or abusive act carried out using technological devices, such as domestic violence, harassment, stalking, sexual assault, impersonation and extortion, Women's Shelters Canada says. It's often used in tandem with other forms of abuse, or a "continuum of violence," to exert power and control, it says.

The first report found that 95 per cent of the anti-violence workers surveyed have assisted people experiencing some form of TFGBV, most commonly harassment, threats and location tracking.

The statistics come from the responses of 204 front-line workers in shelters and transition houses across Canada,  surveyed online by Women's Shelters Canada between December 2022 and March 2023.

Types of technology-facilitated gender-based violence reported by front-line workers

The report also notes it's a "misconception" that TFGBV is less serious than other forms of violence, and found that 96 per cent of survey respondents said it commonly co-occurs with emotional abuse. Eighty-eight per cent said it co-occurred with threats and extortion. It can also often co-occur with financial, sexual and physical abuse.

"This is in part why it is so important to increase knowledge of TFGBV, as it is not only a violent act in its own right, but also can be a predictor of more extreme physical violence and even homicide," the report said.

Submitted by Amanda Bjornaa, Sabrina Sweeney
Submitted by Amanda Bjornaa, Sabrina Sweeney

One high-profile example of TFGBV is the death of Angie Sweeney, whose ex-boyfriend shot and killed her in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., shortly after she broke up with him last October.

In the hour before he killed her, Bobbie Hallaert sent her several e-transfers as a way to contact her, after she had blocked him from all her social media and messaging apps.

"You stupid bitch," read part of the message he sent attached to the e-transfer for one cent.

WATCH | How Angie Sweeney's murder could have been prevented:

'Issues around access, inconsistency, cost'

In the second report, project members in Ontario and B.C. connected with customer service agents from Bell, Rogers and Telus via live chat or phone. They introduced themselves as staff of Women's Shelters Canada calling on behalf of a domestic violence survivor who either needed support changing their phone number or leaving a shared plan owned by the abuser.

They found issues at all three companies around "access, inconsistency, cost, requiring survivors to involve the abuser in separating from a shared plan, and requiring credit checks to set up new accounts," according to the report.

The authors made several recommendations, including waiving fees for victims of domestic violence without requiring documentation or a police report; creating faster ways for victims to access support; allowing plan members to leave a shared plan without authorization from the account owner; and offering alternatives to credit checks.

These recommendations were shared with the three telecoms before the reports were published, and their responses were included.

Bell said it was reviewing its processes. Rogers said it was taking steps to implement some of the suggestions (such as waiving fees and making it easier to remove yourself from a shared plan), and Telus said it was committed to supporting customers in need.

WATCH | Ontario may declare intimate partner violence an epidemic:

Not just about what victims can do: researcher

In ending gender-based violence, we should be talking about how to stop men from abusing, and not just what women victims can do to help themselves, said Lana Wells, a social work associate professor at the University of Calgary.

In 2022, Wells co-authored a report calling tech-facilitated domestic and sexual violence as one of the fastest-growing types of victimization.

The government should be funding initiatives that promote positive masculinity in digital interactions and spaces, Wells told CBC News.

"We need to be offering initiatives and spaces that allow boys and men to increase their self-esteem in positive ways, develop a sense of belonging to healthy and respectful communities, address their concerns and meet their needs, and foster empathy toward others," said Wells, who is also UCalgary's Brenda Strafford chair in the prevention of domestic violence.

Her report also notes that tech-facilitated violence is traumatizing and disruptive for victims, and can have psychological and physical effects, as well as a compromised sense of security.

For anyone affected by family or intimate partner violence, there is support available through crisis lines and local support services. If you're in immediate danger or fear for your safety or that of others around you, please call 911.