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Online safety a key part of Ottawa's new gender plan — and to world peace, says envoy

OTTAWA — Authoritarian countries are leveraging social media to set back progress for women worldwide, a Canadian special envoy says, as Ottawa refreshes its cross-government gender policy.

Canada's ambassador for women, peace and security, Jacqueline O'Neill, says these threats require supporters of gender equality around the world to work together.

Western countries must help buck a global trend of strongmen leaders seeking to prevent women from having meaningful roles in public life, she said in a recent interview.

"Authoritarian governments are very much cracking down on space for communities to organize, for the media to have free speech and for women's rights activists to pursue their work," said O'Neill, who advocates for women both abroad and at home.

She pointed to research such as that of Harvard University professor Erica Chenoweth, who has documented how resistance movements are more successful when they integrate women in leadership and frontline roles.

One way that governments are trying to stifle such opposition is by using social media to support, spread and even fund a narrative that women's rights are a foreign import meant to challenge traditional values, O'Neill said.

She calls it technology facilitated gender-based violence.

Women in Canada are no strangers to online harassment.

Gov. Gen. Mary Simon convened female politicians, activists and journalists last year to strategize on how to deal with vile online abuse.

And Global Affairs Canada has started adding security expenses to grants it gives to human-rights activists abroad, O'Neill said, for everything from physical office locks to training on digital hygiene so people can protect themselves online.

The department says Liberal ministers approved the third national action plan on women, peace and security in December.

The recently approved policy is meant to provide guidance across the government — from its approach to diplomatic summits to how it conducts domestic policing and welfare programs.

Though it has not been released publicly and O'Neill said she can't share the details, she suggested it will address online harms.

She signalled it will also include considerations around how climate can affect women's security.

"We're seeing a lot of armed groups around the world taking advantage of climate disruptions to both recruit women into their forces (and) to abduct girls to be, effectively, sex slaves," she said.

She noted that natural disasters and other climate emergencies, such as drought, can cause families to pull their girls out of school so they can work or be part of forced marriages.

As part of her role, O'Neill was in East Africa last month taking stock of the situation for women in countries that recently experienced conflict but have since lost global attention.

"We wanted to convey that they're equally important to us now, and that we're equally engaged," she said.

There, too, she heard activists speak to an increasing chill on their freedom of speech.

O'Neill visited the Tigray region in Ethiopia, where a terrible war ended in late 2022. Hundreds of thousands of people died and there were widespread accounts of rape.

There, she said she met with women who were receiving help because of Canadian aid as they recovered from sexual violence perpetrated by militants.

"They did things like inserting objects in women's wombs that would prevent them from ever having babies again," she described.

Many survivors said they’d been knocked out during these attacks, and only learned what happened years later when an infection emerged or they couldn't get pregnant, and medical tests found evidence of foreign objects such as nails or rocks.

"There was an ethnic dimension to this in wanting them to never reproduce," said O'Neill, emphasizing that systemic acts such as those go beyond domestic or gender-based violence.

"It’s equally horrific, but it also requires a different kind of response, and it requires justice on a different level."

The Canadian envoy said she saw a concerning lack of services to reintegrate women in the country — meaning efforts to allow women to resume employment, including in politics, rather than being left to provide basic services and support to their communities in the wake of war.

In Mozambique, O'Neill saw that reintegration has been a major part of the effort to help reach a lasting peace following a long civil war.

The success of the country's 2019 peace treaty depends in part on making sure female combatants are included in reintegration efforts, she said.

In Kenya, O'Neill visited a training centre for peacekeepers that tries to reconcile the roles of police, military and civilians in conflict areas.

She said the curriculum included information about how to find signs of sexual violence on a systemic level.

The training might help Kenyan police officers on a planned deployment to Haiti, O'Neill said, as part of a mission that aims to stabilize the Caribbean country for which Canada announced a $80.5-million contribution on Thursday.

O'Neill is not the only envoy in the international community with a title focused on women, peace and security.

But the Canadian version of that role is unique, O'Neill said.

In addition to advocating for women abroad and telling their stories to Canadians, she is also tasked with seeing what Canada can learn from how countries rich and poor are making gains for women.

"Every country in the world has something to share about what they're doing," O'Neill said — and "so many things to learn."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 25, 2024.

Dylan Robertson, The Canadian Press