GREVIO’s Approach to Digital Violence Against Women and States’ Obligations Under Istanbul Convention

Prepared by. Sena Coşkun and Pınar Güzel

 Ed. by Büşra Özçelik Rençber

1. Digital Violence: General Remarks

Violence against women, including domestic violence, is one of the most serious forms of gender-based violations of human rights and a worldwide phenomenon. The Istanbul Convention is the first legally binding treaty that sets the highest standards to achieve prevention of violence against women, the protection of victims, and the prosecution of perpetrators.

The Istanbul Convention was signed in 2011 and entered into force in 2014. To date, 34 countries have ratified the agreement. The Convention is “the most far-reaching”[1] international instrument to set legally binding standards for preventing and fighting gender-based violence, protect victims of violence, and punish perpetrators. Particularly, the Convention provides a holistic response to address and respond to all forms of violence against women and creates Europewide minimum standards. Furthermore, the Convention also maintains for comprehensive monitoring of the implementation of obligations in the contracting states. (Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, GREVIO)

In the Convention, domestic violence is any incident or pattern of incidents of controlling, coercive or threatening behaviour, violence or abuse between those aged 16 or over who are or have been intimate partners or family members regardless of gender or sexuality. This can encompass but is not limited to the following types of abuse:

• psychological
• physical
• sexual
• financial
• emotional

With the developing technology, digital violence[2] has been added to the types of violence. Digital forms of gender-based violence against women can be particularly pronounced for women and girls at risk of or exposed to intersecting forms of discrimination and may be exacerbated by factors such as disability, sexual orientation, political affiliation, religion, social origin, migration status or celebrity status, among others. Gender-based violence against women perpetrated in the digital sphere has a serious impact on women’s and girls’ lives, including psychological and physical health, their livelihoods, their physical safety and their reputation.

Even though digital violence is not directly referred in the Istanbul Convention, it is mentioned in its Explanatory Report as follows: “cyberviolence is the use of computer systems to cause, facilitate, or threaten violence against individuals that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, psychological or economic harm or suffering and may include the exploitation of the individual’s circumstances, characteristics or vulnerabilities[3]

2. GREVIO’s Approach to Digital Violence

GREVIO’s General Recommendation No.1 on the digital dimension of violence against women is published on 24 November 2021. GREVIO claims that “non-consensual image or video sharing, coercion, and threats, including rape threats, online sexual harassment, sexualized bullying and other forms of intimidation, impersonation, online stalking or stalking via the Internet of Things as well as psychological abuse and economic harm perpetrated via digital means against women and girls” fall under the scope of the Convention’s digital violence definition.[4]

As reported in the General Recommendation, gender-based violence and abuse can be committed in different ways: Present forms of violence can be transformed into their equal counterparts (harassment, bullying, and stalking); meanwhile, the means of the Internet creates new facilities by taking advantage of anonymity to emerge new forms of violence. (doxing, hate speech, or revenge porn).[5] Protecting women and girls in the digital sphere requires a holistic response by states as well as offline violence because experiences of digital violence often precede or accompany experiences of psychological, physical, or sexualized violence in the real world[6]. GREVIO recommends that States Parties need to recognize digital violence firstly.

Since the Convention offers a comprehensive approach, it must be noted that addressing the digital dimension of violence against women and girls is one of the obligations of contracting parties arising from the Istanbul Convention. GREVIO regards the digital dimension of gender-based violence as a reflection of the forms of violence already covered by the Convention. In some parts of the Recommendation, the GREVIO interprets the Convention and gives advice to State Parties, while in the remaining parts, it underlines the Parties’ obligations under the Istanbul Convention and clarified that these obligations clearly cover online violence against women.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has further amplified this. GREVIO regards the perpetration of violence against women online or with the help of technology as a continuity of the different forms of such violence that affects and exacerbates women and girls’ experiences of gender-based violence against women to an alarming extent.

GREVIO concentrates on 3 forms of digital violence and explains that State Parties to the Convention are required to criminalise. These are online psychological violence (Article 33), online or stalking committed in the digital sphere (Article 34), and sexual harassment online or through digital means (Article 40).

a. Online Psychological Violence

Article 33 of the Istanbul Convention deals with psychological violence and obliges the parties to the Convention, namely States, to take the necessary legislative or other measures to ensure that intentional conduct that seriously undermines the psychological integrity of a person through coercion or threat is criminalized. Undoubtedly, the sanctions on the psychological effects of digital harassment against women can also be based on the relevant article of the Convention.[7]

For example, sharing sexually explicit images in the digital environment without the consent of the person involved in the images causes the victims of this “virtual” form of violence to experience “real” problems. Like many victims of the case study, many victims of digital violence feel anxious, lose self-confidence, isolate from society, and experience mental and physical health problems.[8]

Sexual harassment aimed at violating the dignity of the victim is regulated in Article 40 of the Istanbul Convention. In situations where an environment that seems safe for the victim is created, sexual harassment manifests itself, and the perpetrator and victim of revenge porn often know each other. The perpetrator is almost always an ex-husband or boyfriend.[9]

b. Stalking Committed in the Digital Sphere

Stalking is another type of digital violence and may include the use of email, instant messaging, chat rooms, bulletin boards and/or other electronic communication devices to persistently and repeatedly harass or threaten the target person. These actions can be written or verbal. Although the purpose of the actions varies from concrete case to case, the rights and interests violated are often the same.[10]

If we would to make a numerical approach to the above, research shows that this form of violence is a growing global problem. “As a matter of fact, a study conducted in Turkey in 2017 showed that nearly 60% of 550 female social media users over the age of 18 were exposed to cyberviolence”[11]

The 2015 UN Broadband Digital Development Commission Report, which shows that 73% of women are exposed to online abuse and online sexual violence, emphasized that especially women between the ages of 18 and 24, that is, young women, are exposed to related digital violence or have a higher risk of being exposed to it than others.[12]

c. Online Sexual Harassment

According to Article 40 of the Istanbul Convention, sexual harassment constitutes “any form of unwanted verbal, non-verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature with the purpose or effect of violating the dignity of a person, in particular when creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment”.

GREVIO indicates that the following conducts committed in the online sphere or through digital means, fall within the scope of this definition:

“1) non-consensual image or video sharing,
2) non-consensual taking, producing or procuring of intimate images or videos,
3) exploitation, coercion and threats,
4) sexualised bullying,
5) cyberflashing.”[13]

Regarding the prevention of digital violence, the provisions of the Istanbul Convention under the title of Prevention should be taken into account. It should also be noted that in section III, Article 17 of the Istanbul Convention includes the expression of the “information and communication technologies sector”, especially in order to perpetuate the widespread digital violence.[14]

The Council of Europe has issued a publication on the implementation of art. 17 and indicated four possible actions. For preventing violence against women and domestic violence; governments, the private sector, and the media need to promote certain measures collectively. These measures can be summarized as follows:

“• improve the training of media professionals on issues related to gender equality and violence against women;
• promote the self-regulation of the media and the regulation of discriminatory and violent contents;
• create partnerships to increase media coverage of gender equality and violence against women;
• promote cooperation in media education. Conversely, the Istanbul Convention does not contain specific provisions to secure electronic evidence in national and international investigations relating to online violence against women.”[15]

3. Case Law

The European Court of Human Rights has the opinion that in disputes related to violence in the digital environment, the protection of the individual from digital violence is also within the scope of the right to physical and mental integrity. In the decision of the case of Buturugă v. Romania[16] on cyber-harassment, the Court decided that the failure of the state to take protective measures or even to respond despite complaints of cyber-harassment to state authorities constituted a violation of positive obligations under art. In the relevant dispute, the ECtHR refers to Articles 3 and 8 of the Convention. This situation shows us that for the first time, digital violence is accepted as an aspect of violence against women and is based on the same basis as domestic violence.

In a recent case, -Volodina v. Russia[17]– the applicant was subjected to acts of online harassment. In June 2016, she reported and complained to the police that her ex-boyfriend had created fake social media accounts with her photos and using personal information. She also reported that a GPS tracking device was found in the lining of her bag and death threats were sent to her via social networks. Authorities refused to act on the complaints. A criminal investigation was finally opened in March 2018. In October 2020, the police closed the case due to the statute of limitations, after it was determined that the nude photos found on the applicant’s phone were published without his consent.

Police did not investigate online death threats in any way and concluded that no crime had been committed because the threats were not real. The Court found that the Russian authorities’ response to the known risk of repeated violence was clearly inadequate and, due to their inaction and the inability of Russian law to take deterrent measures, allowed the ex-boyfriend to continue to threaten, harass and attack the applicant.[18]

4. Conclusion

Ultimately, on the digitalization of violence against women by changing its form with the developing technology, the GREVIO emphasizes that it is necessary to protect women’s human rights in the digital environment, together with offline measures, in order to provide well-rounded protection to women. Both legal and non-legislative measures are needed to be taken to combat gender-based digital violence. At the legislative level, the EU Digital Services Act could be a positive step, but further actions are definitely needed with broader international human rights frameworks. On the other hand, creating an environment free from digital violence against women should be strengthened with policy measures that can use information and communication technologies. The protection and prevention function of the Istanbul Convention gains value in this sense. As mentioned in our article, certain articles of the relevant Convention has the power to protect women against cybercrime in the digital field.


[1] Dina Nachbaur, Lise Linn Larsen, “Digital violence against women: new forms of violence and approaches to fight them in Europe”,  Institut für Sozialarbeit und Sozialpädagogik, 2019.
[2] The term “digital violence” is generally referring as “cyberviolence” among scholars. Since the GREVIO mentioned “digital violence” in its General Recommendation No.1 that this article focuses on, the phrase “digital violence” is preferred in this article.
[3] Cybercrime Convention Committee, Mapping study on cyberviolence, Council of Europe, 5, https://rm.coe.int/0900001680973bf9. See also. Emine Eylem Aksoy Retornaz, “Istanbul Convention and the cyber violence”, The 10th Anniversary of the Istanbul Convention Italian – Turkish conference-Pisa-18th June 2021, (Ed. By. Valentina Bonini and Rahime Erbaş), Pisa University Press, p.121.
[4] General Recommendation No. 1 on the digital dimension of violence against women, GREVIO, 2021.
[5] Iris Luarasi, “Using Istanbul Convention to stop online abuse of women”, EUobserver, 7 December 2021, https://euobserver.com/opinion/153648.
[6] General Recommendation No. 1 on the digital dimension of violence against women, GREVIO, 2021.
[7] Aksoy Retornaz, p.124.
[8] Kitchen A.N., The Need to Criminalize Revenge Porn: How a Law Protecting Victims Can Avoid Running Afoul of the First Amendment, in Chicago Kent Law Review, 2015, 90, 1, 292. See also. Aksoy Retornaz, p.125.
[9] Aksoy Retornaz, p.125.
[10] Aksoy Retornaz, p.120.
[11] Aksoy Retornaz, p.120. Temur Simsekcan N., Toplumsal Cinsiyete Dayalı Siddetin Baska Bir Bicimi: Siber Siddet, Unpublished Master Thesis, Adana, Cag Universitesi, 2018, p. 40. See also. Aksoy Retornaz, p.120.
[12] Aksoy Retornaz, p.120.
[13] General Recommendation No. 1 on the digital dimension of violence against women, GREVIO, 2021.
[14] Aksoy Retornaz, p.127.
[15] Aksoy Retornaz, p.127.
[16] ECHR, Buturugă v. Romania no. 56867/15, 11/02/2020. See also. Aksoy Retornaz, p.122.
[17] ECHR, Volodina v. Russia (No. 2), no. 40419/19, 14/09/2021.
See also. Aksoy Retornaz, p.122.
[18] Aksoy Retornaz, p.123.