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Weaponizing defamation lawsuits against survivors violates international human rights

Woman looking into the sunlight

Over the past decade, there has been an increase in the use of defamation lawsuits to retaliate against and silence women who have publicly denounced gender-based violence – including survivors who have spoken out against their own abuse. This form of intimidation violates international human rights law and perpetuates gender-based violence.

Survivors have the right to speak out about their own experiences

It can be extremely difficult for survivors to speak about their abuse and the weaponization of defamation lawsuits is a form of secondary victimization.  Survivors of sexual violence can choose to speak out or not, but any person who has experienced rape, assault, or harassment should not be shamed, intimidated, coerced, stigmatized, or threatened into remaining silent. And international human rights law agrees. 

When survivors speak out, their experiences are a matter of public interest, and their right to speech is protected by international human rights law. Accordingly, when survivors share their stories, their right to do so is protected under international human rights law even when their public expressions offend, shock, disturb, or disclose aspects of someone’s private life. 

The fundamental right to freedom of expression extends to survivors of sexual violence and upholding that right is not only aligned with international human rights law but is critical for combating violence against women. Speaking out about violence can fundamentally change the social discourse around this issue and both shift the focus of accountability onto the perpetrator where it belongs as well as shatter the stigma that often surrounds survivors of sexual abuse. 

“Weaponizing the justice system to silence women feeds impunity while also undermining free speech”

The UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Opinion and Expression recently stated this when highlighting that “in a perverse twist in the #MeToo age, women who publicly denounce alleged perpetrators of sexual violence online are increasingly subject to defamation suits or charged with criminal libel or the false reporting of crimes.”

We couldn’t agree more.  

Over the past ten years, Equality Now has witnessed a global trend of defamation lawsuits used to retaliate against and silence women who have spoken out denouncing gender-based violence. Examples of this can be seen all around the world, including in India, Russia, the Netherlands, the USA, France, and Kazakhstan

Among our advocacy efforts, Equality Now submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court of Georgia in June 2021, in support of a sexual violence survivor who spoke publicly about her experience and was subsequently sued for defamation by her perpetrator who not only demanded that she be silenced but that she publicly recant her statements. 

Defamation lawsuits that aim to silence survivors or retaliate against them are a form of gender-based violence

A predominant characteristic of gender-based violence is the unequal power differential that exists between the offender and the survivor and it is this very same power differential that is exploited in the subsequent use of the law to silence or discredit the survivor.

The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, in a report on online violence, explains that the act of threatening survivors with legal proceedings in an attempt to prevent them from reporting their situation is another form of gender-based violence, cautioning that the use of defamation lawsuits against women who speak out about their experiences “may form part of a pattern of domestic violence and abuse.”  

The Committee overseeing the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women explicitly states that “women’s right to a life free from gender-based violence is indivisible from and interdependent with other human rights, including…freedom of expression”. 

When survivors speak out, it is a form of self-defense, of themselves and of others

As demonstrated by the Delhi High Court of India in its recent landmark defamation case, the right to freedom of expression is inherently linked to a woman’s right to live a life free from gender-based violence.  Here, the Judge stated that “sexual abuse, if committed against [a] woman, takes away her dignity and her self confidence” and when the woman speaks out about her sexual abuse experience and in turn makes an “attack on the character of [the] sex-abuser or offender” the woman’s expression is “self-defense after the mental trauma suffered by the victim regarding the shame attached with the crime committed against her.”

We must protect the voices of survivors

To allow lawsuits, such as defamation, to be interpreted and wielded in a manner that restricts or prevents women from expressing their experiences of violence and discrimination, will only serve as an additional barrier to access to justice for survivors and stifle the prevention of future violence.

When survivors are discouraged from speaking out about their experiences, restricted in their expression of it, or discredited when they do come forward, violence against women persists and perpetrators enjoy impunity. To effectively advocate against and combat violence against women, we must uplift and protect the voices of survivors.