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Liesl Gerntholtz Headshot

Upskirting? Down-Putting. And Yes, It Is Abuse

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I hadn't heard of upskirting until last week, but apparently it is rife in places as far afield as the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Japan, Australia and the United States. Wikipedia defines it as a slang term referring to photographing the view up a woman's skirt, including "shots of a woman's underwear, or crotch, or exposing her vulva or buttocks." These photographs and sometimes video images, exclusively of women and girls, are taken without their permission. Their faces are rarely, if ever, shown, clearly of no interest to upskirting photographers and those who view the images.

A cursory Google search illustrates just how widespread this practice is, particularly since digital cameras became standard issue on most mobile phones. There are hundreds of sites devoted to this practice and they must contain thousands and thousands of images.

The internet allowed for easy publication and sharing of these images, but it also has led to more awareness about the practice and eventually, to calls to criminalize it and punish perpetrators. Lawmakers and law enforcement agencies initially seemed unsure about how to deal with upskirting. More recently however, some countries have either enacted legislation to prohibit and punish upskirting or they have used existing laws to hold perpetrators accountable for their conduct. Hopefully, others will soon follow suit.

The practice of upskirting may seem innocuous enough, particularly when compared with some of the other on-going violations of women's human rights. After all, if a woman doesn't even know that intimate photographs have been taken of her, and no-one can identify her, what harm has she suffered? But as one woman who discovered that she had been photographed and the photographs posted on the internet, stated, "I feel violated."

Upskirting violates women's rights to privacy and bodily integrity, rights that are recognized and protected by international human rights law and that require governments to take action to protect persons from the acts of others. Upskirting reinforces the old, problematic idea that women's bodies are a terrain of struggle for ownership and possession, rather than an inviolate site, safe from mistreatment, cruelty and exploitation.

Upskirting underlines women's continued inequality. It is part of a large continuum of human rights abuses against women's bodies that, at the most extreme, include domestic violence, female genital cutting, honor killings, female foeticide and bride burning.

As we mark International Women's Day on March 8, women do have things to celebrate and we can be justly proud of the global progress that has been made to improve our lives. There is more awareness of the abuses against women, and many governments are taking steps to prevent them and to punish the perpetrators. For example, India has enacted laws that prevent sex selective abortions that result in the abortion of a female fetus, Kenya passed legislation to protect women from sexual offenses and Zambia introduced a specialized police unit to respond to crimes against women.

However, as upskirting shows, there is still a very long way to go before women can claim true equality. Let's hope that when March 8 comes around next year, there'll be far fewer upskirting websites and that those who think that there's nothing wrong with upskirting will have changed their minds.