Violence against women and girls (VAWG) is a problem of pandemic proportion; it is estimated that one in three women will experience some form of violence in her lifetime. The rapid proliferation of information and communication technologies (ICTs) expands opportunities to address VAWG, providing victims with access to information and reporting mechanisms. However, ICTs also provide another platform for harming and threatening women and girls, with reports now suggesting that an incredible 73 per cent of women have been exposed to some form of violence online.
Online crimes seamlessly follow the spread of the Internet. As the Internet evolves and social media and networking tools become an intrinsic part of people’s lives, attitudes and social norms that contribute to cyber-VAWG must be addressed deliberately and with urgency.
For those who may never have been exposed to this kind of violence, it is difficult to imagine what cyber VAWG might look like, or indeed what its effects might be. Hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel), hacking (intercepting private communications), identity theft and online stalking (criminal harassment) are the more common forms of cyber-VAWG. Threats of rape, death and stalking are emotionally draining and financial stress can include legal fees, online protection services as well as missed earnings.
A failure to address cyber-VAWG could, furthermore, present a serious disincentive for women to access or use the Internet or web-based services. Women are roughly 25 per cent less likely to access the Internet today and a recent GSMA report indicates that there is a growing gender gap in access to and use of mobile technology.
The use of computers and information technologies for criminal and abusive activity is not a new phenomenon, so what has changed? To some extent, the issue has been brought to the fore by heightened public awareness promoted by high-profile stories and compounded by the sense that an online bully is, for all intents and purposes, immune to any form of accountability.
The ‘Cyber Violence against Women and Girls: A world-wide wake-up call’ report outlines a number of recommendations that fall into one of three categories of action: preventive measures through public sensitization and consciousness-raising; promotion of safeguards for safety and equality on the Internet for women and girls; and the enforcement of sanctions. Each one of these pillars supports the others and will need consistent, collaborative action at multiple levels.
All stakeholders must take accelerated actions to ensure a safer, more secure Internet for present and future generations – one without endemic cyber VAWG. Industry players including mobile phone companies, social networking site hosts, online dating and gaming sites, and software developers are important digital gatekeepers against cyber VAWG. Companies need to explicitly recognize VAWG as unacceptable and unlawful behavior, and demonstrate increased and expedited cooperation in providing relief to cyber VAWG victims. Online diligence, monitoring and reporting against violence and related crimes is ultimately everyone’s business, we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that the Internet is a safe platform for everyone’s use
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a collective global effort to address global development priorities for the next 15 years, includes a goal on gender equality which places women’s access to technology for their empowerment as one of the core indicators for progress. In September 2013, the Broadband Commission for Digital Development set an ambitious new target calling for gender equality in broadband access by 2020. This target was the result of the Working Group on Broadband and Gender’s report ‘Doubling Digital Opportunities – enhancing the inclusion of women & girls in the Information Society’ which examined the central question of how access to the Internet and ICTs can help redress some of the inequalities women and girls face in their everyday lives, and whether inequalities in access to the Internet, and the types of content available online, are in fact reinforcing social attitudes towards women. Understanding that access to the Internet positively transforms the lives of women, enabling them to better access healthcare, education, employment and key public services, and the opportunity for political participation, the Working Group works to encourage and promote female access to ICTs. Today, the Working Group works to promote digital inclusion for women; empower women through digital literacy training and skills building; promote the development of gender-sensitive applications (monitor violence against women, etc.) in partnership with the private sector and civil society.
Read the full report here.
Nidhi Tandon is an activist, independent development consultant and director of Networked Intelligence for Development. For the past twenty five years Nidhi has applied the emerging tools of digital media, information and communication technologies and applications to empowering women. She has worked as a consultant for both UN Women and the International Telecommunication Union, for whom she authored A Bright Future in ICTs for a New Generation of Women and organised content for the ITU Girls in ICT Portal. She has worked to bring ICTs into the field and into the hands of rural women. Increasingly, Nidhi is examining the potential roles that ICTs can play in managing climate change. She has also written about ICT applications in the e-commerce/small enterprise rural sector, with a focus on women in Cameroon, Communications and Commerce: The Role of ICT in Linking Women Entrepreneurs with Global Markets, in Trading Stories: Experiences with Gender and Trade, edited by Marilyn Carr and Marianna Williams Commonwealth Secretariat, May 2010.