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Gender-Violence 2.0: The Digital Safety Gap for Women

By Guest Writer on January 12, 2015


Technology not only has the power to connect people, but also the power to reinforce and disseminate social and cultural structures and help normalize gender roles. The technology revolution has brought new types of gender-based violence, including online discrimination, cyberbullying, cyberstalking, blackmail, and hate speech.

In countries such as South Africa, Uganda, the Republic of Congo, Cambodia, Philippines, Malaysia, and Brazil active steps have been taken to improve regulatory frameworks and strengthen the capacity of women’s rights activists and organizations to use technology to respond to the growing concern of digital gender-based violence.

Why Is This So Important for the ICT4D Community?

As development efforts continue to increase broadband coverage and public access to information, risks associated with digital gender-violence are increasing as well. This is particularly true for countries where targeted efforts are taking place to include women into the digital economy. A 2005 study by the Association for Progressive Communication found that there is a strong relation between increased access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) and women trafficking and violence. The Internet is not only used to advertise trafficked women, but is also being used by predators to communicate with young girls and lure them into trafficking schemes.

The mere fact of being a woman can be seen as invitation for online violence. In 2006, researchers set up various fake online user accounts and then dispatched them into chat rooms. Accounts with feminine usernames incurred an average of 100 sexually explicit or threatening messages per day. Increasingly, the women and girls that fall victim to these attacks do not know how to stop the abuse, or even to which organizations to report these activities. More worrisome, most countries lack laws and policies to deal with this new form of violence and in the case where such laws exist, they often fail to protect victims.

A recent report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights noted that threats to human rights defenders are often delivered through mobile phones or online platforms. Earlier this year, a female activist from Mexico was harassed and killed by members of a drug cartel when they discovered that she spoke against their actions via Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, the Philippines-based organization PKKS-Empower found that females between the ages of fifteen to twenty years old were most vulnerable to online violence. In this case, Facebook is the most commonly used platform to deliver threats often accompanied by nude photos, sexist remarks, and sexually implicit messages.

Bridging the Digital Security Divide

ICTs including mobile technologies and Web 2.0 platforms can be powerful tools for empowering disfranchised communities such as women and young girls. However, ICTs can also be a double-edge sword as they are changing the ways in which women respond to violence while simultaneously alternating the paths in which they experience violence. As development organizations continue to drive campaigns to make Internet and technology affordable and accessible, they must also proactively address the existing digital safety gap for women by advocating for gender-sensitive legislation, improving data collection, promoting safety trainings for advocates, and raising awareness.

Strengthening Legislative Frameworks: The 2009 murder of South African journalist Shadi Rapitso by a male acquaintance, who previously harassed her online and offline, sparked a national debate about the adequacy of the existing civil law framework to deal with cases of stalking and harassment. A subsequent review called for new legislation to be enacted to provide recourse to victims of direct and indirect (e.g.: online and digital) forms of stalking.

The Protection from Harassment Bill drafted by the Commission was introduced into the South African National Assembly in early 2010 and approved in late 2011. The law criminalizes online harassment and allows the police to take the necessary steps and measures to identify the perpetrator of the crime with the assistance of service providers. Similar efforts have taken place in areas like Nova Scotia and New Zealand where civil legislation have been developed to protect victims of cyberbullying and online harassment.

Improving Data Collection: Currently, there is almost no data on online gender-based violence, and the little data that exists does not follow a systemic common framework for data collection. The majority of the evidence on online violence against women is anecdotal, which allows for identifying patterns across the experience of victims. However, this information is insufficient for determining trends and developing comprehensive interventions for technology related violence.

Organizations such as the World Health Organization (WHO) are collecting data on violence against women, but they do not differentiate between online or offline violence. Piloting indicators for measuring digital violence should become a priority for countries where there are high levels of penetration of Internet and mobile technology and high incidences of violence against women. This is the first step in identifying a methodology that can be applied across countries and recognized by international organizations.

Promoting Safety Trainings for Advocate and Citizens: Information intermediaries have an important role to play improving the media literacy of citizens and helping them to understand what is defined as risky and unethical and the consequences of this behavior. IREX and its partners are also working to make the Internet safer for women and to promote gender equality.

In Romania, IREX is working with information intermediaries such as libraries to teach children and young people valuable skills for being safe online and protecting their identity. Furthermore, through its Securing Access to Free Expression (S.A.F.E.) Initiative, IREX is training female journalists and activists on how to respond to gender-based threats online.

Education and Awareness: Preventing online gender-based violence requires more than legislations and trainings, it requires a change of attitudes and behaviors within society. This includes working with national governments, service providers, and communities to strengthen the support networks available to current victims.

This also requires using the stories of victims as case-studies for developing effective interventions for decreasing the incidence of online violence. Campaigns such as #TakeBackTheTech and #16Days are crucial for shedding a light on the impact of online violence and harassment in women’s lives, building a community of organizations willing to challenge online violence, and empowering victims.

Taking Back the Tech

Online harassment and violence is just a manifestation of existing cultural and social paradigms that continue to impact women negatively. We need to work with government and civil society organizations so that they have the tools they need to protect women’s rights online and offline. Digital violence against women can be prevented if ICT programs and ICT services are designed in such matter that they protect women’s and young girls’ privacy and do not perpetuate or amplify existing cultural values that perpetuate violence.

Similarly organizations should follow existing strategies and principles that seek to make digital spaces safer for women and young girls. Most importantly, we need to guarantee that women who are victims of online violence have access to the information they need so that they are able to raise their voices and #takebackthetech.

Olimar Maisonet-Guzman is a policy coordinator for IREX’s Center for Collaborative Technologies where she explores the use of emerging technologies and ICTs in international development. Previously, she worked worked at the U.S. State Department and as a policy coordinator for the United Nations Rio+20 and the post-2015 negotiations.

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2 Comments to “Gender-Violence 2.0: The Digital Safety Gap for Women”

  1. Nancy Sitima says:

    This article is very relevant to my work as a women’s rights activist in Kenya. Civil Societies in Kenya working on women’s rights have little or no knowledge of the power of ICT in perpetuating Gender Violence and gender stereotyping. However ICT is also an important tool for fighting gender violence if proper training and appropriate ICT frameworks are set up by government to neutralize cultural elements that fuel GBV. Our Organization Forum for Women in Development, Democracy and Justice is interested in collaborating with ICTworks in bringing awareness to our Civil Society groups to leverage on the opportunities available to combat GBV through ICT. If you are interested in collaboration please get in touch with us at [email protected]

  2. Met says:

    Pretty nice article. Looking at the gender issue from a slightly different perspective i think the technology space will offer more women an opportunity to information which they mostly lack especially the ones from rural areas.