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Online Harassment of Girls and Young Women Must Stop

By Wayan Vota on February 25, 2021

girls online harassment

Internet access, and safety online, is fundamentally a human rights issue and an important indicator of gender equality. During the COVID-19 digital response, being online has become increasingly important: a lifeline for those often isolated at home and an important tool as young people struggle to keep up with their education and stay connected to the wider world.

Social media platforms can afford girls and young women a space for debate, an opportunity to make their voices heard, but increasingly, as they speak out, they are threatened and demeaned.

Gender-Based Online Harassment

The misogyny girls experience on our streets, must not be allowed to characterise their experiences online: harassment must not limit girls’ and young women’s ability to take advantage of all the opportunities social media has to offer.

Their voices, the issues they care about, are in danger of being drowned out by abuse, their activism impeded and their confidence drained by systematic bullying. None of this is acknowledged and neither platforms nor perpetrators are held to account.

Plan International’s Free to Be Online Report is based on research conducted across 31 countries with over 14,000 girls and young women. It uncovered girls’ and young women’s experiences of being online on social media platforms:

  • What platforms do they use?
  • What drives their usage?
  • What is their experience of harassment?
  • Who are the perpetrators?
  • What is the impact of harassment on them and on their continued usage of social media platforms?

To all the girls and young women taking part in the research social media is an important part of their lives. They use it for activism, for entertainment, for education and for keeping in touch with friends and family.

Online Harassment Impact

Girls are harassed online just for being girls and it gets worse if they are politically outspoken. Race, sexuality and disability are targeted too. Harassment ranges from being put down for your opinions, to being threatened with violence, to being besieged by unwanted pornographic images.

  • More than half of girls surveyed, from around the world, have been harassed and abused online.
  • One in four girls abused online feels physically unsafe as a result.
  • Online abuse is silencing girls’ voices.

Nowhere feels safe, and for many, online harassment that follows them into their homes, and invades their hearts and minds, is just as frightening, physically and emotionally, as street harassment. Like street harassment it is unremitting, often psychologically damaging and can lead to actual physical harm.

The two are interwoven – the result of underlying misogyny that is determined to keep girls and women “in their place.”

Perpetrators who threaten rape and physical violence, use abusive and sexist language, post manipulated photos and send pornographic pictures are able to remain anonymous and unconstrained; girls are often afraid, begin to restrict what they post and are forced to try and protect themselves.

Online Harassment Must Stop

It is time for this to stop. Girls and young women are demanding change. Their experiences are not “normal” and girls should not have to put up with behaviour online which would be criminal on the streets. Governments and social media companies must take action.

In the 22-country survey, girls were asked who – choosing from the police, social media companies, the government, other social media users or civil society organisations – should do more to fight against online harassment. Social media companies topped the list followed by governments.

Social media companies must use their technological skills and financial resources to put freedom online for girls and young women at the heart of their agenda.

  • Take responsibility for creating a safe online environment for girls and young women in all
    of their diversity by initiating discussions on the topic of gender-based online harassment amongst social media users; providing reliable information on the topic to increase awareness, and providing digital citizenship education for all users.
  • Implement their corporate responsibility to respect human rights in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
  • Work with girls and young women globally in all their diversity to co-create policy and technical solutions to address and prevent gender-based harassment and violence on social media platforms.
  • Create stronger, accessible reporting mechanisms specific to online gender-based violence, that hold perpetrators to account and are responsive to all girls’ needs and experiences, taking into account intersecting identities (including race and LGBTIQ+ youth).
  • Strengthen and improve content moderation to identify and remove gender-based violence in a timely fashion, also ensuring that there is parity, proportionality and transparency in their approach to content moderation across the globe.
  • Hold perpetrators of online harassment to account, including by timely sanctioning of gender-based harassment perpetrators, consistent with other platform violations.
  • Collect and publish gender and age disaggregated data, in partnership with private entities and civil society, that provide insight into the scale, reach, measurement and nature of online harassment and violence against women and girls and the digital gender divide.

Filed Under: Featured, Women in Tech
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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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