Addressing online gender-based and sexual violence

Published on 13 February 2017

Image of Madhushala Senaratne
Madhushala Senaratne

Editorial Assistant

Participating at the Sex, Rights, and Pleasure Lab, I spent four days in January working with other students to design new interventions to respond to digitally-mediated gender-based and sexual violence.

Given the broad and wide-spread nature of online sexual violence and harassment, as well as the range of online and offline tools and platforms available to design interventions, a question we had early on was, how do we make our interventions relevant, effective, and scalable? Yet, as emphasised during the Lab, teams were not expected to produce finalised products, rather interventions that clearly demonstrated the what, why, who, and the how.

In these personal takeaways, I reflect on why online gender-based violence remains an important and urgent development challenge, and why designing interventions to address such issues require a strong focus on audience and message.

Awareness, education and collaboration are key

In some contexts, responses to digitally-mediated gender-based violence are changing, but there is a need for more awareness, education, and collaborative approaches. It is also important to engage both the survivors and perpetrators.

Various forms of online harassment, including sexual harassment, threats of rape, trolling, and sharing of sexual material of another without consent, affect people all over the world. Yet, responses to such forms of harassment are changing in some contexts. For example, revenge porn is a criminal offence in the UK. Yet, it is important to ask to what extent individuals are aware of their rights under such measures, and what they can do should such an incident happen to them. In designing interventions, many of us emphasised the need to engage with survivors of sexual harassment to empower them and others who may be afraid or ashamed to speak up, blame themselves, or don’t think what happened to them was serious enough to speak out.

At the same time, are individuals that are sharing private, explicit images of their ex-partners, without their consent, aware that it is a crime to do so? In creating awareness, as initial group discussions indicated, designing interventions to target and change attitudes of perpetrators of online sexual violence, is challenging.

There was also emphasis on young people. How many young people who post and share negative, abusive and hateful comments understand the wrongful nature and consequences of their actions? Working with young people to educate and empower them in addressing online sexual violence can help create safe online experiences.

Importantly, the Lab brought together students from diverse disciplines as well as a range of experts, including researchers, activists, media professionals and NGO personnel, and university staff, working in areas of gender, sexuality, digital technologies, and student welfare. Building new partnerships and engaging expertise from across disciplines and industries is crucial to enhancing the impact of an intervention.

Solutions must have at their heart those who are affected

With huge expectations and new possibilities for responding to online sexual harassment, thoughtful and meaningful innovation is needed, while interventions require a strong focus on audience and message

During the Lab I worked with three other participants to design a digital intervention to address sexual harassment among university students.

Advancements in digital technologies have helped improve access to information, and provide increased platforms for engagement, thereby enhancing opportunities for effective development. Yet, there are challenges, including issues around privacy, information overload, and homogenisation of knowledge. In such a context, in designing interventions to address a development challenge, it is important to think beyond the role of technology.

Often, in international development, while technological interventions are created to provide solutions to key challenges, they lack the participation of stakeholders whose engagement and ownership are essential for the sustainability of a project. Considering the needs, environment, and sensitivities of the audience or the user that the intervention is aimed at or seeks to engage is crucial at the early stage of design, and can help design more thoughtful and effective responses. In addition, with a wide variety of digital tools already in place, understanding the local digital landscape and building on existing infrastructure can help develop higher quality interventions.

Following four days of rigorous discussions, hair-splitting moments, and forging of new friendships, it was inspiring to listen to the ideas that emerged from the Lab. As the workshop reminded us, there is an urgent need for critical, creative and collaborative responses to address this vital development challenge.

Madhushala Senaratne is studying for her PHD focusing on the production of humanitarian narratives at the University of Sussex


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Research themes
Inequalities and Poverty

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