Tackling online gender-based violence

Published on 3 December 2018

Image of Becky Faith
Becky Faith

Research Fellow

Technologies such as mobile phones can exacerbate and magnify acts of violence against women and girls, and lead to a silencing of women’s voices online. To address this issue we must hold social media companies to account.

Online gender-based violence (GBV) takes many forms including hacking, impersonation, surveillance/tracking, harassment/spamming, recruiting victims into violent situations, and malicious distribution of intimate photos and messages. The prevalence of online GBV further exacerbates women’s digital exclusion, an issue which was explored in depth in the new  IDS Digital and Technology Cluster report on Leaving No One Behind in a Digital World.

A new report produced for the Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) Helpdesk reveals that there is limited data on the extent of online GBV and particularly on what works to prevent it. The dynamism of the technological environment and contextual differences in platforms used in different countries makes it challenging to design and evaluate responses that are appropriate to multiple regions and platforms.

Harnessing human rights law

However, there are powerful international human rights frameworks which could be used to address online GBV: international human rights law mandates states to exercise due diligence to promote, protect and fulfil human rights and prevent human rights by non-state actors. These ‘non-state actors’ include transnational corporations such as the social networking platforms which mediate our online communications. States are required to act towards establishing and safeguarding an online environment that is safe and conducive for engagement for all, and to meaningfully address gender-based harassment.

There have been various UN resolutions recognising online GBV in the international human rights framework on women’s rights and violence against women. The Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Ms. Dubravka Šimonović reports that there have been significant ‘soft law’ developments in recognising online GBV in international human rights frameworks including treaties and non-binding or voluntary resolutions and codes of conduct. But the effectiveness of these frameworks and laws is constrained by gaps in specialised national legislative and policy measures, mechanisms, procedures and expertise/skills.

In India a study by the Internet Democracy project  showed that laws on cyber abuse of women have some value and women used threats of police complaints and sections of the IT Act as tools to fight harassers. But most women never resorted to legal measures, and felt that engagements with law were rarely favourable experiences for women.  So even though there is a legal framework to penalise abuse, there are severe problems with implementation of these laws, in large part owing to entrenched socio-cultural norms.

The role of social media companies

There are guidelines for social media companies to address online GBV and useful advocacy resources exemplified by the partnership between Facebook and Women’s Aid in the UK which resulted in a guide Empowering women to be safe online.  Yet research shows that women often face severe challenges in getting these guidelines enforced.

Twitters ‘Hateful Conduct’ policy provides an overview of the types of behaviours that are not allowed on the platform and encourages users to report content on the platform that they believe is in breach of Twitter’s community standards. Yet, as Amnesty International reports, the company does not state who is responsible for the oversight and implementation of this policy.  Amnesty’s recommendations focus on the principle that the company should communicate and reinforce to users which behaviours are not tolerated on the platform and should consistently apply its own rules. Recommendations include the platform publicly sharing comprehensive and meaningful information about the nature and levels of violence and abuse against women, as well as other groups.

We see the impunity of social media giants in the face of legal frameworks in other areas of democratic life; only recently Mark Zuckerberg the CEO of Facebook refused the UK Parliament’s request to appear in front of the ‘international grand committee’ on Disinformation and ‘fake news. These issues are inexorably linked; a recent report on digital harassment of women leaders found that these issues had a silencing effect on women’s participation in public online spaces and conversations, with a particularly severe impact on women from minority religious and ethnic groups, and LGBTQ Women.

Tackling online GBV around the world needs a range of strategies; from the grassroots solidarity campaigns organised by Take Back the Tech, national level legislation and school-based interventions. But tackling the impunity of social media giants in the face of the systematic harassment experienced by women online is an important step.

This research was produced for the Violence against Women and Girls (VAWG) Helpdesk, which is a research and advice service for the Department for International Development (DFID) and all other UK Government departments.   The Helpdesk is run by a SDDirect-led consortium that includes IDS, ActionAid, International Rescue Committee (IRC) and Womankind Worldwide.

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