“With just the press of a button you can depress a person” – Executive Director on cyber violence

Opening remarks by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka at the Broadband Commission for Digital Development Gender Working Group meeting and launch of the report on cyber violence against women and girls, New York, 24 September.


[As delivered]

Good morning to you all,

Thank you so much for the support that the Broadband Commission is getting for this work, and thank you so much to all the people who contributed to this report.

It is always a pleasure to be in the company of this many leaders on the subjects that concern the Broadband Commission, both in relation to women, and more broadly, to UNDP, ITU and UNESCO. Thank you so much for the leadership that you provide.

We are here today to address cyber violence, something that has troubled many of us. I am so glad that this report has come so quickly. Last year we were still just thinking about how we needed to respond to this issue so that we nipped it in the bud. The UN at 70 has quick turnaround times!

The continuum of violence against women seems to be just as wild and as troubling online as it is offline. And this report makes this statement, so that we do not see this as a minor problem. It is a big problem that must concern us just as much as the violence that women experience offline, which we regard as a public health crisis and as a pandemic.

The same terms must be used when we talk about what is happening online.

In the SDGs — in particular in Goal 5 — we make reference to the need to address violence against women. But also within Goal 5 we have an indicator on the utilization of technology to address gender equality and women’s empowerment. I hope that we can address both of these issues and get them to work together more strongly.

As we embark on the new SDGs we have set ourselves an ambitious target, though when I speak to young people they don’t think this is ambitious. When I say that we want substantive gender equality by 2030 they say “2030! Why not next year?” You know, if you have been walking this road for a long time you have a different perspective, but it’s good to see that impatience in young people.

If we truly want to achieve substantive, irreversible gender equality by 2030 it is important that all of the drivers of gender inequality are addressed. I would see cyber violence as one of the new drivers of potential harmful gender inequalities.

It is quite clear, however, that we will not realize this goal if we do not work in a coordinated manner. That is why it is critical that this Commission brings together so many stakeholders in this area.

In the 21st century, realizing gender equality means ensuring that technology promotes gender equality and women’s empowerment, and that any threats that it poses are squarely met.

We need to constantly make the point about the advantages of technology for women. The advantages still outweigh the disadvantages, but we should not be deceived about what those disadvantages are and the challenges that technologies bring with them.

We know that as we attract women to STEM; as we race to close the digital divide, we need to make sure that we are also equipping women on how they can protect themselves from the unintended consequences of technology.

Violence against women and girls threatens women all over the globe and undermines their wellbeing, their rights and their progress in all aspects of life. We are now seeing this threat online, including in harassment, stalking, harmful images and stereotypes, the facilitation of sex trafficking and too many others to mention.

I was in the Philippines recently and the stories that I heard there of what is happening to children are too difficult to repeat. Clearly, if a child becomes compromised at an early age because of how technology is being used by ill-intending adults, that’s something that calls on all of us to really spring into action.

The risks of this are significant, as with offline violence, and there are great implications for women’s physical well-being: In the depression that women go through, and some of the impact that it has in terms of the mental challenges and the stress that women live with; the fact that it can impact on women’s livelihood as they disengage from using the Internet, as well as its costs to society.

We had an interesting, disturbing experience ourselves at UN Women when we launched HeForShe. Emma Watson, our Goodwill Ambassador, was stalked online. And when I looked at the videos that were made to stalk her, they were so well done. I saw that these young men took the time to actually produce such a sleek presentation, all in order to stalk and intimidate women and anyone else who believed in the message. They also introduced themselves as students, so it was quite disturbing.

But at the same time we saw a greater pushback from those who were against the stalking, and I think in the end the triumph has been for those who were representing the good message.

In my travels I hear many stories about what young women especially have faced and the ugly threats they live with. These are not issues confined to the developed world. We also see these in developing countries. That is why it is very encouraging that the work that we do, the work done by others, like Anita Sarkeesian’s Feminist Frequency and the APC Take Back the Tech campaign, are shining examples of how we are trying to reach women all over the world.

We are also seeing the risk that, unless we entrench safeguards, women will be farther behind in benefiting from the global digital revolution. The 2015 GSMA report highlighted that the gender access and usage gap was partly as a result of fear from online threats and concerns over privacy and security.

When women are left behind in the online world it can potentially deny them avenues of political participation and influence, economic benefits and some of the social benefits that come with the use of technology.

It’s always going to be important for us to highlight the pros in using technology to the established institutions; to parents as well as to those that influence young people. Advantages like being able to learn on the go, and the cost effectiveness of using technology to access information that otherwise you have to travel to collect. That fact is that in real-time you are able to access technology that is qualitative, that is available to everybody all over the world, even if you are in a part of the world that otherwise struggles to be at the centre of things.

The fact is that with the use of technology you are able to work from home, and to work effectively and reach markets that are far away from where you are. You are able to have a voice that goes way beyond where you live.

Thankfully, we are seeing greater attention paid to these issues by governments. I think this report will also be helpful to many of those who are paying attention to these issues.

Constantly repeating the message is important, alongside understanding the fact that anonymity gives the stalkers and those who use the technology for negative reasons the strength to do the most horrible things, because they don’t have to be in front of the person that they are abusing.

There is also the fact that it is quite cheap to be online, and with just the press of a button you can depress a person. There is the whole concept of the information going viral and the instant fame that seems to please people who are cruel for some reason, in the same order as the people who don’t mind just going around shooting people. This whole thing of hurting many people in one go is something quite troubling that technology enables.

And there is the fact that we can’t protect children in areas when age appropriateness is important. Anyone can disguise their age group and provide a picture that is different from who they are. And a message from a completely different person can reach children who we would want to protect.

We have to constantly work with these things, and we have to communicate both the pros and the cons at the same time, all the time, so that we strengthen our resolve to move forward and we also strengthen our capacity to fight back.

Women must continue to be at the centre of the messaging, the prevention, the creativity as well as the leadership of the technology sector.

We are grateful to the partners we are working with: Alliance for the Affordable Internet and APC on policy and normative solutions; we are grateful to be working with Technovation and Cisco to promote young women in the technology sector; Microsoft and Afroes to understand and develop technology solutions around VAW; and Mozilla with whom we are working to build young women’s web literacy and digital citizenship.

And, of course, we are also thankful for the dedication of the work of everybody in this team, and we hope we can rely and call upon you today, and always, to be at the forefront and to carry the message of this report: To sensitize, to promote the safeguards, to make sure that we have the sanctions we need, and that policymakers take responsibility for implementing the provision of this report very seriously.

We thank you very much and we look forward to the deliberations of today.