As digital technology mediates more and more of our daily lives, it is also facilitating new and heightened forms of gender-based violence. Online violence against women and girls, though not a new phenomenon, has escalated rapidly since the onset of COVID-19—with serious implications for women’s safety and well-being. The impacts of such violence extend beyond the digital sphere, posing a significant threat to the exercise of women’s rights both online and off.
Below, learn more about the issue—and what can be done to prevent and respond to it.
What is tech-facilitated gender-based violence?
Technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TF GBV) is any act that is committed, assisted, aggravated or amplified by the use of information communication technologies or other digital tools which results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological, social, political or economic harm or other infringements of rights and freedoms. These are forms of violence that are directed against women because they are women and/or that affect women disproportionately.
TF GBV occurs within a continuum of multiple interrelated types of violence against women and girls which are often connected to violence in the offline world. It encompasses many forms, including intimate image abuse, doxing (the sharing of personal or identifying details), trolling (posting messages, images or videos and the creation of hashtags for the purpose of provoking or inciting violence against women and girls) and sharing of deepfake images. TF GBV also includes misogynistic or gendered hate speech as well as efforts to silence and discredit women online, including threats of offline violence. Further information can be found in UN Women’s policy brief and in the Secretary General’s Report on Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women (2022).
Why is tackling TF GBV a priority?
The impact of TF GBV can be as harmful as offline violence, with negative effects on the health and wellbeing of women and girls as well as serious economic, social and political impacts. For one, TF GBV can restrict the online activity of women and girls and inhibit their access to the Internet—increasing the digital gender divide and restricting women’s voices in public participation. This is a significant concern, particularly considering that the majority of the estimated 2.9 billion people who remain unconnected to the Internet are women and girls, and those who experience multiple inequalities are the least likely to have access.
TF GBV can also exacerbate offline forms of violence—including sexual harassment, stalking, intimate partner violence and trafficking or sexual exploitation—which may be facilitated by digital tools such as mobile phones, GPS and tracking devices. For instance, traffickers often use technology to profile, recruit, control and exploit their victims.
TF GBV is a form of gender-based discrimination and a violation of human rights. But existing laws, policies and frameworks to prevent and respond to GBV have not kept pace with technological developments, and there are significant gaps in knowledge and evidence about how to prevent and eradicate it.
How prevalent is TF GBV?
While there continue to be significant data gaps, one global study by the Institute of Development Studies suggests that between 16-58 per cent of women have experienced TF GBV. Another global study by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that 38 per cent of women have had personal experiences of online violence, and 85 per cent of women who spend time online have witnessed digital violence against other women. The most common forms of violence reported were misinformation and defamation (67 per cent), cyber harassment (66 per cent), hate speech (65 per cent), impersonation (63 per cent), hacking and stalking (63 per cent), astroturfing (a coordinated effort to concurrently share damaging content across platforms, 58 per cent), video and image-based abuse (57 per cent), doxing (55 per cent), violent threats (52 per cent), and the reception of unwanted images or sexually explicit content (43 per cent).
Emerging data from different regions of the world demonstrate that this is a universal problem. A UN Women study in the Arab States region found that 60 per cent of women internet users had been exposed to online violence in the past year. A study of 5 countries in sub-Saharan Africa by the Association for Progressive Communications found that 28 per cent of women had experienced online GBV. A 2017 multi-country survey of women aged 18 – 55 in Denmark, Italy, New Zealand, Poland, Spain, Sweden, the UK and the USA found that nearly a quarter (23 per cent) of women reported at least one experience of online abuse or harassment.
The COVID-19 pandemic led to an intensification of TF GBV, as women’s and girls’ lives shifted online for work, school, social activities and more. In Australia, the reliance on digital communication during COVID-19 likely led to a 210 per cent increase in image-based abuse. Data from India, Sri Lanka, and Malaysia showed a 168 per cent increase in the volume of and engagement with misogynistic online posts and tweets during COVID-19 related lockdowns.
One online survey found that 38 per cent of respondents experienced online abuse in the months preceding COVID-19, with 27 per cent reported increased online abuse during the pandemic. These statistics were even greater for Black and minoritised women: 50 per cent reported online abuse before the pandemic and 38 per cent reported an increase during COVID-19.
Who is at risk of TF GBV?
As with all forms of violence against women, TF GBV affects women and girls in all their diversity. But certain groups are at heightened risk.Women who face intersecting forms of marginalization, including women with disabilities, Black and indigenous women and other women of color, migrant women and LGBTIQ+ people, are all disproportionately affected as illustrated in a 2021 study on online harassment.
Young women and girls, who are more likely to use tech for learning, accessing information and connecting to peers, also face heightened exposure to online violence. One global study found that 58 per cent of girls and young women have experienced some form of online harassment.
Women in public life—namely women human rights defenders, activists, journalists and women in politics—face increased rates of violence too. One recent study by UNESCO found that 73 percent of women journalists experienced online violence in the course of their work.
What is UN Women doing about TF GBV?
Addressing TF GBV is part of UN Women’s comprehensive approach to ending violence against women and girls. This includes developing and adapting normative frameworks, laws and policies to prevent and respond to TF GBV, bridging data and research gaps, adapting essential services to effectively support survivors of TF GBV, and working to transform social norms and engage men and boys on the issue.
The 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW67), convening under the priority theme: “Innovation and technological change, and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls”, will highlight TF GBV as one of four key areas of focus. CSW67 provides a unique opportunity to shape a future where women and girls are free to be safe online and when using digital tools.
UN Women is also addressing the issue through the Generation Equality Action Coalitions on Gender-Based Violence and on Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality. The Action Coalitions are multi-stakeholder partnerships that bring together governments, civil society and the private sector to drive collective action and increased investments on key gender equality issues. Tackling TFGBV is a priority of these Coalitions, who are working to scale up evidence-based prevention programming, increase the availability of survivor-centred services, provide support to feminist organizations and more.
What more needs to happen to eliminate TF GBV?
Enhance cooperation between Member States, the technology sector, women’s rights organizations, civil society and national human rights institutions to strengthen policies and measures to address TF GBV and hold companies to account.
Adopt a comprehensive definition and address data gaps, to increase understanding about the drivers of TF GBV and the profiles of perpetrators.
Development and implement comprehensive laws and regulatory mechanisms on tech-facilitated GBV, informed by an intersectional, human rights based, survivor-centred approach and with the meaningful participation of survivors and women’s organizations.
Develop regulations and standards of accountability for Internet intermediaries and the technology sector to enhance transparency and accountability on TF GBV and on the use of data.
Integrate digital citizenship and ethical use of digital tools into school curriculum as a prevention strategy to foster positive social norms across the online and offline continuum. Use digital citizenship training to sensitize young people, especially young men and boys, caregivers, and educators to ethical and responsible online behaviour.
Strengthen collective action of public and private sector entities and women’s rights organizations.
Empower women and girls to participate and lead in the technology sector to inform the design and use of safe digital tools and spaces free of TF GBV.
Ensure that public and private sector entities prioritize the prevention and elimination of TF GBV, through human rights-based design approaches, safeguards and adequate investments.
- Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women: Report of the Secretary-General (2022)
- Accelerating efforts to tackle online and technology-facilitated violence against women and girls: UN Women policy brief
- Stepping up action to prevent and respond to online and ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls
- Normative frameworks on gender perspectives in technology and innovation
- Online and ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19
- Online violence against women in Asia: A multicountry study
- Violence against women in the online space: Insights from a multi-country study in the Arab States
- Violencia contra mujeres y niñas en el espacio digital: Lo que es virtual también es real