This year’s International Women’s Day theme was ‘DigitAll: Innovation and technology for gender equality’, which shone a light on the advent of new digital technologies, and their effect on the lives of women, girls, and gender non-conforming people. The birth of the internet has brought about significant shifts and opportunities, especially for women, girls, and gender non-conforming people. The creation of the world wide web (www) and the internet democratized access to information, especially for marginalized communities, enabling them to freely express themselves and participate in political debates, and challenge social norms and stereotypes. In doing so, they have been able to share their realities and experiences, and collectively mobilize for social change. Queer activists and women human rights defenders (WHRDs) have been using the internet and digital technologies to spotlight injustices and mobilize action across cities, communities, borders, and geographies, for example, movements such as the #totalshutdown in South Africa, #ReleaseThe21 in Ghana, #Niunamenos movement in Argentina, #blacklivesmatter in the US, etc., have been bolstered by access to the internet. Digital technologies have enabled us all to access information, education, financial opportunities as well as access public services. They have enabled us to create spaces for community, play, pleasure, entertainment, leisure, learning, earning, and innovation; and we continue to explore the possibilities that digital technologies have to offer.
As we celebrate innovation and technology, we find ourselves faced with the same old problem of violence and discrimination against women, girls, and gender non-conforming people, the first of which pertains to issues around accessibility. The Web Foundation estimates that men are 21% more likely to be online than women globally, rising to 52% in the Least Developed Countries. For women and girls living in rural areas, access to digital technologies and the internet is a huge challenge as rural areas tend to have less broadband infrastructure, and slower, more expensive, and less reliable internet services than their urban peers . However, when women do get online, they are faced with online violence, harassment, and abuse. According to the Economist Intelligence Unit report, 85% of women surveyed across 51 countries, reported having experienced some form of online violence, which included video and image-based abuse, doxing, violent threats, hacking, stalking, cyber-harassment, hate-speech, impersonation, misinformation/disinformation forcing them to limit their engagement online, self-censor and limiting their exploration of the internet and the possibilities that digital technologies have to offer. Owing to the easy accessibility and dissemination of content in the digital world, the social, economic, cultural, and political structures and related forms of gender discrimination and patriarchal patterns that result in gender-based violence offline are reproduced and sometimes amplified and redefined online. Many times, online gender-based violence translates into offline violence creating a continuum of harm. This means that any attempt to address online gender-based violence must also address its offline impacts and effects and vice versa.
Online gender-based violence forces women and gender non-conforming people offline, acts to silence their voices and drives them out of spaces where they need to assert themselves, and denies them the opportunities to engage in social, cultural, and political debates including challenging patriarchal norms and other interlocking systems of oppression. At the same time, offline gender-based violence and discrimination prevent women, girls, and gender non-conforming people from accessing digital technologies as well as accessing education opportunities. They are constantly discouraged from pursuing careers in Science Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), and have limited access to resources including financing their innovations. These experiences of offline gender-based violence and discrimination mean that women, girls, and gender non-conforming people are less likely to engage or develop the technology we use today, resulting in gender bias, while historical injustices and limited data on women’s overall life experiences create data gaps that privilege the experiences and world view of white cis heteronormative men. We know that the social media platform business models sustain an environment where vitriol, misogynistic and harmful content is amplified through algorithmic principles including the amplification of hate groups and incels and therefore it is not often in the interest of these companies to develop technologies that curb the violence before it occurs. On the other hand, governments have focused on the regulation of social media platforms and the internet to ensure human rights are respected and guaranteed in digital spaces however undemocratic governments/regimes have used the same strategies to spread gender misinformation/disinformation and used internet regulation and digital surveillance technologies to target human rights defenders including women human rights defenders.
Despite the challenges, there have been numerous efforts to find solutions to the inequalities exacerbated by digital technologies. Feminist activists have for a long time advocated for feminist tech, feminist digital justice, and feminist internet principles, calling for technology and digital platforms that address inequalities and empower women, girls, and gender non-conforming people to enjoy their rights fully. In 2021, the UN Secretary-General issued our common agenda report which called for a Global Digital Compact, a set of agreed-upon global principles for an open, free, and secure digital future for all, which would be adopted at the Summit of the Future in 2024. Currently, the process is co-facilitated by the Governments of Rwanda and Sweden who are leading an inter-governmental consultation, with the public being invited to submit contributions during this preparatory phase until 31 March 2023. This opens up opportunities for feminist organizations, activists, women, girls, and gender non-conforming people to include their desires for a safe and empowering digital future. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has developed draft guidelines for regulating digital platforms, the purpose of which is to address the use of digital platforms, for example, social media platforms like Meta, Twitter, TikTok, etc., to spread harmful content and erode human rights including spreading hate and online abuse. All stakeholder groups including feminist and women’s rights organizations are invited to provide their comments on the draft guidelines. These UN processes are an opportunity to influence a feminist digital future. In 2022, the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse spearheaded by the Governments of the US, Sweden, Denmark, Australia, United Kingdom, and the Republic of South Korea was launched with the aim of developing shared principles on online gender-based violence, increase programs and resources to address it and support the collation of reliable comparable data including enabling access to this data. This partnership is welcomed and demonstrates that Governments recognize online gender-based violence as harmful and threatening human rights and democracy.
The development of standard sets of principles and guidelines is a first step to ensuring women, girls, and gender non-conforming people can safely access digital technologies and platforms. However, It is imperative that these principles and commitments are accompanied by substantial financial commitments to address the complexity of online gender-based violence and effectively tackle the continuum of gender-based violence online and offline. One observation under the Global Partnership membership criteria is a reluctance to demand new members to allocate additional funding and resources as a prerequisite for systemically and comprehensively preventing online gender-based violence, yet according to the OECD, less than 1% of overseas development assistance is directed towards addressing violence against women and girls globally . Governments must boldly invest in comprehensive gender-based violence prevention strategies including addressing online gender-based violence if we are to make any positive shift towards a safe and empowering digital age for all. We recommend that governments and development partners: