Making the Internet safer for women and girls featured image

Making the Internet safer for women and girls

By ITU News

In Mexico, around nine million women suffer some form of digital harassment every year. In 2020, the organization Luchadoras (Fighters) opened a support service for victims of online violence in the country.

Through social media, e-mail, messaging apps, a phone line, and other channels, any woman can get in touch for advice on how to respond to online harassment.

Kicking off amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the initiative received 470 requests for support from women in Mexico and other parts of the world in its first year of operation.

Although data varies between regions and sources, an Economist Intelligence Unit study suggests that 38 per cent of women globally have experienced online violence.

The COVID-induced surge in online activity further facilitated tech-based violence against women and girls, according to a UN Women report.

UN Women recommends that governments should bolster initiatives to identify and report gender-based violence as well as strengthen the protocols for punishing perpetrators.

Identifying, responding, and reporting

Luchadoras identifies the predominant tactics used by perpetrators of gender-based violence online.

Among the most common is online extortion – threatening to publish intimate content of the victim without consent, unless the aggressor gets something in return.

Other common forms of online harassment include unauthorised accessing of personal profiles to obtain private information and using fake social media profiles for extortion.

In all these cases, fear of reporting is rife among victims of online violence, the Mexican organization warns.

“I feel like it’s my fault,” said one anonymous user of the Luchadoras support system. “And the truth is, that day I felt very insecure and cried all night. I felt like a fool, I don’t feel ready to tell anyone.”

Other resources offered by the organization include digital care toolkits to help identify cyber violence and respond in the event of an attack.

Luchadoras advises victims of online violence to first document the aggression by taking screenshots – especially as an aggressor may delete online evidence.

The next step is to report the incident to the same online platform where it occurred, which sometimes means the perpetrator’s account can be restricted or deleted.

Finally, if an unwanted explicit or intimate personal image is leaked, victims can try to remove it from search engines. Google provides instructions for how to do this on its platform.

Finding support

Woman and girls who face online violence without the resources to respond may stop using technology and lose the benefits of connectivity.

In a social media poll by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) on this year’s International Girls in ICT Day, the second most decisive factor for girls to pursue a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) was feeling safe online.

Garnering support from close friends and loved ones is crucial to bolster the sense of security.

Hey Friend, a guide on how to help a friend who has been attacked online, won a 2014 Gender Equality Mainstreaming (GEM) award from the global Take Back The Tech! campaign by ITU and UN Women. The initiative that produced the guide also published a toolkit with strategies for dealing with cyber stalking.

EQUALS, the global partnership to close the gender digital divide, also works to address women’s safety concerns as part of the initiative’s commitment to ensure women and girls can use the Internet safely.

While these tools aim to help women worldwide, cultural context also shapes the online challenges women face.

The Hamara Internet initiative by Digital Rights Foundation, a non-governmental organization (NGO) in Pakistan, says woman can find themselves left without legal protection when their profile pictures are manipulated or used for blackmail.

“In Pakistani culture, family honour is intrinsically connected to women’s bodies, which is why this kind of blackmail is able to happen in the first place,” explains Digital Rights Foundation on its website.

The initiative’s guide, The art of digital security for Pakistani women, is now in its second edition. Available in English and Urdu, it provides practical advice on how to secure social media passwords, back up online data, and browse the Internet safely.

Multilingual guidance

Finding support in your native language is crucial after experiencing online violence. International NGO Access Now provides a digital safety helpline in Arabic, English, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish and Tagalog.

Although not specifically aimed at women, the free service is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, staffed by support professionals in the United States, Germany, Tunisia, and the Philippines.

Image credit: Adobe Stock

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