Editor’s note: This article deals with the subject of online abuse, sexual harrassment, and assault. Resources for support can be found at the end of the article.
Online gender-based violence takes many different forms, all of which have serious consequences for victims.
This type of violence can be anything from online harassment and stalking, cyber-bullying,non-consensual pornography (where intimate images are stolen and shared without consent), or even online grooming taking place over social media or on chat rooms, which can lead to physical sexual assault and sexual exploitation.
Survivors of this type of violence report experiencing increased anxiety and stress, loss of concentration at school or work, and depression.
Anyone can be a victim of online abuse and harassment, but it is often gendered and specifically targeted at women and girls. A 2020 report from Plan International, surveying over 14,000 girls from different countries, found that 58% had some experience of online harassment.
The study found that girls and young women from ethnic minorities, or who have disabilities, or identify as LGBTQ+ were more likely to experience worse abuse on the basis of their identity as well as their gender.
Global gender equality NGO Equality Now argues that, in many countries, laws are failing to protect women and girls from online gender-based violence (GBV). They are calling for a new international standard to better define these crimes, deter perpetrators, and protect survivors.
In a report published on Nov. 15, Equality Now assessed the laws surrounding “online sexual exploitation and abuse” (OSEA) in six countries: Kenya, Nigeria, India, the US, England, and Wales. It builds a picture of what the current legal protections are in different parts of the world and highlights that often survivors do not come forward to report this type of abuse to police because they don’t think it will be taken seriously.
Tsitsi Matekaire, who leads the organisation’s End Sexual Exploitation programme and is a lead author on the report, said: “Online sexual exploitation and abuse is harming women and girls in every country and is growing at an alarming rate.”
“To tackle ongoing advances in technology and cybercrime in the digital age, there is an urgent need to update national, regional, and international laws to protect all at risk and punish offenders, regardless of where they are,” she continued.
As part of the report, researchers interviewed survivors of different forms of online gender-based violence and documented their stories. Their accounts can be difficult to read, but they help provide insight into what forms this type of abuse can take, and how it affects survivors.
Global Citizen is taking part in 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10. You can get involved by joining our #16Days Challenge here, where you’ll take a simple action each day — like advocating against GBV on social media, supporting a woman-owned business in your community, or starting a conversation with a friend about GBV — throughout the campaign. You can also support our “Demand Equity” campaign every day, by taking action here.
Here are the stories of Modupe in Nigeria, Cassie in the UK, and Gibi in the US, how they were affected by online GBV, and what they want everyone to know. These accounts have been lightly edited for length.
Modupe experienced image-based abuse, when an intimate photo of her was shared without her consent.
"I was 16 when I started accessing the internet. I had a friend who introduced me to Facebook and helped me create an account. As soon as I logged on I began receiving requests.
I didn’t know the first person who contacted me, but we became very close. We were in contact for around three months and would communicate every day. He would ask personal questions and I’d answer — I thought it was a way for us to get to know each other. Eventually, he wanted to see a picture and asked me to send something so I gave him one of me wearing clothes. He said I should take the pictures without wearing anything, it would be better that way. I was lured into believing what we were doing was right and it was just with this one person who I was close to like that.
I did what he asked and after a week or two I started seeing the photo being passed around and shown to others. I had never met him face-to-face and I don’t know where he lived but I began to wonder whether he was close by because soon everybody in my school and community knew: my parents, my friends, old or young, everyone. I felt very sad and depressed. People were always talking about the photos and saying stuff to me, bad stuff, it was very hard.
I went to the police to report what had happened but I received no support. The police started saying all sorts of things, ridiculing and laughing at me. They obviously don’t know anything about online sexual exploitation. They should have investigated the case and referred it to higher authorities that would be able to handle it better than they did. Instead, the person who did this to me has faced no consequences."
Cassie was groomed via an online chat room and was consequently blackmailed and and sexually assualted.
“We got our first computer when I was around 10, when chat rooms were a big thing. You’d get private messages from people you didn’t know and have conversations. We never had lessons about online safety — so we didn’t know that people might not be who they say they are.
When I was 13 I started talking to someone who said she was a young woman. She was asking lots of questions and I thought she was trying to make friends. “She” said she was a model and that I could model too. She kept complimenting me, saying I was pretty. She said she did topless modelling and asked me to send a topless picture. I didn’t want to but she kept trying to convince me and eventually I sent one.
That was when she started blackmailing me, saying she would post my photo around my school and local area. She said her boss wanted to meet me to take photographs for a model portfolio and asked for my address. I was terrified but didn’t feel like I had a choice. The following morning, a man came to my house and sexually assaulted me and took photos of everything. Even if I’d been able to physically push him away, he would make sure that all my family and school knew what had happened. That felt like the worst thing in the world. I wasn’t going to tell anyone and thought the police would say I was wasting their time.
I believed it was my fault. I had engaged with this person online, given my address, and opened the door. I was very angry and anxious, and I started self-harming. Six months later, the police contacted me — it turned out this man had committed similar crimes. He pleaded not guilty even though there was proof of him contacting young girls and photographic evidence of his crimes.
The case went to court quickly because he was already under investigation. He got seven years for what he did to me, two years for two other victims, and two for a previous offense. He’d already been to prison for something similar and been given early release. That made me really angry, I thought, “Why didn’t you monitor him? Why was he allowed to do this again?”
There was very poor support offered to me and I was affected for 10 years. The police gave us some phone numbers, but nothing else. Depression and anxiety lasted throughout my teens, and I took two overdoses. I didn’t get counselling until I was 22. That’s when I decided what had happened didn’t have to define me and it really helped that I had a sense that justice had been done. Without that, it would have been more difficult to recover.”
Gibi is a Youtuber who has around 3.8 million subscribers for her ASMR focused YouTube channel. She experienced abuse by people using “deepfakes”, a AI-generated image of someone’s likeness.
“My deepfakes have been around ever since I started my YouTube channel. I’ve seen how it has gotten very good so that makes me extremely nervous because I know how fast technology can advance.
When I first saw a deepfake, I was reading about how the computer learns and gets better at matching your face and putting it onto something pornographic. Watching the videos is very surreal — people believe it’s real. The thing that bothers me is I did not consent for my image to be used that way, they are able to do it with no consequences and it feels very violating. I contemplated deleting my channel because I felt very overwhelmed.
It’s something that I just keep working through and I do my best to protect my privacy. Do I ever feel safe? Not really!
I used to keep tabs on the deepfakes until it felt useless, if you let it consume you it’s going to waste your time and that’s not what I want. Sometimes people will email them to me, like “Gibi, somebody made porn of you!” I even saw that somebody was doing commissions, making money off my doctored photos and videos. They’re running this business, profiting off of my face doing something that I didn’t consent to, like my suffering is your livelihood. It made me really mad, but again, there was nothing I could do.
Once, I was approached by a company taking deepfakes off the internet but their prices were exorbitant. Why should I be using my hard earned money to be paying you to privately take down these videos? I think that lawmakers and governments are extremely overwhelmed by the internet so they just let it go. If somebody’s making a deepfake in a different country, my country doesn’t care because there’s nothing they can do.
For me, justice would be not letting them be anonymous anymore. It’s much too easy to make yourself anonymous online where law enforcement doesn’t care enough to put in the effort to find out who’s doing it.
Being a woman on the internet is hard because of the lack of policing, the lack of laws. Putting yourself on the internet means you’re not protected. It’s a choice I wish that I didn’t have to make if I want to continue my career. If somebody asks me about being a YouTuber, it sucks that I have to tell them ‘you need to protect yourself because people will come after you, because this is part of the job.’ And I hate that it’s part of the job, it’s disturbing and it shouldn’t be OK.”
If you are affected by any of the issues in this article you can find support through a number of services internationally. In the US and globally the Cybersmile Foundation provides support and advice for those experiencing any kind of online bullying and abuse, while RAINN in the US has a 24/7 helpline on 800.656.HOPE (4673) for survivors of sexual assault.
If you’re in the UK you can call Childline free on 0800 1111 if you are under 18, or contact Rape Crisis for free support at any age, in Nigeria the Mirabel Centre provides free counselling to sexual assault survivors, and in South Africa the Tears Foundation has a free helpline and support for sexual abuse survivors on 010 590 5920.
Women’s rights are human rights — and they must be promoted and protected. This 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, from Nov. 25 to Dec. 10, we’re asking Global Citizens to join us for our #16Days Challenge, to take a simple action each day that will help you learn more about women’s rights, bodily autonomy, and gender violence online.
You’ll start important conversations with your loved ones, advocate on social media for women’s and girls’ right to their own bodies, support women-owned businesses in your community, sign petitions to support bodily autonomy, and more. Find out more about the #16Days Challenge and start taking action here.