Online sexual and gender-based abuse often goes unreported but incidents are on the rise globally and advocates warn current laws aren’t enough to keep users safe.

Women and girls are especially vulnerable online and are at risk of doxxing, cyberstalking, threats, revenge porn, trafficking, and more forms of exploitation every time they open a computer or mobile phone. 

The women’s rights organization Equality Now released a report this month calling for the end of sexual exploitation and abuse of women and girls online through increased regulations and accountability from governments and digital service providers. 

Online violence is an extension of the gender-based violence women and girls experience in the real world, explained Tsitsi Matekaire, global lead on Equality Now’s End Sexual Exploitation program and one of the lead authors of the organization’s latest report.

“The root causes are still the same — discrimination, sexism, and misogyny — which is then extended and amplified on the internet,” Matekaire said. “While it is important for women to think about the measures that they can take, we need to look at it more from what is driving it. It's really perpetrators who are abusing their power.”

Online perpetrators are hiding behind anonymity and can exploit women and girls anywhere regardless of their location, she added.

Matekaire wants to turn the focus to be on closing loopholes online that make abuse possible, which includes Internet platforms having clear community standards, ensuring abusive material isn’t published on their sites, maintaining clear protocols for removing and restricting resharing of exploitative materials, and shifting the responsibility from victims to community reporting if abuse occurs.

While preventing online abuse starts with addressing the root causes of gender-based violence, here are five additional steps women and girls can take to protect themselves online.

1. Take Steps to Browse Safely and Maintain Anonymity. 

Websites collect personal data and activity online but there are a few ways to prevent how much information is collected and shared by potential abusers online.

The organization European Digital Rights (EDRi) advises women to download a browser add-on like HTTPS Everywhere that notifies websites to use encryption when available. What’s more, installing the browser add-ons Privacy Badger and Ublock Origin can help block unwanted trackers. Using a Virtual Private Network can also increase anonymity and protect online identities by encrypting internet traffic on unsecured networks.

EDRi suggests only providing personal information that’s absolutely necessary and using fake details like an address or birthday to prevent having data compromised. 

2. Remember to Secure Privacy.

Strong passwords are one of the easiest ways to protect against hackers, according to the organization Safe Sisters. Password managers like 1Password can create unique passwords and store passwords in an encrypted space. Making sure to use different passwords for accounts is key to preventing a data breach. Downloading apps from authentication platforms and using two-factor authentication also help maintain privacy. 

Remembering to log out of all accounts, not using public Wi-Fi for sharing sensitive information like online bank details, and using antivirus software are other options for promoting security.

3. Check to See How Much of Your Personal Information Is Available Online.

Safe Sisters recommends Googling yourself to see how much personal data is out there. A quick search can help you consider if you’d be comfortable with how much information someone would be able to gather about you, and you can adjust privacy settings on accounts accordingly.

4. Be Mindful of What You Share Online.

Safe Sisters wants women to remember that what they post might stay online forever and could harm them in the future. Take precautions like not disclosing personal information including addresses, telephone numbers, or names of schools/workplaces. 

If you choose to share explicit photos, EDRi suggests keeping in mind that they could be used for harassment like doxxing or revenge porn. Obtaining consent, using encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal that don’t make your messages available to third parties, and turning off cloud sharing are a few ways to practice safer sexting. 

5. Utilize Safety Tools While Gaming.

Online gaming can be a hostile environment but taking advantage of a few resources can make it more enjoyable, according to EDRi. 

Using reporting systems within games, muting players if chat functions are available, not using a real name or photo that identifies gender, and not revealing personal details can increase safety.

Global Citizen Life

Demand Equity

5 Tips to Help Women & Girls Stay Safe Online

By Leah Rodriguez