When the internet opened the door for communities and individuals to connect, discrimination, hate speech, and virtual human rights violations became the uninvited guests.
In 2020, humanitarian organisation Plan International carried out surveys based on online experiences from around the world, hearing from 14,000 girls and young women from across 31 countries.
The results indicated that 58% had experienced online harassment, with half saying they faced more harassment online than in the street. While the report highlights that girls are being targeted online just for being young and female, it adds that it gets worse for women and girls who are politically outspoken, disabled, Black, or identify as LGBTQ+.
And it's pushing women and girls out of online spaces, which are at the same time increasingly important for activism and advocating against inequalities and human rights issues, organising movements, speaking up about personal experiences, and finding a community.
In the past few years, feminists in Africa have used social media to rally against gendered police brutality in Nigeria, advocate for the release of Ugandan activist, Stella Nyanzi, and organise against Kenya's archaic gender laws, among other things.
But their outspokenness has made them a target of several forms of online gender-based violence (GBV), which includes everything from harassment to doxxing — a type of abuse that reveals a person’s private information. About 47% of the respondents in Plan International's study said they had been attacked for sharing their opinions on gender injustices and feminist issues.
"Violence against women across Africa, and the globe, is pervasive, both in offline and online spaces," says Neema Iyer, a women’s safety advisor at Facebook, and the founder of Pollicy, an African civic research organisation. "As women engage further on online platforms to challenge patriarchal norms and inequities, they have and will continue to experience hostilities from both men and women looking to maintain the status quo. However, digital spaces are also extremely empowering in bringing together support networks when women are being dogpiled and attacked."
Iyer’s organization, Pollicy, conducted a study in 2020 on online GBV that surveyed women in large urban cities across Africa, to provide empirical evidence and document the experiences of African women in digital spaces.
"From our study across five countries in Africa, we found that 1 in 3 women had experienced some form of online violence," Iyer said. "More worrying, contrary to the predictions of exponential internet use growth, women were leaving online spaces by deleting their accounts or discontinuing the use of services after negative experiences online."
With the help of Garnett Achieng, a data and digital rights researcher and an expert in online GBV, we've broken down everything you need to know about online gender-based violence.
What Is Online Gender-Based Violence?
Online or technology-facilitated gender-based violence is a form of gender injustice and discrimination that takes place in online spaces. This type of GBV can include stalking, harassment, bullying, and unsolicited pornography, among other actions.
"There are different categories of online GBV," says Achieng. "It could be in the form of insults, trolling, misinformation, and a lot of other things. The most recent type is deepfakes (AI generated fake photos) and like all the other forms, it is used to silence and shame women."
Online GBV is especially dangerous because a lot of online spaces do not have enough rules and regulations to protect women from this type of violence, leading to perpetrators often not facing consequences for their harmful actions.
Some common forms of online GBV include:
- Cyberbullying — bullying with the use of digital technologies.
- Doxxing — revealing or publishing private information about a person online.
- Cyberstalking — the use of the internet to stalk or harass another person.
- Non-consensual pornography — distribution of sexually graphic images without consent.
- Trolling — deliberately upsetting other people by posting inflammatory content
3 Key Facts to Know About Online Gender-Based Violence
- 51% of girls online have reportedly experienced some form of online GBV personally.
- Of these, 85% said they have experienced multiple forms of harassment.
- 39% of girls across major cities in Africa are very concerned about their safety online.
Who Is Most Affected by Online GBV and Why?
As long as you share information on the internet, you are vulnerable to harassment, discrimination, and violence online. Women and girls are often particularly targeted, and especially so if they are politically outspoken, are Black, identify as LGBTQ+, or have a disability.
"Technology intensifies gender-based violence and makes it easier to perpetuate it," says Achieng. “A lot of tech companies defend themselves by saying their online spaces are the same as physical spaces but that's not true. Technology makes it significantly worse."
According to her, because of social media, a woman can be harassed by thousands of people she does not know who would normally not have access to her, which is in fact an everyday occurrence for many outspoken women on social media.
Activists, including those advocating for women's issues and LGBTQ+ issues, are often particularly visciously attacked online, taking its emotional and physical toll on activists and putting further obstacles in the path to equity.
According to Achieng: “Women who talk about women's issues or feminists have strong and often radical ideas on how society should be organised. They are attacked because people don’t believe in these ideas and they are deviating from the norm where women are supposed to be passive, especially about their suffering,” she says.
What Impact Is It Having on People and the Fight Against Extreme Poverty?
Online GBV isolates women and reaffirms patriarchal norms that tend to silence them and limit their freedoms. This in turn extends gender inequality into all spaces, leaving women with few places to turn to for support, virtually or in reality.
"Existing legal frameworks are insufficient to deal with online GBV and there is very little social support, so the easiest thing for most victims is to retreat from online spaces and leave the spaces, which then infringes on your right to expression and your right to access information," Achieng says. "A lot of women are joining closed communities or leaving social media altogether rather than engaging in public because of the fear of attracting violence."
A report by Afrobarometer indicates that women in Africa don't use the internet as much as men do, and in some places, the gap is widening. According to a study by the World Web Foundation, Africa has the widest gender gap in internet connectivity with a continental average of almost 50%, and with women actively leaving the online world, that divide could get even worse.
Who Are the Key Players in Tackling the Issue?
Civic societies are helping to shine a light on online GBV in Africa and around the world, with organisations like Pollicy, Plan International, and Web Foundation actively seeking solutions to the problem and calling on social media platforms to invest in content moderation.
"Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and all these platforms are key players because they have the power to moderate content in online spaces," says Achieng. "For example, Facebook recently made changes to their policy to handle online harassment against public figures better."
Governments also have a responsibility to create better laws to protect women from targeted harassment online and even the playing field for everyone.
What Action Can We All Take?
Perhaps the most obvious solution to all forms of gender-based violence is for all people to stop harassing women and girls, both online and in real-life.
But until that happens, staying informed on the different types of online GBV is essential to taking action, and you can do that by following and supporting social media accounts advocating for the end of this type of violence, including those of Garnett Achieng, Seyi Akiwowo, Hera Hussain.
You can also join Global Citizens around the world in taking action to eliminate gender violence and protect and empower women and girls everywhere. Join us now by taking action here for women and girls.