Surviving a double pandemic: Online violence against girls and women

By Nashilongo Gervasius, +SocialGood Connector

Photo by Nino Kojo on Unsplash

In addition to COVID-19, we’ve seen another parallel pandemic: one that is specifically targeting girls and women. Unfortunately, this second pandemic doesn’t follow global health regulations, and is ready to pounce as soon as users log on to the internet. We’re talking about the scourge of online violence against women (OVAW).

In addition to the daily social injustices that women around the world have to face, they also incur more violence online than men do. This online violence includes malicious, humiliating messages, abusive and threatening language, sexual harassment, doxxing, cyberstalking, online trolling, identity theft, social exclusion, discriminatory memes, and the spread of misinformation. This can all take a shattering toll on women’s mental well-being, particularly if they have to cope with the fallout alone.

Organizations such as UN Women report that with increased internet use during lockdown, more girls and women have been the victims of online harassment and violence. This contributes to overall gender-based violence (GBV), which many countries have reported to be on the rise. In one webinar focused on gender-based violence, delegates described how the pandemic had exacerbated the issue, with particularly troubling impacts on girls and women in southern and eastern Africa. A UK helpline reported that its website traffic doubled in late March, with many experiencing a significant increase in the sharing of non-consensual images (also commonly known as “revenge porn”).

OVAW and GBV during the pandemic

Online violence against women and girls has turned the internet into a hostile and toxic environment. The distressing reality of online violence is that it takes place even when the victim has turned off his or her phone, while he or she is sleeping, and when she or he has logged off or even deleted social media accounts. Victims are often afraid to tell others about what is happening to them, and thus live in silence and shame. Sometimes, this leads to self-harm, depression or suicide.

A survey carried out by the Web Foundation showed that 52% of young women and girls (out of 8,109 respondents in 180 countries) have experienced online abuse​, including threating messages, sexual harassment, and the sharing of private images without consent, while 64% of all respondents said they know someone who has experienced harassment​, abuse, or violence.

The case of Namibia

Online violence largely goes unreported in Namibia, and there are many incidents of women and girls being turned away by the police because there is a lack of knowledge on how to file or treat such cases. Unfortunately, this has led to too many cases of women permanently leaving the internet space and losing access to opportunities often available there.

Even before the pandemic, groups such as the Inter Parliamentary Union have called attention to the targeting of women and girls in prominent and political positions through online violence. In Namibia, we have seen how female parliamentarians’ bikini photos have often been used to settle political arguments and policy disputes. They’ve also had their weight scrutinized, in addition to how they dress, and even their hairstyles. We have also seen the dehumanization of female politicians from across a wide array of political parties, with abusers comparing them to donkeys and other animals. The Internet provides abusers with the safety and courage to say anything towards women. The more vile and hateful their comments are, the more that perpetrators are satisfied, while victims are left in emotional and/or physical distress.

In 2019, ahead of the presidential and National Assembly elections, the Internet Society Namibia Chapter and partners brought together over 50 women — including those in political positions — to discuss online violence and harassment. The goal was to empower them and equip them with strategies and tools to combat violence online. In 2020, we continued to see the necessity of such workshops as the country watched in shock while online bullies and misogynists attacked new politician Sade Gawanas’s choice of clothing during her swearing-in ceremony as a councillor for the city of Windhoek.

The online harassment of female politicians reflects the stories we most often see in the public sphere, but these are only the tip of the iceberg. Thousands of girls and women are subject to online harassment, and their cases rarely get public attention due to their fear of stigmatization. Not all women have the same courage and resources to stand up to their abusers and seek justice, especially given the burden of society’s biased expectations on women to be gracious, to be quiet, and to endure through suffering.

What can be done

Research by the Web Foundation indicates that 87% of girls think the problem of online violence is getting worse. There are a few places to start in order to combat this scourge, including:

  • Calling on online platforms to protect user safety: In 2018, Amnesty International called out social media platform Twitter in a scathing report for allowing toxic behavior and abuse to fester on its website for years. To some extent, platforms have indeed enhanced their safety measures, but there is more work to be done. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, some social media platform employees left the work of online safety monitoring to unreliable artificial intelligence tools. For example, Instagram responded to all reports of online abuse with a message along the lines of: “We couldn’t review your report. We have fewer people available to review reports because of the COVID-19 outbreak, so we’re only able to review content with the most potential for harm.” Understandably, this meant nothing to women who were enduring threats of rape and murder during the pandemic.
  • Ensuring that policies protect women: The COVID-19 pandemic has further highlighted the global importance of the internet as a critical lifeline that sustains livelihoods and psycho-social development. However, at the same time, we need to ensure that girls’ and women’s safety is prioritized as well. It’s important that policies aimed at combating gender-based violence recognize internet-based violence as a real danger to women and girls. Efforts must be made to allow women to seek recourse for violence online, especially in the most common cases of the sharing of non-consensual images.
  • Training local stakeholders: The 2020 Internet Society Namibia report recommended training for local police forces and the judiciary to strengthen their response to online-based violence against women. This includes protecting women’s digital rights by ensuring that the drafted data protection law protects data and information of women, as well as running awareness campaigns on the danger and effects of online violence against women online and to ensure that women are #EqualEverywhere.

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