Online safety: a driver of gender inequality in internet access
“The gender digital divide is both a consequence and cause of violations of women’s human rights.”
- The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights
Online abuse is a part of gender-based violence (GBV), where information and communications technologies (ICTs) are used for threats of physical and/or sexual violence, unwanted and harassing online communications, or even the encouragement of others to harm women.
According to a recent report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, online abuse can involve a variety of activities, including the dissemination of reputation-harming lies, electronic sabotage in the form of spam and malignant viruses, impersonation of the victim online; as well as many new emerging forms of violence against women with ICT-related names, such as “doxing” and “trolling” and the non-consensual distribution of intimate contents known as “revenge porn.”
A 2014 survey conducted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights found that 23% of women in the EU have experienced online abuse or harassment at least once in their life, and that 1 in 10 women has experienced some form of online violence since the age of 15.
As a result of this increasingly hostile online environment many women self-censor or are driven offline entirely, out of fears for their safety.
Safety and harassment fears and a generalised perception of threats pertaining to the internet, are barriers that not only inhibit women from making the most of their experiences online, but can also deter them from even wanting to access the internet. In addition, the perception of women being more vulnerable to online threats can also result in women’s internet access being heavily policed by gatekeepers or entirely denied.
A 2015 study from the Web Foundation across nine developing countries, shows that overall, 3 in 10 men surveyed, believe that “Men have priority over women when it comes to accessing the internet.” Over half of the men surveyed in New Delhi and Manila also agreed that “Men have the responsibility to restrict what women access on the internet.”
Consistently, a 2017 GSMA study shows that a perception of the dark side of the internet can negatively impact women’s adoption of the internet in South Asia. This perception in combination with social norms, results in women facing more challenges than men to adopt mobile internet, even when they appear to be economically and technically well positioned to begin using it.
Therefore, many women and girls, in different ways and in different contexts, remain unable to access and use the internet. Latest estimates from the ITU suggest that women globally are 12% less likely than men to have internet access, and in least developed countries this gender gap is estimated at 33%.
This situation can hinder women’s and girls’ full enjoyment of their human rights and the promise of gender equality. For example, by precluding access to information (such as sexual and reproductive health), as well as by preventing them from expressing their opinions and voicing their concerns.
However, safety concerns should not be used as an excuse to deny women access. Instead, technology and the internet’s ability to empower women should be emphasised.
Today, the internet is being used in a broader environment of widespread discrimination and systemic structural inequalities which frames women and girls access to and use of the internet and other ICTs. To bridge the gender digital divide all stakeholders need to consider and address online GBV and safety threats at regional and global levels, according to their areas of responsibility and respective strengths.
The EQUALS Access Coalition recognizes that while the internet can give women access to information and life-enhancing services and opportunities, online gender-based violence and safety concerns around the internet are an important driver of gender inequality in access to technologies and the internet.
In commemoration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and as part of our commitment to raise awareness and our work to ensure women and girls can access and use the internet, the members of the EQUALS Access Coalition have developed a repository of useful resources to address women’s safety concerns and bridge the gender digital divide.
Join the conversation in social media to learn more about the different actions our members are taking to reduce the gender gap in internet access and use, and show your support to stop online GBV and the safety threats that continue to prevent many and girls from experiencing the benefits that the internet can offer.
 “Doxing” refers to the publication of private information, such as contact details, on the Internet with malicious intent, usually with the insinuation that the victim is soliciting sex.
 “Trolling” consists in the posting of messages, the uploading of images or videos and the creation of hashtags for the purpose of annoying, provoking or inciting violence against women and girls.
Mariana Lopez is Advocacy Manager at GSMA Connected Women. GSMA is an EQUALS partner and member of our Access Coalition.
Follow Mariana on Twitter: @lopezmarianar
Follow GSMA Mobile for Development: @GSMAm4d