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  • Anastasia Bektimirova

Violence against Women and Girls: what’s tech got to do with it?

On 25 November every year, the international community comes together for a global discussion on one of the most widespread violations of human rights: violence against women and girls. The Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1993, defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence [GBV] that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life”. During the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence; which begin on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women; through 10 December, Human Rights Day, individuals and groups intensify their efforts to raise awareness about one of the most devastating human rights issues of our time.

Eliminating violence against women and girls is crucial for achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment— Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5— as well as for progressing towards attaining other SDGs. Worldwide, one in three women and girls experiences physical, sexual or psychological violence in her lifetime, according to World Health Organization (WHO) estimates. Both a cause and a consequence of gender inequality, violence against women has a severe impact on individuals and communities.

Acts of violence have lasting consequences on their victims, regardless of their age, income or nationality. It may affect a woman’s physical and/or mental health, self-confidence, interpersonal relationships or her willingness to pursue professional goals — all of which can have serious effects on societies, impeding sustainable development.

Gender-based violence at work and at home

Domestic violence remains the top area of concern, with one in five women and girls reporting physical and/or sexual violence from their partners within the last twelve months. Nevertheless, 49 countries still do not have laws in place to prevent domestic abuse. Gender-based violence is not only present at home, but also at the workplace. Observed in various labour sectors — from domestic work and agriculture to journalism, politics and tech — women are vulnerable to violent behaviour. For instance, the World Bank reports that women working on plantations are regularly sexually harassed, as they tend to work in isolation with limited chances of rescue. The International Federation of Journalists reports that one in two female journalists have suffered from sexual harassment, psychological abuse or online trolling. Similarly, the Inter-Parliamentary Union has recorded 85.2 per cent of female parliamentarians in Europe reporting acts of psychological abuse, while 1 in 4 have experienced sexual harassment.

Violence in tech sector

The technology industry has some of the highest rates of sexual assault, with 37 per cent of women in the U.S. alone affected. Cases of GBV frequently occur at technology conferences in particular. According to an Ensono study of 18 major technology conferences in the U.S. and the U.K. over a three-year period, 38 per cent of female attendees have experienced sexual harassment.

The benefits that digital technologies offer should be viewed as a double-edged sword, as the ubiquitous connectivity afforded by online spaces can increase vulnerability to threats such as cyberbullying. The virtual environment of the Internet —social media in particular — makes users vulnerable to cyberbullying, which is largely gender-based. According to a UN Broadband Commission report, 73 per cent of women are abused online worldwide. Furthermore, in a recent study across OECD countries, findings indicate that about 12 per cent of girls aged 15 have experienced cyberbullying, compared to 8 per cent of boys. Cyber violence against women and girls is one of the factors exacerbating gender digital divide. For instance, GSMA reports that harassment is a major barrier to mobile phone ownership and usage for women. The Internet still fails to offer security to everyone – a crucial issue to tackle as we are progressing with the global mission to turn digital tech into effective means of development.

The scale and ubiquity of GBV are truly staggering. Yet, it is preventable through education, raising awareness and collective action on governmental, institutional and individual levels. Everyone can contribute to end GBV in their local communities by taking part in the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, the longest-running campaign for women’s rights in the world, launched in 1991 by the Center for Women’s Global Leadership. Since its inception, over 6,000 organizations in more than 187 countries have participated in the initiative by hosting events, organizing marches, running awareness-raising and informative social media campaigns or by simply encouraging employees and local communities to wear orange, the official colour which symbolises hope, strength and perseverance with its vibrancy.

There are numerous initiatives and organizations around the world that use technology to combat GBV. Helping individuals to get through cyberbullying experience by offering real-time support through online chats, safety apps and wearable tech that act as a rape whistle activated with a press of a button are just some of the many ways in which the manifold affordances of digital tech can be harnessed for tackling GBV, one of the most devastating human rights issues of our time.

About the Author

Anastasia Bektimirova is a Communications Intern at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). She received a Master of Science degree in media and communications with distinction from the London School of Economics and Political Science. Anastasia has a strong interest in the social aspects and impact of ICTs.

Throughout her academic training, Anastasia undertook various roles in a number of cross-disciplinary social scientific studies on the themes ranging from the changing modes of interpersonal, political and government communication in the online context, to the environmental impact of digital technologies. Outside of work and academia, Anastasia is a keen photographer, enjoys traveling and learning foreign languages.

Image credit: UN Women via Flickr

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