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It’s estimated that 1 in 3 women have been subjected to intimate partner violence, non-partner sexual violence or both at least once in their life. Gender based violence is one of the most pervasive human rights violations in the world. And online gender based violence is an extension of that harsh reality.

As our world is increasingly connected to the internet, perpetrators of gender based violence are increasingly using online platforms and spaces. From cyberstalking to doxxing, online violence is real and widespread.

Through the Rising Minds podcast, young people shape conversations on the issues that impact their wellbeing. In several of the podcast episodes, young people discuss online gender based violence, harassment and digital rights for women and girls. This post summarises the main points from two episodes of the Rising Minds podcast, that you can listen to below.

What is Online Gender Based Violence?

Rowella or Owe (oh-wee) is a gender and digital rights activist from the Philippines. In the Rising Minds podcast, Owe, continues to define some of the forms of online gender based violence.

  • Sexual Online Harassment: This involves online harassment of a sexual nature, such as inappropriate comments or messages.
  • Sextortion: Sextortion refers to the coercion of someone by threatening to reveal private or sensitive information, often of a sexual nature.
  • Cyberstalking: Cyberstalking involves the persistent and unwanted attention, monitoring, or harassment of an individual through online channels.
  • Cyberbullying: Cyberbullying encompasses various forms of bullying carried out through digital platforms, including spreading rumors, sharing hurtful content, or engaging in threatening behavior.
  • Non-consensual Sharing of Intimate Images: This form involves the unauthorized sharing or distribution of intimate images without the consent of the individuals depicted.

Owe Marri Berizo speaks on the Rising Minds podcast. Photo credit: Fondation Botnar.

“There are so many occurrences online that are actually classified as online gender-based violence, but are often disregarded. Because we are more familiar with gender-based violence that happens offline, in our streets, but the difference is this happens online.”

– Owe Marri Berizo

In another episode, fellows of the Safe Sisters programme discuss forms of online violence as well, including bullying and harassment. The conversations cover the real impacts of online gender based violence, that go beyond the digital sphere.

Cyberbullying can have significant mental and emotional consequences on victims.

The speakers share personal experiences of insults, attacks, and trauma leading to feelings of distress and mental health issues.

“I had a personal experience where I was accepted into a certain fellowship… And the whole day, people were sending insults into my inbox on Twitter… So it affected me mentally.”

– Viola Kataike, Safe Sisters fellow, Uganda

The effects of online harassment and violence can lead to disengagement from online spaces – temporarily or permanently. The podcast speakers mention instances where they went off social media for a period to protect their mental well-being.

Incidents of online violence can lead to traumatization and psychological harm, especially when personal information is exposed or when individuals feel invaded. The violation of privacy online can have lasting effects on victims. Online violence, when left unaddressed, can escalate to threats against personal safety. The podcast speakers discuss the potential for cyberbullying to transition from online spaces to offline harm, highlighting the interconnectedness of digital and physical safety.

Challenges for Activists and Advocates Online

Social media platforms play a crucial role in advocacy work, providing an open space for expressing ideas, sharing information, and reaching a global audience. Yet, activists and individuals engaged in advocacy work may face challenges in expressing themselves freely online due to fear of online harassment or violence. This limitation can impact the effectiveness of their advocacy efforts and impeded their freedom of speech and personal safety.

The emotional toll and fear associated with online violence can hinder individuals from actively participating in spaces where decisions are made.

In order to allow for freedom of expression online, online gender based violence needs to be addressed and digital rights strengthened.

Safe Sisters fellows discuss a broader impact, noting that the neglect of African youth voices in decision-making processes contributes to the perpetuation of online violence. Ignoring the ideas and perspectives of young people can hinder progress in addressing digital rights issues.

Main Challenges in Addressing Online Gender Based Violence

Several challenges highlight the complex nature of addressing online gender-based violence, necessitating a multi-faceted and culturally sensitive approach. In the conversations in the two Rising Minds episodes, these are challenges that were discussed.

1. Sensitivity of the Topic

Addressing online gender-based violence is challenging due to the sensitivity of the topic. Approaching it without causing further harm to trauma victims is crucial.

2. Cultural Norms and Victim Blaming

Cultural norms and patriarchal attitudes contribute to challenges in addressing online gender-based violence. Victim blaming is prevalent, and societal expectations may hinder victims from speaking out. Individuals, especially women, who experience online harassment may face blame rather than support.

3. Lack of Understanding and Awareness

There is a general lack of understanding and awareness about the different forms of online gender-based violence. The public, including journalists, may not fully grasp the various manifestations of such violence.

Media reporting on online gender-based violence can be problematic. This may include journalists not having a comprehensive understanding of the different forms of violence, leading to oversimplification and misrepresentation.

Sometimes individuals who have experienced cyber harassment face challenges in finding support. There may be a lack of understanding from others, and victims may feel neglected or ignored by society.

4. Lack of Youth Engagement, Discrimination and Language Barriers

The language used in addressing online gender-based violence can be a barrier. NGO language is often perceived as too serious, and there is a need for communication that resonates with young people, using terms and lingo they understand.

Viola highlights that digital rights, especially for marginalized communities like women and refugees, are often ignored or not fully expressed in Uganda. This limitation affects their access to information and exploration of online spaces.

There is a perception that young people, especially in African countries, are often neglected in decision-making processes. The Safe Sisters fellows note that youth are not always invited to the table during policy reviews and police operations related to digital spaces.

5. Digital Surveillance

In specific regions, digital surveillance is a significant challenge. Activists, especially those advocating for digital rights, may face surveillance, impacting their ability to address online gender-based violence.

6. Fear of Reprisals or Trauma

Victims may fear reprisals or suffer from trauma if they speak out about their experiences, leading to underreporting and a lack of acknowledgment of the extent of the problem.

7. Internet Shutdowns, Contradictory Legislation and Restrictions

In some regions, internet shutdowns during election seasons contribute to challenges in maintaining safe online spaces and preventing the spread of disinformation.

In the case of Zimbabwe, the Safe Sisters fellow mentions the existence of contradictory legislation regarding digital rights. Laws from different years create confusion and potential legal challenges for individuals, particularly artists and journalists.

The introduction of new bills, such as the Patriotic Bill in Zimbabwe, is noted to infringe on freedom of expression, particularly for artists and journalists. This limitation on expression is viewed as a way to stifle critical voices during political seasons.

Three Initiatives Strengthening Digital Rights

Throughout the podcast episodes, you’re introduced to initiatives working to address online gender based violence.

Rights Click aims to ensure that the internet and digital technologies respect the rights, health, and well-being of young people. It is a joint program by Amnesty International and Fondation Botnar.

Ayaw Ko Pagyawaan is a campaign that addresses online gender-based violence in the Philippines. They highlight the challenges faced, such as the sensitivity of the topic and the need to use language that resonates with young people. The campaign works to create awareness and fostering a safer online space for young Filipinos.

Safe Sisters is a fellowship program for women human rights defenders, journalists, media workers, and activists. The program focuses on training participants to understand and respond to digital security challenges they face.

“Because now I understand how physical safety and institutional safety play a big role in my life. And so I’m able to actually teach right now younger people and women within my community how to access the Internet safely in a safe manner.”

Safe Sisters Fellow, Zimbabwe
The Rising Minds Radio Station at the Women Deliver 2023 conference. Photo Credit: Fondation Botnar.

Do not let anybody silence you.

“Everything that you do right now, pushing forward for your rights, gender rights, your right for education, free speech, freedom of expression, continue doing it.”

– Owe

The conversations in the Rising Minds podcast episodes below include several messages of encouragement. From continuing to advocate for their rights to the importance of joining global movements to create positive change in the digital space.

“Don’t hesitate to block. Don’t hesitate to delete the numbers. And oh, don’t hesitate to report. You can report to different parties. We have the security policies. You can hear everywhere, even if it’s Apple, ISO, you have to report.”

– Viola Kataike

First launched as a pop-up radio show at the Women Deliver 2023 conference by Fondation Botnar, all Rising Minds episodes are now published as a resource available for all to access. Find out more here. And follow the series with Girls Globe that takes a closer look at the issues and perspectives raised by young people around the world. Subscribe here.

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