We know that among the brutal consequences of the pandemic is the upsurge of gender-based violence – lockdowns trapped women indoors with their abusers. Those same lockdowns caused spikes in online use, and with it digital violence. It takes on many nefarious forms: non-consensual sharing of intimate images, cyberstalking, online trafficking, sexual harassment and exploitation, hate speech and doxxing (unauthorized publishing of personal information such as addresses and telephone numbers).
The virtual world can feel like a lonely, lawless place, for women and girls in particular. According to a UN report, when women and girls have access to the Internet, they face more online violence than men do. No one is immune, from politicians, journalists and entertainers to girls as young as eight years old.
Yet there are those who think because this is happening on a screen, it’s somehow not real. But even if this borderless, unrelenting violence is perpetrated in cyberspace, the trauma is all too real. Survivors feel fear, panic, anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. It negatively affects their relationships, studies, work and social lives. They may retreat or withdraw completely from the Internet and social media, cutting themselves off from community, education, entertainment and economic opportunities. Sometimes, digital violence moves offline so that women and girls feel their physical safety is threatened. Marginalized groups such as women of colour and LGBTQIA+ people are especially vulnerable.
This International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, UNFPA renews its commitment to end violence everywhere women and girls are, one of its three transformative results. In 2020, UNFPA delivered services to more than 930,000 gender-based violence survivors, from medical care to psychosocial support to legal service referrals to safe spaces to vocational and life-skills training.
There is no distinction between online and offline spaces – it is a fundamental human right of women and girls to feel safe and live free of violence in all spaces. Digital violence and abuse is violence and abuse. And it must end.