Five reasons why: Women and girls must have equal rights in our digital world

Illustration courtesy of Sofie Birkin for UNFPA.
  • 08 March 2023

UNITED NATIONS, New YorkInternational Women’s Day is an occasion for people around the world to celebrate the contributions of women and girls to all aspects of human progress. But it is also an opportunity to highlight the discrimination women still face, every day – a reminder of the barriers that block their paths to the influential roles and leadership potential they have every entitlement to.

Today, this is especially true in the digital realm.

“The digital divide is often portrayed as a matter of women’s and girls’ disinclination towards tech. That is not the case,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “The exclusion of women and girls in technology is perpetuated through violence and discrimination. And it is shrinking their futures and deepening gender, economic and social inequalities.”

This week, world leaders are convening at the United Nations Headquarters in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women, and at the top of their agenda is the role of women and girls in the tech field. UNFPA will also be launching new safety and ethical guidelines that will both improve women’s representation in tech development and help to make digital spaces less dangerous for women and girls as users.

Below are five crucial reasons why leaders must ensure that women and girls are afforded the space and safety to be equal creators of our shared digital experience.

1. Gender-based violence is as rife in the virtual as the real world

An illustration of Volimpia Coral Melo Cruz.
© Sofie Birkin for UNFPA

Violence in digital spaces is rampant, with women and girls being disproportionately attacked. Digital violence is often sexual in nature, and its consequences frequently spill over into the real world. Yet it is seldom regarded with the gravity it deserves. 

Olimpia Coral Melo Cruz knows this firsthand: As a teenager in the Mexican city of Puebla, she recorded an intimate home video with her boyfriend, at his request. “I felt it would help us so that he might not seek other women,” she told UNFPA. “I did not understand many things about romantic love that I understand now.” Her boyfriend betrayed her, posting the private video on social media. Soon it spread to dozens of pornography sites, and she was inundated with sexual messages from strange men. Her life spiralled into darkness. “I stopped going to school, avoiding many things because I was very embarrassed. Your naked body became public without your permission, but people blame you because you let yourself be recorded.” 

Her mother encouraged her to become an advocate for change – but it was an uphill battle. “When you say, ‘I suffered digital violence,’ people laugh at you. Commenters even made memes of us, saying: ‘Are you going to place me in a virtual jail?’” But Ms. Melo Cruz’s voice carried farther than those of her detractors: In April 2021, Mexico passed Olimpia’s Law, which federally prohibits the sharing of sexual content without the subject’s permission. Violations of the law are punishable by up to six years in prison. “We have the right to be safe in digital spaces,” said Olimpia. “We have to build an Internet that above all protects our security and respects our human rights.”

2. Digital tools are not created with vulnerable users in mind, and are all too easily weaponized against women

Almost 60 per cent of women and girls have experienced gender-based violence that was facilitated by the power of technology. These attacks range from verbal abuse to stalking, to threats and acts of sexual and physical violence. Much of this is down to the design of tech tools that fail to take gender concerns – or the pervasive violence that women face in their everyday lives – into account. 

“We need to make sure that everybody's on the same page in understanding the benefits and also the risks,” explained Stephanie Mikkelson, a UNFPA gender and technology expert. “The origins of the cybersecurity field were not meant to protect people – they were meant to protect company assets,” Ms. Mikkelson said. “The threat modelling doesn’t necessarily consider individuals. Add to that the layer of being a woman... It often just doesn’t even cross their minds. When we look at gender-based violence, a majority is by intimate partners. That’s beyond the developers’ expertise. ‘Don’t share your password with your husband,’ they would say.” 

The result: Products that facilitate abusive behaviour, however inadvertently. “Take this headset that I’m wearing right now,” Ms. Mikkelson noted. “It has location tracking. We’ve seen stalkers intentionally drop an earbud into their ex’s car to track their location… A car with a pre-set perimeter limit can prevent a woman from fleeing. Abusers can use internet-enabled devices like coffee makers and thermostats and cameras to control people and exert power over them.”

The new guidance, produced in consultation with tech experts, UN agency partners, nongovernmental organizations and many others, aims to bridge the gap between advocates to end gender-based violence and those developing new technology. For example, it calls for the inclusion of women and girls at every stage of development. “We're talking about technology designers, we're talking about the coders, the cybersecurity experts, even the funders of these projects,” Ms. Mikkelson said. 

3. Without women’s voices and experiences, innovative digital “solutions” will continue to perpetuate vulnerabilities

Ms. Mikkelson also noted that many apps and programmes designed to help at-risk groups may actually exacerbate their vulnerability. “Even the best-intended actors can do just as much harm as the maliciously-intended actors,” she said. 

Practitioners against gender-based violence are working with many developers seeking to create tools to help survivors, like digital ‘panic buttons’ to alert the police. But such programmes can create new risks: For example, what happens to the woman who resorts to a panic button but whose perpetrator works with the police? “Who exactly has access to all of this information? What does consent look like?” 

One of the biggest problems is the safe and ethical collection and use of data, which for more than 15 years UNFPA has been spearheading efforts on. “This guidance asks us to make sure we are collecting the right kinds of data, only data that is absolutely necessary, and that we have a plan for protecting and storing it,”  Ms. Mikkelson added.

Data can also make people targets, not only of abusive intimate partners but also of those motivated by hate and discrimination. “When you think about data on users accessing abortion information, when you think about users from the LGBTQI+ community, it’s very easy to see where this can be extremely dangerous.”

4. The costs of excluding women and girls from tech development and decision-making are ruinous

An illustration of Norma Buster.
© Sofie Birkin for UNFPA

Digital violence reinforces the existing gender divide: Of the 2.7 billion people who are not connected to the Internet, the majority are women and girls. Survivors of violence censor their online lives to protect themselves, even as they lose contacts and job opportunities. People subjected to cyber attacks often wind up paying legal and health-care fees, relocation costs and services to remove personal information from online spaces. 

For Norma Buster, these were only part of the price she paid when her ex-boyfriend posted her intimate photos on the Internet and gave her contact details to complete strangers. “I was in a mental prison for months. I have post-traumatic stress disorder,” Ms. Buster said. Today, she is director of client relations at a prominent law firm helping survivors of sexual, domestic and tech-facilitated abuse seek justice. “For victims of these crimes, the offender is usually trying to shame them into silence.”

When women are silenced or engage in self-censorship as a coping mechanism, the world is denied their insights and creativity. Digital spaces then become less hospitable to other women and girls. It is a cycle of discrimination and exclusion, one that is “shrinking their futures and deepening gender, economic and social inequities,” Dr. Kanem said. “Women and girls are shapers of an equal future. The more they are included in the creation of technology, the less vulnerable they will be – and the more all of society will benefit.”

5. Gender equality in tech will promote gender equality in all areas of our lives and futures

An illustration of Mariam Torosyan.
© Sofie Birkin for UNFPA

One of the benefits of including women in tech is the innovation they can produce based on their own experiences of the world. 

Mariam Torosyan, from Armenia, experienced this firsthand. When she was pregnant with her daughter, an elderly woman approached her and said not to worry – the second child would be a boy. The interaction made her reflect on all the ways that the lives of women and girls are steeped in gender inequality. “In a patriarchal society like mine, girls are undervalued, even before their birth,” she said. “That’s why I decided to focus my efforts on enhancing the status and role of girls and women in my society.”

Ms. Torosyan, who has a background in law and helping survivors of violence, turned to tech to bring women and girls together. She created spaces for peer networking where they could share their challenges with sexism and support one another to find solutions. 

She says she is inspired by the survivor communities she has created. “We should never underestimate the capacity for self-care and self-help from communities.” 

Imagine, she said, a world in which the creativity of women and girls is unleashed in digital development: “We are living in a world where we are empowered by technology. It is the first time in human history that we have so many resources that we can use.” 

On this International Women’s Day, the world – and particularly governments and big tech gatekeepers – must recommit to act against misogyny wherever it surfaces, against gender-based violence of whichever form, against a gender bias so entrenched it is threatening to leave women and girls behind in the virtual as well as the very real world.

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