Remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at 'The Virtual is Real', hosted by UNFPA and Grace Farms Foundation

07 December 2022

Distinguished participants,
Dear colleagues, partners and friends,

I’m delighted to be here at the beautiful Grace Farms, and to be joined by so many who share the same commitment to end digital violence once and for all.

On behalf of UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, I thank you for taking part in this important and timely discussion.

Last month, the world’s population reached 8 billion. At UNFPA, we work around the globe to ensure all 8 billion people, especially the world’s 4 billion women and girls, can exercise their rights and choices and realize their full potential.

Technology can transform lives and create a world of infinite possibilities. It offers women and girls the opportunity to learn, to grow, to share, to connect with peers, and to participate in economic, public and political life.

Yet, technology can also facilitate violence and abuse against them.

Whether it is online on social media platforms, or offline through recording or GPS devices, technology-facilitated gender-based violence can be devastating. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, including in the privacy of your own bedroom.

As the title of this event indicates, the virtual is real. Gender-based violence, in all its forms, is real and it is a human rights violation.

It is a violation of a person’s right to live free from harm, and is yet another patriarchal tool used to silence women and girls, to stop them from enjoying their right to express themselves and be vocal about the issues that matter to them.

Speaking with UNFPA, Vijaita from India described online attacks against her as “organized attempts to shut down the voices of women who are vocal.”

All women and girls have the right to be online and have the right to use technology free from fear and intimidation. We cannot accept another layer of disadvantage and discrimination against women and girls.

Research by The Economist shows that as many as 85 percent of women and girls online have reported witnessing digital violence, and nearly 40 percent have experienced it themselves. Young people are particularly vulnerable to online harassment and abuse: 58 percent of girls have been abused online.

The risk of abuse is multiplied for members of the LGBTQ+ community, activists, women of color, and women with disabilities.

Digital violence can cost women their careers, their health, and even their lives. Yet, when violence and hate is delivered digitally, it is too often dismissed.

A reporter named Nistula told UNFPA that when an anonymous attacker threatened to rape her, she reported the incident to the police. Yet, because the threat was delivered by Twitter, it was met with indifference by the authorities.

This is unacceptable.

Thankfully, calls for action are growing louder. Countries such as the United States, Denmark and Canada, to name just a few, are coming together to prioritize, prevent, and address online violence.

UNFPA welcomes the establishment of a Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse. We are proud to support the Partnership as a member of the Steering Committee and co-convener of the Advisory Group.

We have also launched the bodyright campaign to call for greater protections against digital abuse. We've created a “b” symbol, much like the “c” in copyright, a symbol of empowerment to claim ownership of your image.

As part of our shared efforts to end digital violence, we want to highlight diverse voices and experiences. That is why your presence here today is vital. We need your leadership, your expertise, and your creativity.

There is a proverb: Depend upon one to count to two.

Can women and girls depend on you? Can we depend on each other? I say yes.

Together, let’s stand up for women and girls, and everyone, claiming their fundamental right to live free from violence and to have agency over their bodies and lives, both on and offline.

Thank you.

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