UN report highlights growing online violence against women and girls, related research

Thu 08 Dec 2022

The UN report examines new developments, gaps and trends in preventing and responding to violence against women, with a specific focus on violence against women and girls in digital contexts. UN Women has also published a brief on tackling online violence against women and girls.

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UN report on violence against women and girls in digital contexts

The United Nations Secretary-General published a report for the 77th session of the UN General Assembly.

The report, Intensification of efforts to eliminate all forms of violence against women A/77/302 (2022), focuses on "...the urgent need to address violence against women and girls in digital contexts" and the broader work to eliminate violence against women in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report states that:

"...The coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic exemplified how crises exacerbate the drivers of violence against women and create barriers to accessing essential services as resources are diverted to respond to the emergency. The pandemic exposed pre-existing gaps in responses to survivors and stalled progress in prevention."

Specifically, it states that violence against women and girls in digital contexts escalated, noting that:

"As lives shifted online for work, school, access to services and social activities, reports emerged of a surge in violence against women and girls in digital contexts."

Key points from the report in the overview of online violence include:

  • There are many forms of violence against women in digital contexts which spans sexual harassment, intimate partner and domestic violence, trafficking and more. This violence "...often occurs as part of a continuum that is connected to offline violence."
  • There is no internationally agreed definition of violence against women in digital contexts (the report highlights the definition from the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women in her report on online violence against women and girls, A/HRC/38/47).
  • New forms and patterns of online violence continue to evolve as technology evolves and these "... continue to multiply in a context of rapidly expanding digitalization, accelerated by the pandemic."
  • New forms of violence have been made worse by the growth of artificial intelligence, and increasing numbers of extremist groups and incels engaging in online harassment.
  • Studies show that online violence against women and girls often precedes offline violence against women and girls.
  • Prevalence is hard to measure with no agreed international definition nor method of measurement. The report cites a global study and country specific studies that indicate more than 30% of women personally experience online violence.
  • Young women and girls are at increased risk for being targeted with online violence. While men are also victims, the gender differences for online violence are similar to those as violence in the physical world with women and girls more likely to experience gendered violence.
  • Ethnic women, indigenous women, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women, and women with disabilities are at greater risk for experiencing online violence.
  • Online violence causes significant harm and impacts on women's participation in public life.

In discussing the drivers, the report states:

"Although the patterns and forms of violence against women in digital spaces can be unique, they are part of the continuum of multiple, recurring and interrelated forms of violence across online and offline spaces. Many forms of violence occurring offline are replicated and intensified in digital spaces. Digital spaces reflect, reinforce and exacerbate systemic structural gender inequality, deep-seated cultural and social norms as well as patterns of harmful masculinities that drive all forms of violence against women.

The report identifies several areas where change is needed. It highlights that current laws do not have clear and consistent definitions, and have not kept pace with technology and different forms of online violence. It further states that "Even when laws are in place, law enforcement personnel often do not treat online violence as seriously as physical violence and lack the skills and capability to identify and respond appropriately to such violence." Self-regulation and voluntary measures for technology providers have issues with weak enforcement and lack of sanctions, accountability and independent oversight.

The report identifies and outlines action needed to drive change in 4 areas:

  • Consistent laws, regulatory frameworks and effective implementation
  • Responsibility of technology intermediaries to prevent and respond
  • Improving data and transparency
  • Developing partnerships between governments, technology providers and women’s rights organisations.

Within these areas the report calls for systems that "...ensure safe and accessible reporting pathways, support and responses for women who experience violence and abuse."

The report highlights that state obligations to protect human rights have been clearly outlined in the UN Special Rapporteur's report on online violence against women and girls, A/HRC/38/47. The report further notes that rights of digital users have been used to challenge human rights protections and states:

"Nevertheless, the right to freedom of expression cannot be invoked to justify language or other forms of expression designed to incite discrimination, hostility or violence, including online violence against women and girls."

The report concludes with 7 broad recommendations for states and technology intermediaries, and it also notes that the upcoming 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women provides an opportunity for strengthening normative frameworks to address violence against women and girls in digital contexts.

UN Women published the policy brief Accelerating efforts to tackle online and technology-facilitated violence against women and girls (2022). The brief summarises global data and research about online violence. It also highlights examples from other countries and concludes with a more detailed list of recommendations for the UN system, states and the technology sector.

Update: UN Women published several documents related to technology facilitated violence against women including:

Technology-facilitated violence against women: Taking stock of evidence and data collection (2023)

Brief: The state of evidence and data collection on technology-facilitated violence against women (2023)

Expert Group Meeting report: Technology-facilitated violence against women: Towards a common definition (2023)

Recent research from Aotearoa and Australia

Researchers interviewed 25 victim-survivors in Aotearoa New Zealand about their experiences of image-based sexual abuse. The participants, mostly women, described a range of experiences of image-based abuse with 68% of participants reporting the perpetrator was a partner or former partner, and for 52% of participants, there was a pattern of abuse and controlling behaviours. Few participants reported the abuse to police and some victim-survivors talked about receiving hostile and negative reactions after they disclosed their experiences to friends, family and others. The authors examined the limitations of the Harmful Digital Communications Act for addressing the experiences of the victim-survivors, noting "...the inadequacies of the legal framework for responding to the diverse experiences of image-based sexual abuse." Victim-survivors also identified a range of desired justice outcomes and responses, but all agreed on the "...importance of justice, redress and support – through formal justice avenues, such as police, or civil or criminal proceedings, as well as through more informal support avenues such as victim advocacy services or family, whānau, friends, workplaces or schools." The findings from the research were published in the article ‘Devastating, like it broke me’: Responding to image-based sexual abuse in Aotearoa New Zealand (2022) published in the Criminology & Criminal Justice journal. The research was part of a larger study about the experiences of victim-survivors of image-based abuse in Australia, New Zealand and the UK.

Researchers in Australia have published findings from their first nationally representative survey of the prevalence, nature and harms of technology-facilitated abuse. The study surveyed 4,562 adults in Australia and included interviews with 20 adult victim-survivors and 10 perpetrators. The study found that half of Australians will experience technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetime. Reports, factsheets and a recorded presentation highlight the findings from the Technology-facilitated abuse: Extent, nature and responses in the Australian community project. Also see the brief article, Half of Australians will experience technology-facilitated abuse in their lifetimes: new research (2022), from media outlet The Conversation.

The Australian Institute of Criminology published, Image-based abuse: Gender differences in bystander experiences and responses (2022), a brief summary of findings from a survey of 245 Australian adults about their experiences of witnessing image-based abuse as a bystander.

Related international news

The Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women (EDVAW Platform) has also recently published a thematic paper on the digital dimension of violence against women. This thematic paper was adopted by the EDVAW Platform at its 14th meeting held online on 17 November 2022, under the presidency of the Council of Europe Expert Group on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO). It gives an overview of the nature, scale and impacts of online and technology-facilitated violence against women. It also looks at related international mandates, and approaches, promising practices and challenges in addressing the digital dimension of violence against women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) published the report What works to prevent online violence against children (2022). The report presents ways to address the keeping children safe online with a focus on 2 forms of online violence: child sexual abuse including grooming and sexual image abuse and cyber aggression and harassment in the form of cyberbullying, cyberstalking, hacking and identity theft. For more information see WHO infographics about online violence against children and the WHO factsheet violence against children.

The UN Working Group on discrimination against women and girls published the report Girls’ and young women’s activism - Report of the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls, A/HRC/50/25 (2022). As part of this work, the Working Group created an interactive website that draws on the report focused on Making sure girls and young women are always heard.

Related media

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Māori tech solutions are key to helping those scammed online, Te Ao Māori News, 01.11.2023

Indigenous women share racist online experiences at conference, Te Karere TVNZ, 29.10.2023

Amokura Panoho | Member of Te Pūkotahitanga, Waatea News, 25.10.2023

'Rampant' increase of digital harm on indigenous women, conference told, Stuff, 25.10.2023

The harsh and unregulated reality of online safety for indigenous women, NZ Herald, 25.10.2023

Women’s Refuge applauds ruling giving victim of revenge porn support from ACC, Women's Refuge Media release, 03.05.2023

One woman’s years-long struggle for recognition of the harm 'revenge porn' caused her, RNZ, 03.05.2023

Internet scam: Bay of Plenty police warn never to send intimate pictures after teenagers blackmailed, Bay of Plenty Times, 17.04.2023

Abuse warning from Davis as women step up, Waatea News, 24.01.2023

Bright Sky NZ: How apps could help address our family violence problem, The Spinoff, 23.01.2023

Calls to ban violent offenders from dating apps in Australia, One News, 23.01.2023

Explainer: Is social media making people meaner or just bringing out what's always been there?, Newshub, 02.01.2023

Scope of revenge porn law too narrow, no care offered to victims - advocate, RNZ, 09.12.2022

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Joint Statement Through the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse on Standing with the Women and Girls of Iran, NZ Foreign Affairs & Trade release, 09.12.2022

Leaders push back against sexist, racist abuse online, Newsroom, 06.12.2022

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Inaction over 'slaughter Māori' video sparks apology, overhaul at InternetNZ, Te Ao Māori News, 24.11.2022

Internet NZ apologises to Māori after fallout over racist video, Stuff, 23.11.2022

Disinformation should be regulated, but not outlawed - Human Rights Commission, NZ Herald, 22.11.2022

Experts concerned over the rise of deepfake technology, Newshub, 29.10.2022

Pūkenga Ā-Ipurangi Aotearoa – Cyber Skills Aotearoa Launches To Keep Young People Secure Online, Press Release: Cyber Skills Aotearoa, Scoop, 27.10.2022

Community Partnerships To Boost Digital Skills For Those Most In Need, Press Release: BNZ, Scoop, 19.10.2022

New Safety Booklet Launched to Combat Technology-Facilitated Abuse in Domestic Violence, Safe Ireland press release, 05.10.2022

NZ Security Intelligence Service investigated threat posed by incels - 'involuntary' celibate men, NZ Herald, 23.10.2022

Jacinda Ardern and Emmanuel Macron pledge to tackle algorithms driving people to extremism, NZ Herald, 21.09.2022

The Christchurch Call explained, Stuff, 21.09.2022

Christchurch Call: Jacinda Ardern announces new research into algorithms to create a 'secure internet', Stuff, 21.09.2022

Realising the potential of the Christchurch Call, InternetNZ media release, 21.09.2022

‘Digilantism,’ ‘hackbacks’ and mutual aid are used by online activists to fight trolls, The Conversation, 23.08.2022

Unsolicited explicit photos to teens form of abuse, say researchers, Stuff, 19.06.2022

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