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A Digital Dimension of Abuse

Internet usage increased between 50 and 70 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rates of cyber harassment and digital violence against women rose with it, including body shaming, cyber-flashing (sending unsolicited sexual images online), and doxing (sharing someone’s personal information without consent).

One in 10 women in the European Union reported experiencing cyber-harassment—including receiving an unwanted or offensive sexually explicit email or text message or inappropriate or offensive advances on social networking sites—at least once since the age of 15, according to a United Nations fact sheet. Women between the ages of 18 and 29 have the highest rates of digital abuse. In the United States, two out of every 10 women in this age group said they had been sexually harassed online.

Cyber harassment and digital violence are factors in domestic abuse cases, as well. According to UK charity Women’s Aid, 45 percent of domestic violence victims experienced some form of online abuse during their relationship, and 48 percent reported harassment or abuse online after the relationship ended.

Additionally, research from UN Women found that “The increasing reach of the Internet, the rapid spread of mobile information, and the widespread use of social media, especially since the onset of the COVID-19 [pandemic], and coupled with existing prevalence of violence against women and girls, have most likely further impacted the prevalence rates” of violence facilitated by information and communications technology.

One in 10 women in the European Union reported experiencing cyber-harassment.

Online violence results in higher levels of anxiety, stress disorders, depression, trauma, panic attacks, loss of self-esteem, and a sense of powerlessness to respond to abuse. As a result of experiencing violence online, many women restrict their use of digital services and products to avoid risk or revictimization.

In response to these findings and rising rates of online violence, the Council of Europe’s Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (GREVIO) released in November 2021 its first recommendations on the digital dimension of violence against women.

The document outlines the problem of violence against women committed online and enabled through different technologies, including stalkerware or spouseware tools that can spy on peoples’ private lives through their devices without their knowledge or consent.

“For many years now, women’s and girls’ experiences of gender-based violence against women in these and other settings have been amplified or facilitated by technology, in particular the technology used in online and digital environments,” the GREVIO recommendation said. “Information and communication technology (ICT) has enabled the perpetration of violence against women on a scale previously unknown. The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has further amplified this.”

GREVIO’s recommendations follow the four pillars of the Istanbul Convention—a 2017 Council of Europe Convention on violence against women—prevention, protection, prosecution, and coordinated policies, to identify next steps.

Overall, GREVIO recommends that countries and stakeholders review relevant legislation to take the digital dimension of abuse into account; undertake initiatives to eradicate gender stereotypes and discrimination; and promote the inclusion of digital literacy and online safety at all levels of education (people with lower digital proficiency are more likely to be victims of abuse).

GREVIO also suggested stakeholders make support services and counselling available to all victims; provide training and resources to specialists and telephone hotlines; equip law enforcement with the necessary tools and knowledge to investigate and prosecute online violence; and ensure the publication of incident reports by the criminal justice system. Stakeholders should include the digital dimension of violence against women in national strategies and action plans; establish systems to collect data on these incidents; and ensure data on suicide and gender-based killings contain accurate and relevant information on online harassment.

GREVIO also recommended that Internet providers and intermediaries be incentivized to moderate content and share responsibility to put an end to impunity for digital acts of violence.

As of Security Management’s press time, the recommendations have not been formally followed by any countries.