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The great threat to women’s rights online: Reflections from World Press Freedom Day

Web Foundation · May 28, 2019

This post was written by Ingrid Brudvig, Gender Policy Manager, Web Foundation.Follow Ingrid on Twitter @IngridBrudvig.


World Press Freedom Day — celebrated annually on 3 May — is an opportunity to reflect on how the web has influenced journalism, research, knowledge, politics, and civic engagement. This year, in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, the World Wide Web Foundation, together with the Global Diplomacy Lab and the International Alumni Center (Bosch Alumni Network), partnered with UNESCO to convene a Lab on Online Harassment of Women Journalists. The Lab brought together over 40 experts from various fields, including journalism, advocacy, diplomacy, and research. Here’s what we learned.

The inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, designed the web based on principles of openness and universality. But his vision of a space for everyone to use is under threat by a persistent digital gender gap, as well as high incidences of online violence and harassment worldwide, including against particular groups such as female journalists. Online violence is a great threat to women’s rights online and digital equality.

An online culture of misogyny

Women around the world report being bombarded by a culture of misogyny online, including aggressive — often sexualized — hate speech, direct threats of physical violence, stalking, harassment, the spread of false information for the purpose of defamation, and doxxing (the public sharing of private information), among other acts of violence. Online attacks are often centred on gender identities, targeting individuals who are breaking gender stereotypes in political and public life.

Research carried out in 2018 by the International Women’s Media Foundation and Troll Busters found that nearly two thirds of female journalists surveyed said they have experienced online harassment. 40% of respondents said they avoided reporting on certain stories as a result of experiencing such abuse. According to a 2018 report from the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, an estimated 23% of women have experienced online abuse at least once in their life.

State-sponsored attacks on women

Cyber-violence against women is frequently orchestrated by organised groups online, as well as by individuals. It is also increasingly committed by high-level government actors in politically-motivated, state-sponsored abuse. In Brazil, for example, the president initiated an online smear campaign, spreading false information on social media about a journalist who covered a scandal involving his son — a senator who is under investigation for money laundering. In the Philippines, Maria Ressa, the co-founder of online news agency Rappler, has been the target of repeated aggressive online attacks after publishing an exposé on how the president’s supporters spread propaganda on social media channels to drown out opposition.

During the Lab on Online Harassment of Women Journalists, women in media organisations across Africa described how they are subject to misogynistic abuse online when covering a range of political issues, especially related to women’s rights and gender-based violence. They also reported facing internal organisational battles, such as being told by managers that “it’s too expensive” to compensate them equally to their male counterparts, as well as being denied maternity leave and receiving abuse when their work is successful. In Cameroon, a journalist was required to consent to at least two years of “no pregnancy” as a condition of hiring.

A failure to respond to gender-based violence

The Web Foundation’s 2014 Web Index looked at the policy and institutional responses to online gender-based violence across 86 countries. In 74% of countries, law enforcement agencies and the courts are failing to take appropriate actions in cases where digital technologies are used to commit acts of gender-based violence.

The Women’s Rights Online network — a network of women’s digital rights groups across Africa, Asia, and Latin America — has carried out national Digital Gender Gap Audit research in 18 countries, investigating the legal and institutional responses to online gender-based violence. Our research found an overwhelming absence of effective responses. Where mechanisms do exist, police and judicial systems are wholly inept to deal with cases of online gender-based violence — lacking the training, resources, and systems necessary to respond.

In navigating legal and institutional responses, the burden of proof is placed on the victim. The high cost of legal fees, psychological harm in navigating social stigma, and the culture of impunity means that most victims of online abuse do not take any action — often resorting to self-censorship, closing social media accounts, or going offline entirely.    

So where do we go from here?

We must continue to organise across geographies to understand and document how online violence, patriarchal culture, and misogynistic abuse manifests across different contexts and cultures on the internet, as well as build networks of solidarity, respond to immediate threats, and leverage accountability frameworks.

We must also push governments to implement their commitments to international human rights laws applicable to online violence against women and girls, including the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). As the Special Rapporteur for Violence against Women stated in a report presented to the Human Rights Council in 2018, CEDAW legislation is “fully applicable to technology-mediated environments, such as the internet and digital spaces, as settings where contemporary forms of violence against women and girls are frequently committed.”

Governments must strengthen the online rights of citizens by implementing stronger privacy and data protection laws, and uphold their accountability to women’s rights by ensuring that existing laws on gender-based violence are effectively applied to technology-mediated violence.

Critically, governments should commit to train public officials and community leaders to respond to online gender based violence, while providing legal aid to bring such cases forward. Leaders should also invest in large-scale national campaigns on digital citizenship, involving journalists, educators, religious and community networks, women’s groups, and youth activists.

The Web is for everyone — this includes women and girls who make up half the world. Everyone must be able to take part in online spaces — crucial for free expression and public engagement — free from violence, fear, and intimidation. Through our Women’s Rights Online network we are looking into designing programmes to support the policy responses needed to curb online violence and harassment. Government failure to take action will be detrimental not only to women’s participation and rights online, but to the web, society, and digital equality at large.


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