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The online crisis facing women and girls threatens global progress on gender equality

Web Foundation · March 12, 2020

Today, as we celebrate the 31st birthday of the web, we look back on all the incredible things it has enabled us to achieve. It has transformed how we communicate, collaborate and create.

We want the web to continue to change the world for the better — and to do so, it must be safe and empowering for everyone.

But with a growing crisis of online abuse and discrimination against women and girls — especially women of colour and those from LGBTQ+ and other marginalised communities — the web simply is not working for women and girls. 

In his annual letter published on the web’s birthday, its inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee warns that this crisis threatens global progress on gender equality.  

Nearly two billion women across the globe can’t access the web at all — depriving them of opportunities to learn, earn and have their voices heard. For those who can, the web just isn’t safe enough. 

Our new research, in partnership with the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts, reveals that half of young women and girls in the global survey have experienced online abuse, including threatening messages, sexual harassment and the sharing of private photos and videos without permission. 87% of young women surveyed think the problem is getting worse.

Graphic showing online abuse statistics: 52% of young women have experienced online abuse; 87% of young women think the problem is getting worse.

Online abuse can take many forms and can include actions like bullying, stalking, sexual harassment, or the sharing of intimate images without permission. Among the young women we surveyed, sharing of private images and videos was the top concern, followed by sexual harassment. In both cases, young women were more concerned about these particular actions than young men.

Graphic showing online abuse statistic: 35% of young women are most concerned about the sharing of private images and videos without permission; 21% of young women are most concered about sexual harassment.

No matter the form it takes, online abuse can have a devastating impact. We are seeing it force women — including journalists and politicians — out of jobs. It silences women and girls, depriving us all of their leadership and ideas. It damages relationships and causes tremendous distress.  

In our research, over half of the young women surveyed who experienced online abuse say it has affected their emotional or physical wellbeing, or both. 28% said it affected their wellbeing, with a further 31% answering all of the above to options that included impacting confidence using the internet, feeling less able to achieve ambitions and affecting relationships.

Graphic showing online abuse statistics: 59% of young women said online abuse has affected their physical or emotional wellbeing, or both

2020 must be the year we tackle this widespread abuse and harassment.

As we look back on 31 years of the web, we also look back on the 25 years since 189 countries came together in Beijing to craft an ambitious global plan to empower women. And we look ahead to the ten years left until we hit the global deadline to achieve gender equality

This year is poised to be a critical year for global action to tackle online gender inequality. 

To seize this opportunity, the Web Foundation will today host the first in series of consultations that will bring together global tech companies and civil society organisations to develop bold new policy and product solutions to keep women safe online.   

The consultations are inspired by the principle of “gender equality by design.” In order for apps and other tech services to work for women, they must be informed by data about women and input from women of all backgrounds. Companies must understand — and design for — the diverse needs of their customers. 

In his letter, Sir Tim calls on us all — men and women alike — to channel “an ambitious, collaborative spirit” to tackle the online crisis facing women and girls.

The web has the potential to be a tremendous force for equality and democracy. We can’t let the crisis of online abuse and discrimination undermine this promise. It’s up to all of us to make the web work for everyone.

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