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We need a safer online world for women and girls

Web Foundation · April 9, 2020

This blog was written by Sophie Nelson. Sophie is one of the 2020 World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts Advocacy Champions.

“Dumb”, “Fat”, “Die”. These are just some of the abusive terms that many of us can expect to see as women in the online world. In his letter, Sir Tim Berners-Lee has outlined the “dangerous trend” in online abuse that girls and women are facing, and recent reports conclude that girls are more likely than boys to have a negative experience online. The World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts revealed over half of young women have experienced online abuse. So why is this happening, and more importantly, why are we tolerating abuse in the online world that we would never dream of tolerating in the offline world?

On 12th March the Web Foundation hosted a consultation to answer questions like these, with global tech companies and civil society organisations. The discussion centred around how online gender-based violence limits women’s potential and their desire to participate. For many women, an online presence is pivotal to the shaping of their career, yet online abuse reduces participation, creates a silencing effect and, in some cases, results in women stepping down from their career. Particularly, if we want to know why more women are not politically engaged, we must consider the vital role the media has in demeaning and degrading their efforts.

#BurnDianneAbbott was just one of the twitter trends that UK Labour MP Dianne Abbott has been subject to. UK Conservative MP Nicky Morgan has been told her “days were numbered” on twitter, and former presidential candidate Hilary Clinton has been attacked online for being “corrupt” and “dumb”. This is only scratching the surface. Women face a staggering level of abuse – every 30 seconds on Twitter, according to Amnesty International. Not only is it gendered, but the intersectionality of the abuse is alarming; black women are 84% more likely than white women to face abusive or problematic tweets. 

We can turn to the existing structures of patriarchy to explain why women are more at risk of online gender-based violence than men. Women are still objectified daily across the online world, and the sharing of indecent images across tech platforms creates a culture in which women are hyper-sexualised and de-humanised. I find it difficult to understand why there is an expectation for women to simply ‘deal’ with this online violence, when the impact of it is highly worrying; increased levels of anxiety, low mood, a negative body image, to name a few. In fact, ‘Think Progress’ found that people harassed online are three times more likely to contemplate suicide. 

Fortunately, with the right enforcement, there are solutions. We cannot overestimate the importance in educating our young people, through providing access to high-quality digital literacy. Tech companies also have a responsibility to design for the diverse needs of their users, and begin building online platforms with better mechanisms in place to prevent abuse. 

In order to address the rise in online gender-based violence we must begin treating this as a global gender rights issue. Only in doing so, will we succeed in making the online world a safer, and more prosperous place for girls and women. 

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