Op-Ed: Tackling the hidden perils of technology-facilitated violence against women
By: Gülden Türköz-Cosslett, Regional Director a.i., UN Women Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia
Technological changes are rapidly transforming society, allowing for unprecedented advances. Digital technology offers a powerful tool and a potential game changer for empowering women. It provides access to information, education, employment and acts as a platform for women to champion their rights and interests.
However, these very same technologies are also giving rise to profound new challenges. In a landscape marred by gender inequalities and entrenched patriarchal norms, technology is often used to perpetrate and escalate violence against women online.
UN Women's Regional Office for Europe and Central Asia (ECA) conducted a study across 13 countries in the region to better understand the types and prevalence of technology-facilitated violence against women. The study examines the impact on women, their experiences, and access to support services. It also analyses the existing capacity available to provide prevention and support services to survivors of such violence.
According to a definition developed by global experts convened by UN Women, “Technology-facilitated violence against women (TF VAW) is any act that is committed, assisted, aggravated or amplified by the use of ICTs or other digital tools, that results in or is likely to result in physical, sexual, psychological, social, political or economic harm, or other infringements of rights and freedoms.”
The research sheds light on various dimensions of technology-facilitated violence against women, revealing alarming statistics across different countries. Strikingly, more than half of women in the region who engage online have experienced some form of technology-facilitated violence. However, the prevalence varies significantly across regions and platforms.
The most common form of technology-facilitated violence against women often appears as unwanted or offensive content or messages, encountered by nearly 40% of women. This is followed by inappropriate sexual advances or explicit content on social networking websites, experienced by almost every third woman. One in four women has had their internet accounts or web pages hacked, and one woman in eight has endured monitoring of phone calls, messages, or posts by a perpetrator to track her communications.
Similarly, women have faced abuse through manipulated photos, electronic defamation, threats to reveal their private information without their consent, unauthorized publication of private information, or threats. Despite diversity in these forms of violence, their underlying motives are the same – to harm women by exerting control, inducing fear, or causing humiliation. Ultimately, these actions perpetuate imbalanced gender power relations.
The perpetrators of such violence are often individuals known to the victims. The research also identifies risk factors: women of a younger age, of higher education level, LGBTQ+ individuals, and women extensively engaged in online activities face a higher risk of being the target of such violence.
The impacts of technology-facilitated violence are profound. Women who face such violence experience a decreased sense of safety and deep emotional distress, adapting their behaviours by limiting their engagement online.
The rapid evolution of digital technologies exceeds the ability of governments and civil society to respond swiftly and effectively to damaging misuse against women and girls. The lack of adequate legal and policy frameworks in most countries to address technology-facilitated violence against women underscores the urgency of a holistic approach, involving legal reforms, multistakeholder coordination, prevention strategies, and enhanced victim support.
Inadequate victim support amplifies the scope and intensity of technology-facilitated violence against women, jeopardizing women's participation in online spaces and hindering their ability to fully reap the benefits of the digital age. Ultimately, technology facilitated violence against women exacerbates the gender digital divide, undercuts access to information and services, and infringes upon women’s rights to participate in public life.
In line with the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign theme “Invest to Prevent Violence Against Women & Girls,” this year UN Women ECA highlights the urgent need to allocate resources and invest in prevention strategies to stop technology-facilitated violence against women.
The UN Women study makes the following recommendations to combat this multifaceted challenge: a) improving legal and policy instruments to address digital dimensions of violence, b) coordinated effort among governments, civil society, international organizations, private sector and the technology sector; c) improved response mechanisms to combat technology-facilitated violence against women.
With coordinated action and awareness and education programs involving men and boys to help reshape attitudes, and victim-centric responses, it is possible to create a safer and more inclusive digital world for all women. This is not merely an option; it's an imperative for a more equitable and just society.
Together, we must strive to eradicate the harmful, sometimes lethal side of technology to forge a digital sphere where women can thrive without fear of violence or discrimination and maintain their rightful engagement in public life. The time to act is now, and it extends far beyond the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.
The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is an annual international campaign that kicks off on 25 November, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, and runs until 10 December, Human Rights Day. Led by civil society, the campaign is supported by the United Nations through the Secretary General’s UNiTE by 2030 to End Violence against Women initiative, that runs parallel to the 16 Days of Activism. This year, the UNITE campaign focuses on “UNiTE! Invest to prevent violence against women and girls” and calls on citizens and governments alike to share how they are taking action and investing in ending gender-based violence.
 The definition involves the contribution of "academics, governments, national statistical offices, feminist movements, international organizations and other gender equality advocates" (UN Women report).