Technology-facilitated gender-based violence in the time of COVID-19

Article Date

08 December 2020

Article Author

Jori Fortson, Laura Hinson, Biva Rajbhandari, Piya Bhalla

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

It has become commonplace to hear a story in the news about someone’s personal information or intimate images being distributed online without his or her consent, see hateful comments posted on a friend’s Facebook post, or hear about a coworker who was sexually harassed online. These are all instances of “technology-facilitated gender-based violence (GBV)”—a term conceptualized by the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) in 2017, which is often referred to as cyber or online violence.

Technology-facilitated GBV consists of perpetrators harming people based on their gender or sexual identity. Perpetrators primarily target women and girls, especially those who voice their opinions online or are public figures like politicians and activists. Nearly three out of every four women worldwide who go online have experienced some form of cyber violence. Yet, technology-facilitated GBV harms people of all gender identities and social status—oftentimes as a result of an abusive relationship or in response to expressions on topics like LGBTQIAP+ rights, politics or feminism. 

Photo: Christina Morillo

Technology-facilitated GBV cuts deep across dating sites, gaming sites and social networking sites like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp. In a recent study of 15 countries, nearly 40 percent of respondents reported not feeling personally safe from harassment and violence while online.  In India and Uganda, 13 percent of respondents reported experiencing online violence based on their gender. In the United States, about half of women aged 18-29 have received explicit images without their consent, while nearly a quarter of women have been sexually harassed online. In Pakistan, four in ten women experience various forms of harassment on the internet.

Although technology-facilitated GBV is now increasingly prevalent, it tends to be brushed off by others as an inconsequential form of violence. Though it can be hard to quantify the nuanced and often hidden psychological and emotional harms caused by technology-facilitated GBV, these impacts are as serious as physical and other forms of violence. In fact, over 85 percent of respondents who reported experiencing GBV online reported fearing for their own safety; having feelings of sadness, anxiety or depression; and reducing their online behaviors. 

The current pandemic has further exacerbated offline and online GBV. During COVID-19 lockdowns, survivors trapped in living spaces with abusive partners, and higher stress levels over health and finances, have led to an increase in offline violence against women and girls. With a surge in technology use during the pandemic, there has also been a marked rise in virtual gender-based violence.

Forthcoming collaborative research from ICRW and Quilt.AI recently compared the online discourse and search behavior related to online violence across rural and urban geographies in India before and during the COVID-19 outbreak.

The study looked at search behavior in four urban areas (Bengaluru, Delhi, Mumbai, and Kolkata) and four rural areas (Assagao, Kangra, Palakkad, Gaya). In urban areas, there was an increase in conversations around doxing, online stalking, and hacking during COVID-19 as opposed to before the pandemic. In Delhi and Mumbai, for example, searches for “doxxing meaning” grew at 425 percent while Kolkata saw searches for “cyberstalking” grow at 137 percent. Across the cities, searches related to hacking grew by more than 60 percent and consistently saw high volume and growth pre and during COVID-19. Keywords related to image-based abuse, gender trolling, and doxing had low search volume but had high growth during COVID-19. Though there were fewer searches on online violence in rural areas compared to urban cities, searches related to hacking and exploitation have been established. This signifies emerging search behavior around the topic and is important to address. 

Findings suggest that people are interested in and potentially experiencing myriad forms of technology-facilitated violence. This is especially true during the recent time frame of COVID19—pointing to a pressing need and opportunity to provide accurate information and insight into these issues, and link people to relevant services.

The insights gained through our research have provided windows into how we may counter this sharp rise in technology-facilitated GBV, and even drive down the rates further post-COVID-19. But we cannot do this work in silos. We need civil society actors, governments, industry professionals, the media, employers and community members worldwide to work together to combat technology-facilitated GBV. And to do this, we must:

  • Conduct more research to determine approaches that work. Use relevant evidence to inform laws and policies and improve programs for perpetrators and survivors. For example, data showing the national prevalence and short- and long-term consequences of online violence. This can be a powerful tool for government officials to effectively intervene online.
  • Work with tech companies to scale solutions. Given their sheer breadth and reach, tech companies, like Twitter, must be brought into the fold—to share knowledge and develop strategies for protecting online users and penalizing perpetrators.
  • Communicate broadly and partner often. We need to share best practices to address technology facilitated GBV. As technology evolves, our response will require nuance to address the negative impacts and amplify the positive ones. It is through strategic partnerships that we can most effectively publicize survivor-centered support resources and provide tips and tools for identifying and reporting technology-facilitated GBV. For example, in India, we can partner with local organizations like Breakthrough India and Tata Trust that are leading programs on online safety for girls.
  • Invest in programs and projects that specifically tackle online GBV. There are already several reputable programs aimed at supporting survivors, such as Internet Saathi, Take Back the Tech and HeartMob. Given the fact that tech-facilitated GBV manifests itself differently across contexts, it is important to think outside the box for partnerships. Local organizations in low- and middle-income countries, for example, have a better understanding of their own context – an understanding essential for determining the most effective solutions. Given the fluidity of the issue, we must take a range of perspectives and experiences into account.   

Given the surge in gender-based violence during the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to contain it, the time is more critical now than ever before to protect individuals who experience GBV, provide resources for survivors, hold perpetrators accountable, and work to prevent and eradicate gender based violence worldwide. To uproot a pervasive and persistent issue like tech-facilitated gender-based violence, we must meet it head-on and put all of our resources behind it.

About the authors:

Jori Fortson served as a research associate supporting ICRW’s collaboration with QuiltAI
Laura Hinson is a Senior Social and Behavioral Scientist with ICRW
Biva Rajbhandari is a Program Manager at Quilt.AI
Piya Bhalla is the Social Impact Director at Quilt.AI

Our Facts. Our Future. is a series from ICRW that highlights our latest learning and features experts’ and partners’ reflections on their work. Our Facts. Our Future. aims to center diverse voices and explore new and more inclusive ways of working together to advance the rights of women, girls and marginalized people worldwide.

Receive future updates from ICRW by signing up for our email list here