Over the years, with the support of growing research, expanding awareness of experiences and ongoing advocacy from feminist technology groups, we are seeing a broader recognition of online gender-based violence and its impacts, its many variations and how it manifests as a continuum of other forms of gender-based violence. In June 2018, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women released a thematic report looking at “online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective”. Although this is often referred to as a turning point around this global concern, there has been a significant amount of feminist activism, research and debates in relation to safety and access of these platforms by marginalised people globally. This report and many others since then continue to spotlight the importance for us to assess how online spaces and contexts continue to mirror the gender imbalance or the hierarchy and power we see in the offline space.
One of the shifts we are seeing is the wider usage of a variety of terms under which we understand online gender-based violence. For instance, many organisations have pivoted to using the term “technology-related violence against women” or “technology-facilitated gender-based violence” (TFGBV). In a paper on technology-facilitated violence, the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) argues that the nascency of the space on technology-facilitated violence means that we use many terms interchangeably across the globe. Terms like cyber violence, cyber aggression, digital abuse and online victimisation are used interchangeably. They argue that these multiple terminologies make it difficult to differentiate between the politics behind the label and the particular measure that needs to take place. The term technology-facilitated gender-based violence is aimed at broadening what is counted as violence and using technology as a medium to perpetuate violence, whether it is online or through other means like Bluetooth, etc.
Similarly, in 2015, the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) created a definition for technology-related gender-based violence that described it as follows:
Acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), such as mobile phones, the Internet, social media platforms, and email.
Although there was a shift to using the term online gender-based violence over the years, we see that the definition remains broad and encompasses other technologies as well. Originally, the term technology-related gender-based violence was used to a) recognise that technology-related violence can affect even those who are not “online”; b) include experiences of violence via digital technologies that do not make use of the internet, such as digital recordings; and c) avoid seeing this violence as a binary between online and offline violence, which often furthers the perception that online violence is distinct and separate from systemic gender-based violence. The shift to online gender-based violence was made to use a term more commonly understood and utilised, but the term remained fully inclusive of the above experiences.
Originally, the term technology-related gender-based violence was used to a) recognise that technology-related violence can affect even those who are not “online”; b) include experiences of violence via digital technologies that do not make use of the internet, such as digital recordings; and c) avoid seeing this violence as a binary between online and offline violence, which often furthers the perception that online violence is distinct and separate from systemic gender-based violence
Regardless of the debates on terminology use, the Women’s Rights Programme at APC has co-created with feminist activists from the global South a sophisticated feminist framework that provides a nuanced understanding on violence. The Feminist Principles of the Internet are a series of statements that provide us with a framework to explore and understand issues related to technology. In this framework, we see that technology-related violence against women can have forms such as cyberstalking, harassment and misogynist speech. The 13 manifestations of gender-based violence using technology as illustrated in 2018 give us a detailed and clear outline of the many forms such violence takes. It is also important to reiterate that these acts by themselves are not exceptional or different, but that technology-related violence is part of the same continuum as violence against women and gender-marginalised groups offline.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in many groups researching and addressing the ways in which technology-facilitated gender-based violence could become a reality for more women and LGBTIQ+ people, especially as the pandemic deepened existing social and economic inequalities the world over. As a report released by UN Women on the impact of online violence on women and girls during the pandemic notes:
During this period, users with limited digital skills are more at risk of cyberviolence. Concerningly, given the digital gender divide, women and girls are at a higher risk for these forms of violence.
Additionally, numerous other studies were done which show us the prevalence of online violence during the pandemic. One of the studies, conducted in Malawi, highlighted:
The majority of participants indicated that social media (62.5% or 42) such as Facebook and WhatsApp and personal online accounts (31.3% or 21) were the digital platforms most frequently used by perpetrators to commit these acts.
With the increase in research and global focus on experiences of technology due to the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating technology usage, we see that technology-facilitated gender-based violence or online violence is being increasingly discussed. Additionally, we are seeing groups like UN Women and the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) use the phrase technology-related/facilitated violence. These actions and global attention provide us the scope and necessary impetus to expand what is seen as violence as well as who is being subjected to it.
Feminist Internet Research Network
The Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN) is a collaborative and multidisciplinary research project led by APC, funded by the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and APC. FIRN focuses on the making of a feminist internet, seeing this as critical to bringing about transformation in gendered structures of power that exist online and offline and to capture fully the fluidity of these spaces and our experiences with them. Members of the network undertake data-driven research that provides substantial evidence to drive change in policy and law, and in the discourse around internet rights. The network’s broader objective is to ensure that the needs of women and gender-diverse and queer people are taken into account in internet policy discussions and decision making.
Through this work, over the years, we have made significant shifts to our understanding of online gender-based violence. Through FIRN, we have been able to conduct consistent research across the global South on urgent and specific issues in relation to online gender-based violence, datafication, privacy, gender disinformation, and organised circulation of homophobic, anti-gender, racist content online, which presently can be part of international or national policy advocacy.
As part of the network a number of partners have conducted research on online gender-based violence. In relation to this, the network continues to ask a primary question around online gender-based violence: How do we ensure a significant response to online gender-based violence, and what evidence is needed to effect policy change for women and other marginalised people from heterogeneous locations?
In the past four years, several national and multi-country research projects have been conducted with support from FIRN. Out of the different research projects that FIRN funded and facilitated, research on online gender-based violence (OGBV) has been conducted in Brazil, Bulgaria and Malaysia and in five African countries: Ethiopia, Kenya, Senegal, South Africa and Uganda.
The research also provided us with critical global South perspectives that looked at how the internet in many contexts is subsumed within social media, and the research brought important reflections on rebuilding or building safer spaces online within a system that seems to not work for so many people.
These research projects covered important themes such as: (a) insights into how the priorities and economic logic of algorithms have inevitably led to the amplification and monetisation of OGBV; (b) highlighting both the everyday and structural experiences of violence online, and bringing forth feminist discourse on language and technology through an intersectional exploration of race, gender and sexuality; (c) establishing the connections between experiences of online violence and lack of meaningful access to technology; and (d) mapping the complex journey of reversing anti-gender rights attitudes through the use of information and communications technologies. The research also provided us with critical global South perspectives that looked at how the internet in many contexts is subsumed within social media, and the research brought important reflections on rebuilding or building safer spaces online within a system that seems to not work for so many people.
As part of the network in the months to come, we have partners studying online gender-based violence for LGBTIQ+ folks from Turkey and transgender, non-binary and gender-diverse folks from Uganda, Rwanda, South Africa, Botswana; experiences of online violence linked to freedom of expression and association in the Democratic Republic of Congo; and how access to technology is connected to online violence in Sudan.
Policy recommendations from our research
As part of FIRN projects, each partner organisation puts together policy recommendations based on the findings of their research. Most partners manage to effectively argue how different entities in the system can respond to online gender-based violence or technology-related gender-based violence within their context. These recommendations have been collated here as part of FIRN’s intervention in the sector. We would like to acknowledge here that, while there are context-specific recommendations at national and regional level, these synthesised recommendations are commonly mentioned by all partners in the network. The sections are divided into categories for varied state and non-state actors. These recommendations provide us with a way forward as well as a clear path on how to ensure that various entities address online gender-based violence.
Policy recommendations for the state
- Ensure that existing redress mechanisms around gender-based violence include and employ implementable prevention strategies and victim-centric redress mechanisms in various institutions, including schools, colleges and universities, around technology-facilitated gender-based violence.
- Provide digital education in and out of schools to sharpen an individual's skills to know and understand the dangers of being online, how to innovate within the digital world, and how to take the precautions that the use of technology requires.
- Ensure existing laws on gender-based violence include aspects of technology-facilitated violence, and work to deepen focus and attention from law enforcement authorities on TFGBV through gender-sensitive digital security trainings to address complaints of cyberbullying, cyber harassment, leaked private information, etc. and to provide assistance, counselling and legal support.
- Build advocacy and policy reforms to protect electronic and personal information.
- Remain open to dialogue with feminist, LGBTIQ+ and women’s rights activists and others for the design of not only legal but other interventions within state bodies and processes – especially those responsible for ensuring prevention of violence against people.
- Establish an inter-ministerial task team and conduct regular multistakeholder consultations with the relevant ministries, government agencies, civil society, academics, media and social media platforms.
- Respond proactively to hate speech, especially when uttered by political leaders.
Recommendations to civil society actors
- Conduct regular public campaigns in local languages on raising awareness on hate speech and TFGBV by ensuring broader understanding of technology-facilitated gender-based violence and its impact while highlighting key issues around digital security and safety
- Build the understanding of state actors and of the public, especially women and LGBTIQA+ people, on how patriarchy manifests itself in online platforms and how to create a more feminist internet that gives women their full rights to internet access and freedom of expression, as well as a better understanding of online threats and how to take action against these threats.
- Create safe spaces online and offline for people affected by TFGBV – to provide legal advice, psychological counselling and emotional support as well as provide peer and/or public support.
- Create more cross group conversation like between feminists, technologists and others to ensure robust, intersectional and complex discussions and outcomes on gender and intersectionality, and ensure that the integration of gender into discussions as well as stakeholder representation at these spaces is not tokenised and work towards nuancing and deepening feminist ideas of justice in relation to the internet.
Recommendations to internet platforms, private companies and service providers
- Set up a response team for online GBV where content takedown requests are urgently responded to. This is especially required in cases involving the non-consensual dissemination of intimate images and personal data. Ensure that these response teams have content capacities in multiple local languages as well as strengthened processes and capacities to address incidents of violence that are reported to them, including those against LGBTIQ+ people.
- Promote better policies and tools from technology companies to enhance online safety and actively work with developers to create digital tools and products that are suited to local contexts and that can be accessed in local languages. Features should be easy to access, utilise and troubleshoot.
- Ensure transparency of social media design, as well as other software applications and architecture.
- Adopt clear community guidelines and terms and conditions that are in line with human rights standards on freedom of expression, and are responsive to hate speech and other forms of technology-related violence, while taking into account the needs of groups facing violence such as women, LGBTIQ+ people and minorities. Provide guidance on what to do if bystanders witness an incident of online GBV.
Recommendations to researchers and academics
- Conduct research to better nuance people’s understanding of online GBV, especially among communities who don’t use English as their primary language, including why people perpetrate hate and violence online.
- Ensure that ethical issues of safety, care and embodiment of online violence are deepened to help in building localised responses for both state actors and internet platforms.
- Address GBV in a wider context with a focus on technology-facilitated violence.
- Ensure feminist research on and by marginalised groups of people from the global South that unpacks our experiences, needs and imaginations of the internet, including how people are building and sustaining resistance and alternatives.
- Ensure that research begins to build connections between economic injustice and TFGBV, digital economy and TFGBV, and the gendered impacts of internet shutdowns.
- Translate and/or produce research in local languages relevant within country contexts.
- Cross-movement, cross-regional and transnational research and solidarity building needs to be resourced and encouraged, especially but not limited to addressing issues of extraterritoriality and pushing for multilateral accountability mechanisms.
Way forward: A cautionary tale
These recommendations and several like these have been made by civil society organisations, researchers and academics globally to draw the much needed attention towards technology-facilitated gender-based violence. However, we see that our recommendations are not entirely effective and none of these interventions has been implemented fully enough for us to feel safe and experience meaningful access to digital spaces. We still experience and see a huge prevalence of TFGBV. Currently we are attempting to understand the mismatch between the policy recommendations provided by different stakeholders and the implementation of these recommendations by the state, law enforcement authorities and private companies.
However, we see that our recommendations are not entirely effective and none of these interventions has been implemented fully enough for us to feel safe and experience meaningful access to digital spaces.
In relation to this, we have identified two myths that are contributing to the gap that we are witnessing. These are:
(1) Often this research is dismissed as incidental or not damning by the state, individual actors and organisations. The rationale for such claims is that the research results are formed based on a small data-set so that the findings cannot represent the majority of users’ experience.
(2) Many groups continue to see online violence as a different phenomenon instead of understanding the continuum of violence in online and offline/onground spaces; there is an understanding that it is not connected to systemic discrimination and violence experienced by groups.
There is a need for us to push for national and international instruments and transnational commitment to addressing the ongoing experiences of technology-facilitated violence while challenging the existing paternalistic conversations about safety, especially because of the existing relationship between the state and women.
It will also be essential for feminist transnational networks to build a connected and coordinated effort to ensure that the necessary responses to technology-facilitated gender-based violence are understood and actions are taken. These actions must include, as discussed above, the most important one of holding technology companies and internet platforms accountable for the violence they permit and their prevailing inaction.
 Maskay, J., & Karmacharya, S. (2018). Online Violence Against Women: A continuum of offline discrimination. LOOM. https://taannepal.org.np/wp-content/uploads/2021/04/Online-Violence-Against-Women-2018.pdf
 Hinson, L, Mueller, J, O’Brien-Milne, L, & Wandera, N. (2018). Technology-facilitated gender-based violence: What is it, and how do we measure it? International Center for Research on Women. https://www.icrw.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/07/ICRW_TFGBVMarketing_Brief_v8-Web.pdf
 APC. (2018). Providing a gender lens in the digital age: APC submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ Working Group on Business and Human Rights. https://www.ohchr.org/sites/default/files/Documents/Issues/Business/Gender/APC.pdf
 APC. (2017). Online gender-based violence: A submission from the Association for Progressive Communications to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences. https://www.apc.org/sites/default/files/APCSubmission_UNSR_VAW_GBV_0_0.pdf
 The Feminist Principles of the Internet are a series of statements that offer a gender and sexual rights lens on critical internet-related rights. They were drafted at the first Imagine a Feminist Internet meeting that took place in Malaysia in April 2014. The meeting was organised by APC and brought together 50 activists and advocates working on sexual rights, women’s rights, violence against women, and internet rights. The meeting was designed as an adapted open space where topics were identified, prioritised and discussed collectively. Currently there are 17 principles in total, organised in five clusters: Access, Movements, Economy, Expression and Embodiment. Together, they aim to provide a framework for women's movements to articulate and explore issues related to technology.
 UN Women. (2020). Online and ICT-facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19. https://www.unwomen.org/en/digital-library/publications/2020/04/brief-online-and-ict-facilitated-violence-against-women-and-girls-during-covid-19
 See, for example: Pandey Mishra, A. (2021). A Study on Online Violence against Women during Covid 19 Pandemic with Special Reference to India. International Journal of Law Management and Humanities, 4(6), 697-711. https://doij.org/10.10000/IJLMH.112310 and Flywell Malanga, D. (2020). Tackling gender-based cyber violence against women and girls in Malawi amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. APC. https://africaninternetrights.org/sites/default/files/Donald_Flywell-1.pdf
 UN Women. (2020). Op. cit.
 Dunn, S. (2021, January 26). Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence: An Overview. Centre for International Governance Innovation. https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3772042
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