In a January 2015 report by UN Women and the UN Broadband Commission, nearly three-quarters of women who were online reported they experienced some sort of online violence, hate speech, or harassment. The number may be staggering, but for any woman in the western world who spends a significant amount of their lives online, it comes as no surprise.
Here at the the Commission on the Status of Women this week–an annual UN confab dedicated to advancing women’s rights and welfare around the globe–the health, safety and welfare of women online is an important topic of discussion.
Getting women and girls online is considered an important development priority in many parts of the United Nations. But ensuring the safety and welfare of women once online is a topic that was first broached at the UN three years ago, at CSW57. This week, in discussions at CSW60, participants identified a particularly pernicious “chilling effect” that online abuse can have on female civic and political participation.
Late last week at an event sponsored by the Nordic countries, journalist Johanna Kurhonen called combating this type of violence an “ambitious target…with no simple answers” noting that most of the women on the panel, and in the room itself, had experienced online violence firsthand due to their gender or sexual orientation.
Emma Holten, a young activist from Denmark, was direct. “When we say women and girls have no right to safety on the internet, they have no rights at all,” she said. The line between on and offline is not as clear as one might assume. Holten also describes the “Chilling Effect,” in which women who see other women being harassed and abused online tend to gravitate away from engaging in online discussions, voicing their opinion on the internet, and could even just avoid using it certain ways.
In developing countries and places where women and girls are just getting internet access and being taught to use it, the “chilling effect” can be even more profound. In countries where women may not feel comfortable expressing their opinions in traditional public forums, the anonymity provided by the internet provides at least one potential platform for political participation. But if women are shut out of internet, then their ability to shape the kinds of online action that can lead to real, substantive political change may be limited.