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Five things you should know about digital gender-based violence (DGBV), and ways to curb it

Dr Lilia Giugni, Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation and co-founder and CEO of GenPol, shares five insights everyone should know about digital gender-based violence (DGBV).

Portrait of sad scared young woman on mobile smart phone on the floor at night stressed and worried suffering cyber bullying harassment.

Dr Lilia Giugni, a Research Associate at the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School, is co-founder and CEO of GenPol – Gender & Policy Insights, a think tank and consultancy that focuses on gender inequality and gender-based violence.

Lilia Giugni
Dr Lilia Giugni

Today (25 November) is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, so Lilia shares insights on five things people should know about gender-based violence online in order to prevent or curb it.

1. Digital violence is a gendered phenomenon

Terms such as “cyber bullying”, “virtual violence” and “trolling” have become commonplace, yet there are good reasons to instead use the term “digital gender-based violence” (DGBV). While online vitriol can be directed against anyone, research shows that women’s experiences online are qualitatively and quantitatively different. According to the United Nations, women globally are 27 times more likely than self-identifying men to be attacked on the Internet. The digital abuse that women face is also specific in its nature, as it tends to be extremely sexualised and overtly motivated by the target’s gender. Men are less likely to experience online sexual harassment, receive unsolicited pornography, or be subject to the electronic distribution of one’s intimate images without consent.

2. Sexist, racist and other forms of bigotry or abuse frequently intersect online as well as offline

A recent Australian study found that indigenous and LGBTQ+ youth are particularly vulnerable to non-consensual pornography, while Amnesty International found that the black Labour MP Diane Abbott attracted 10 times more abusive messages than any other Westminster woman during the 2017 General Election in the UK. This is another reason why terms such as “trolling” are not helpful: they fail to convey the gravity of the problem, while creating a false dichotomy between online and offline violence. Yet researchers have found symptoms in online victims similar to those caused by sexual and domestic abuse, including depression, anxiety and loss of self-esteem. At the same time, technology is increasingly used by stalkers and abusive partners to control victims whom they also assault physically.

3. Digital violence is particularly severe for women in public-facing roles

According to the International Federation of Journalists, 64 per cent of female correspondents were harassed online in 2018, while Amnesty International calculated that an abusive Tweet is sent to Anglo-American female politicians, journalists and activists every 30 seconds on average. Some high-profile women members of the UK Parliament recently cited such abuse for their decisions not to seek re-election in the upcoming General Election.

4. Policy reform may be helpful, but a multi-level approach is required to tackle DGBV

While new legislation is needed to address specific legal loopholes (that was, for example, the case with upskirting, the recently outlawed practice of taking intrusive photos underneath someone’s clothes), many existing provisions on stalking, hate crimes and privacy already can be used to address DGBV cases. It is therefore important to provide training to law enforcement personnel, teachers and parents to recognise and address DGBV, while tech companies should adopt more effective mechanisms to report, moderate and take down inappropriate material.

5. Any effort to tackle online abuse must include support for victims or those at risk

Conservatism in many countries has reduced the space for civil society organisations and particularly women’s groups, thus reducing opportunities to gain financial and institutional support. So established charities could help fill the void by devolving part of their planning and budgets to preventing and responding to DGBV. Tech companies and social enterprises can also fund community projects, and academics who research the problem should ensure that their work involves ways to create anti-DGBV tools and resources for practitioners. While more data on online abuse is certainly required, we need to marry this increased knowledge with practical steps to serve communities affected by the growing and pernicious problem of DGBV.