Reaching girls across the digital access continuum: Digital solutions to address gender-based violence
COVID-19 has exacerbated the ‘shadow pandemic’ of gender-based violence (GBV) experienced offline and online. It is now well documented that extended quarantines, as well as other physical distancing measures, enacted to manage the pandemic have increased women and girls’ exposure to GBV¹. And today, more than ever, online harassment and abuse are significant issues for young people, particularly girls².
This ‘rollback impact’ of the pandemic also includes other decades of advancement toward gender equality, such as addressing harmful practice and advancing girls’ education.
Pre-existing gender inequalities and harmful norms combined with an increased exposure to abusers at home and economic shocks have created a potent mix for violence to thrive. A surge in reported incidents of intimate partner violence have been documented in several countries where such records are tracked by service providers³. Pandemic control measures however have restricted the ability of many GBV service providers to reach survivors at a time they most need it⁴. This continues to present an acute, pressing challenge for the sector and is of particular concern in a number of contexts where such services are still not deemed ‘essential’ to operate during periods of ‘lockdown.”
Girls and women are more likely to be targets of toxic and harmful online attacks which include threats of violence and rape, cyberstalking, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos (e.g. revenge porn), sexual harassment, cyberbullying, sex trolling, images and videos of sexual exploitation and abuse, as well as data security and privacy breaches⁵. A recent survey of 14,000 girls in 31 countries found more than half (58%) had been harassed and abused online⁶. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, increases in internet usage of between 50% to 70%, have driven a surge in the non-consensual sharing of images, designed to threaten, shame and control women and girls⁷.
In this context, GBV programming has had to be adapted, re-imagined, and scaled to meet increased need. This includes enabling GBV survivors access to services through digital channels to overcome COVID-19 restrictions on mobility. Yet in the digital service channel design, remembering that many girls may have limited digital access or chose to refrain from engaging in online/digital services in the first place from fear of discrimination and harassment⁸.
As our daily lives move increasingly into the digital realm, it is evident that lack of digital access leads to further layers of exclusion. While mobile phone ownership and access has increased globally, particularly in low income settings, it is estimated that there are 443 million “unconnected” adult women in the world⁹. Men are 21% more likely to be online than women — rising to 52% in the world’s least developed countries¹⁰. This gender digital gap is growing not reducing, impacting not only adults but also today’s generation of youth.
UNICEF is investing extensively in GBV innovations, putting formative research on connectivity gaps and usage of technology by girls at the heart of it all. This means partnering with girls to understand their digital literacy realities through connectivity and usage assessments as part of the design of new tech products¹¹. Research shows that the main reasons for girls and women’s exclusion from the digital world include:
- Financial constraints prevent girls owning devices and accessing data which keeps them offline. Among internet users in rural areas, women were 14% more likely than men to say cost limited how much they could use the internet¹².
- The lack of digital skills is also a significant barrier to access, with 45% of non-internet users citing this as a key reason for lack of internet use¹³. This rate increases in rural areas.
- Girls do not find relevant and age-appropriate content that responds to their needs. There is a lack of products designed with them to meet their realities. With many products designed for a default user that is predominantly male, girls are often left out- from the co-creation, to design, and product testing. This leads to female users not being able to access the digital products and services or seeing no reason to use them.
- Girls have safety concerns when accessing online content – particularly when they experience a situation of abuse at home (e.g. intimate partner violence). A recent study shows that they are also more concerned about their online privacy than men¹⁴.
To reach the scale of change needed, we encourage the tech industry to join collective efforts as solution-makers to improve accessibility, advise and incorporate violence prevention and response solutions. These are some recommendations on how to do so:
- Digital solutions should be safe for girls. Tools and technology should not expose women and girls to further harm. Tech solutions must build upon the extensive and solid foundation of ethical standards and protocols of the GBV community, while meeting digital safety and privacy standards. Testing and piloting these resources should be done in a controlled environment (e.g. safe space, community center).
- Digital solutions should be designed by and for girls. The rights, needs, and wishes of girls must be central to design. A one size fits all approach to tech-based solutions for girls regardless of their diversity does not work. When developing tech solutions, we need solid human-centered design processes to understand the lives and realities of girls as well as the risks they are exposed to. We need to keep girls at the center of the development process, learning and improving as tech evolves.
- Digital solutions should include training of girls on how to safely navigate digital spaces. It is well known that users with limited digital skills are more at risk of cyberviolence¹⁵. Particularly during the pilot phase of new digital tools, we need to provide digital literacy and non-blaming online training to girls. Feminist Safety Reboot has developed a training curriculum made up of several modules to use the internet safely, creatively and strategically.
Digital solutions need to be designed and delivered to encourage adolescent girls to use them. If girls have limited access to devices or data, we need the design to be compelling, engaging, exciting to use. We also need to come up with alternative ways to bring them online. For example, in North-East Nigeria a physical women and girls’ safe space was adapted into phone booths to enable women and girls to make calls to hotlines and access mobile devices safely¹⁶.
UNICEF’s Virtual Safe Spaces (VSS) for adolescent girls and women has begun to address this challenge.
UNICEF is prioritizing efforts to address GBV as part of its new Strategic Plan and accompanying Gender Action Plan 2022-2025. This includes digital innovations designed with and for girls, which is also at the center of our collective efforts alongside many other stakeholders as part of the Generation Equality Action Coalition of Technology and Innovation for Gender Equality.
Women and girls' safe spaces have long been established as a key approach to provide survivors with information, links to services, skills-building, peer connection, and support. Yet, as access to physical safe spaces is often limited for adolescent girls and women, particularly in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, UNICEF has been developing a platform to act as a virtual safe space (VSS) for them to access gender-based violence information.
Following successful piloting of VSS and feedback from adolescent girls in Iraq and Lebanon, a second version of a more interactive VSS platform is in development to provide information on GBV which is being piloted in Iraq and Ecuador. An instructional designer is working on creating interactive multimedia content on GBV and sexual and reproductive health topics. Heavy investment on human-centered design consultations with girls aims at identifying strategies to overcome the digital divide girls face to ensure greater access.
As a component of VSS Version 2.0, UNICEF plans to create a virtual forum which enables girls to seek support, ask questions, receive linkages to specialized services, and in time, replicate the sense of a safe social network (that women and girls note they value from physical safe spaces) on the platform with peers. The VSS platform will help provide support to girls who have been exposed to online violence and make sure they receive the appropriate level of care and support.
¹ Fraser, VAWG Helpdesk, Impact of COVID-19 pandemic on violence against women and girls, March 2020
² Binder, Poulton, Six ways tech can help end gender-based violence, UNICEF, February 2021.
³ Graham-Harrison, Giuffrida, Smith and Ford, Lockdowns around the world bring rise in domestic violence, The Guardian, 28 March 2020
⁴ Masboungi, Heckman and Rastogi, Moving beyond the numbers: what the COVID-19 pandemic means for the safety of women and girls, UNICEF, 14 September 2020.
⁵ Jane, Online Abuse and Harassment, The International Encyclopaedia of Gender, Media, and Communication, American Cancer Society, 2020.
⁶ Plan International. Free to be Online? Girls’ and young women’s experiences of online harassment, Plan International, 2020.
⁷ Beech, COVID-19 Pushes Up Internet Use 70% And Streaming More Than 12%, First Figures Reveal, Forbe, 24 November 2020.
⁸ UN Women, Online and ICT facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19, UN Women, 2020.
⁹ CARE & IRC, Global Rapid Gender Analysis for COVID-19, CARE, March 2020
¹⁰ World Wide Web Foundation, Women’s Rights online: closing the digital gap for a more equal world, World Wide Web Foundation, October 2020.
¹¹ GSMA, “Connectivity, Needs, and Usage Assessment Toolkit”, https://www.gsma.com/mobilefordevelopment-/resources/the-connectivity-needs-and-usage-assessment-conua-toolkit/
¹² World Wide Web Foundation, Women’s Rights online.
¹⁵ UNODC, Ciberdelito y COVID-19: Riesgos y Respuestas. UNODC Cybercrime and Anti- Money Laundering Section, 2020.
¹⁶ Erskine, Not just hotline or mobile phones: GBV service provision during COVID-19, UNICEF, 13 May 2020.