Online violence: Just because it’s virtual doesn’t make it any less real

In the Democratic Republic of Congo, two teens’ private photos, taken by a boyfriend, are posted to Facebook without their consent.  In Bosnia and Herzegovina, a young woman is covertly photographed and pursued online by a stalker who claims they have a “forbidden love.” And in Pakistan, an outspoken human rights activist’s address is included in a blog post imploring readers to kill her, and a month later, the activist and her husband are targeted in a drive-by shooting. Private photos of women taken by strangers for purpose of blackmailing, unwanted intimate pictures, threatening messages and many more. 

These are just a few examples of the many forms of online harassment that women face everywhere around the world. Women are regularly subject to online rape threats, online harassment, cyberstalking, blackmail, and more.

As the internet becomes an increasingly important part of human existence and a critical space for marginalized populations to make their voices heard, a woman’s inability to feel safe online is an impediment to her freedom, as well as to her basic human rights. Yet the problem of online violence and harassment is often overlooked in discussions of violence against women. In a world where we seamlessly navigate the online and the offline every day – often being in both spaces at the same time – it is crucial for us to address the violence that women face in both realms. Online violence is real violence.

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Just like the global, sustained effort to end violence against women broadly, achieving online safety for women takes multiple, concerted strategies by different actors. Governments need to include online violence against women as part of their plans to end violence against women as a whole and see this as a larger barrier for women and girls in exercising the full range of their human rights. Social media companies need to take proactive steps to ensure their space does not enable these acts. Women and girls deserve to live in a world where they are free from physical violence—domestic abuse, sexual assault and rape as a weapon of war—as well as violence online.

Individual women who experience online abuse understand that online violence is real violence, but very often their peers, friends, or families don’t. Some families restrict girls and women from accessing the internet if they complain of violence, so they don’t tell their families. Isn’t this similar to locking up girls at home for their own ‘protection’ or restricting their mobility in the name of protecting them? It doesn’t work offline, and it won’t work online. We need recognition of online violence as real violence, and we need to deal with violence without restricting women’s freedoms.

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