We are increasingly communicating online, and the situation related to Covid-19 has further directed us towards the internet and use of digital tools. Unfortunately, the misuse of technology for violence is also our reality. While it presents great opportunities for learning and networking, digital space is not equally safe for women and men. To contribute to the creation of a society that does not tolerate violence against women, UNDP has been running the #TičeMeSe (It IS my business) campaign for three years. This time, our focus is on informing on the consequences of online violence against women and encouraging support to survivors of this form of violence.

While both women and men can be exposed to online violence, women and girls are disproportionately affected by it. Sexism, hate speech, blackmailing, rape and death threats, taking and distributing images of a person without their consent and revenge pornography, are just some of the forms of violence women and girls face in online space.

Women, compared to men, are disproportionately affected by more severe forms of online violence, such as staking and sexual harassment. According to the report of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women “it has been estimated that 23% of women have reported having experienced online abuse or harassment at least once in their life, and that 1 in 10 women has experienced some form of online violence since the age of 15” [1]. In addition to this, the report includes information on the gender dimension of online violence indicating that 90% of persons victimized by non-consensual digital distribution of intimate images are women.

Digital space is significant for women and girls’ empowerment. Sadly, it is also an environment where they are, similarly to the physical world, exposed to discrimination, harassment and intimate partner violence. Violence that starts online can end in physical attacks and online violence can be a prolongation of violence that first occurred in real life. The case of Marija Lukić, a local administration employee who reported the former president of the Municipality of Brus Milutin Jeličić for sexual harassment, is also an example of how closely online and offline attacks are connected – the harassment continuing through receiving unwanted text messages on the phone.

Women who publicly express their views are especially exposed to online violence – representatives of the academic community, women politicians or those in high positions, journalists. Findings from a global survey about online violence against women journalists conducted by UNESCO and the International Center for Journalists[2] with participants from 125 countries, show that 73% women respondents had experienced online violence, while 20% of them said they had been attacked or abused offline in connection with online violence they had experienced.

Experiences of women who found the courage to speak about survived online attacks, show that though the violence is virtual, it leaves very real consequences. This form of violence against women and girls can be as harmful as physical violence, and can result in stress, trauma, anxiety, sleep disorders, depression, even physical pain.

Online violence can also lead to general fear for one’s own safety, as a consequence of organized harassment and the fast and uncontrollable distribution of harmful content, as well as isolation. It can have a negative impact on a person’s social and professional life, and its most severe consequences include suicide.

Laws are still catching up to this fast - developing field, and due to its characteristics and the space where it occurs, online violence against women and girls often remains unrecognized.

How can we protect ourselves or show support to someone exposed to online violence:

-          Through raising awareness and showing that the survivor is never responsible for the violence suffered;

-          Supporting survivors through active listening, referring them to sources of further information, to persons of trust;

-          Avoiding the advice for the survivor to „just go offline“, as this does not stop the violence, and survivors may be additionally isolated;

-          Paying attention to the safe use of the internet and digital tools, to avoid personal data misuse (e.g. regularly changing passwords, not posting personal data or images, checking privacy settings in social media);

-          Using the option to block those who send violent messages or unwanted content;

-          Collecting evidence on online violence by making screenshots and saving messages;

-          Asking information or support from organizations specializing in online rights protection or protection of rights of women and child rights;

-          Reporting violence to competent institutions – Department for Suppression of High Tech Crime of the Ministry of Interior, or the Special Prosecution Office for High Tech Crime of the Republic of Serbia at the e-mail address: vtk@beograd.vtk.jt.rs.

We cannot allow ICT-enabled violence against women and girls to go unaddressed. This is why it is important for us to speak out against online violence. When we show that survivors are not to blame for the violence that occurred and provide support to them, when we refuse to distribute offensive content and participate in the discrimination of women, we make a step towards a safer online space that benefits all of us.

The „Tiče me se“ (It IS my business) campaign is part of the project “Integrated Response to Violence Against Women and Girls in Serbia III” jointly implemented by UNICEF, UN Women, UNFPA and UNDP, in partnership with the Government of the Republic of Serbia, led by the Coordination Body for Gender Equality, and with the support of the Government of Sweden.

 

[1] Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, Its Causes and Consequences on online violence against women and girls from a human rights perspective : note / by the Secretariat, https://digitallibrary.un.org/record/1641160

[2] https://unesdoc.unesco.org/ark:/48223/pf0000375136

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