Digital Connectivity and Women and Girls’ Risk for Cyber-sexual Harassment in the COVID-19 Era

While the gendered digital divide – the greater availability and use of digital technology for men compared with women – persists, the divide has declined under the pandemic, with dramatic increases in women’s access to digital technology in low- and middle-income countries, in particular in South Asia. This connectivity increases education, opportunity and support for women and girls, but as highlighted in UN Women report on cyber-sexual harassment released early in the pandemic, greater reliance and use on digital connection can also result in increased risk for digital violence against women.

While there has been discussion of increased violence against women under the pandemic, data at scale on this topic is limited. With the goal of gathering proxy information on related trends, UN Women partnered with Quilt.AI and UNFPA to conduct analysis of big data (read: discourse data generated across social media platforms and search engines) in eight countries: Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore. Results show that violence against women-related searches have increased since the onset of COVID-19, which points towards rises in abusive behaviour against women and girls. In all countries, the number of related searches on domestic violence increased during peak times of mobility restrictions. Also, online platforms saw more online misogyny, such as instances of trolling, using images without consent or sexual harassment. While violence against vulnerable groups drew attention, for example, in India and Nepal, cases of sexual violence against Dalit women and girls made national headlines and fueled “Dalit Lives Matter” movements, it is still not enough. The conversation around violence against individuals of the LGBTQI+ community was largely missing online.

A study examining California state-representative survey data on victimization from violence, conducted in March 2020 – at the start of the pandemic shutdown- and again in March 2021, found that women’s experience of past year cyber-sexual harassment doubled in prevalence in this timeframe. Younger populations appear to be at even greater risk. Cyber-sexual harassment, defined as “a range of sexually aggressive or harassing images or texts delivered through the use of digital mediums,” often starts in adolescence, perpetrated by someone known to the victim, and results in a range of negative social, emotional, and even physical health impacts. Further, these abuses can be sustained even after a perpetrator withdraws, as abusive digital text and pictures live long beyond abusive relationships and often beyond the control of victims.

Unfortunately, despite the above noted growth of digital access in LMICs and indications of an increase in cyber-sexual harassment in HICs, far less research is available on the scope and impact of cyber-sexual harassment in the contexts of Africa and South Asia. Recent studies suggest major concerns. One study suggests that improved digital connection for remote education under the pandemic is giving rise to increasing cyber-sexual harassment of girls in India. Research from India also shows that there is an increase in cyber-based romantic relationships, resulting in an increase in consensual digital intimacy and cybersex among younger populations, but also allowing for relationship abuses via digital technologies, as well. A recent small study from found that women and girls are experiencing various forms of digitally-perpetrated gender-based violence in Malawi under the pandemic, including stalking, harassment and sexual exploitation. Correspondingly, there is some evidence of an increase in online child sexual exploitation across multiple country contexts, with 90% of featured materials profiling girls. Yet, despite the growing smaller scale data on this topic, limited research at scale across diverse LMIC contexts is available.

Two featured resources are working to fill the gaps in knowledge about the prevalence and forms of cyber-sexual harassment faced by women and girls, and whether these abuses have increased under the pandemic. The EMERGE platform, a one-stop-shop for best evidence measures on gender equality and empowerment, launched a series of open access Gender and COVID-19 survey modules, including one focused Digital Connectivity and Cyber-Abuses. Researchers from across multiple country contexts have deployed this module for testing, largely with younger and urban populations in LMICs. At the same time, UN Women is conducting Rapid Gender Assessments (RGAs) since April 2020. Continuous efforts on the RGAs are inclusive of violence and safety for women and girls as well as digital connectivity in Africa, Arab States, Asia and the Pacific, Europe and Central Asia, and Latin America. These efforts will offer important insights into both the issue of cyber-sexual harassment but also how best to measure these issues in a changing world of digital access and digital misuse. In fact, findings of the RGAs have since been used to inform critical gender-responsive policies and recovery plans to build back better. For example, in Jordan, UN Women COVID-19 programming was adapted to ensure remote gender-based violence services and support.

The work of EMERGE and UN Women offers a necessary and important first step toward advancing a new indicator on cyber-sexual harassment for SDG5: Achieving Equality and Empowerment for All Women and Girls. This work is well-poised to advance key recommendations from the recent Bern UN World Data Forum in October 2021, which highlights the need for improved and expanded indicators to track our progress on the SDGs. Further, EMERGE and UN Women are making intentional efforts to bridge the gap between data production and use of statistics – committed in increasing the value of gender data by increasingly focusing on demonstrated data use.

Freedom from all forms of violence must be a priority for our advances in SDG5, and this is all the more important given the increased risk for violence women have faced under the pandemic, and in particular as a consequence of growing digital access with ongoing absence of digital protections.