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The new frontier for advancing women’s peace and security is online


Ruhiya Seward

Senior Program Officer, IDRC
Headshot of Colleen Duggan

Colleen Duggan

Team Leader, Sustainable Inclusive Economies, IDRC

The online world is a new frontier that impacts all aspects of society, including and in particular women’s peace and security. As Canada continues to support action to foster women’s security globally, the connection between gender-based violence online and in the physical world is becoming clearer and more direct.    

More than two decades have passed since the adoption of two groundbreaking global action plans to protect the lives of women and girls: the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action in 1995 and the Women, Peace, and Security Agenda in 2000. Given the influence of new digital frontiers, how do we reinvigorate action on gender equality?  

Gender-based violence online and on the ground

The digital tools, platforms, and other technologies that are now pervasive in our lives are both promising and challenging for women’s safety and empowerment. The evidence is clear that the impacts of tech-facilitated (or online) gender-based violence are physical, psychological, social, and economic. Even if perpetrated in the digital sphere, there are many lived consequences of this violence in the physical world. Violence online and sexual violence that results in bodily harm share the same purpose: subjugating, humiliating, victimizing, and controlling. The difference is that online harms are carried out with anonymity and at a daunting scale and speed, while there is a vacuum of legal, social, and technology-related approaches to mitigate or prevent such actions.   

Sexist hate speech online and its impact on female public figures as well as the role of digital tech in the involvement of women and girls in violent extremism are two key areas that demonstrate the intersection between online gender-based violence and its impact in the physical world.  

Safety for public-facing women

Evidence is revealing that female public figures — those who are elected or running for public office, peace negotiators, public advisors, and feminist organizers alike — are increasingly under threat. A global study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 44.4% of women parliamentarians surveyed in 39 countries received threats of death, rape, beatings, or abduction via email and social media, and those threats were often extended to their children and other family members.   

IDRC-supported research underscores how online saboteurs are becoming more organized and sophisticated. Their successes have a chilling effect on speech and public action for women’s rights. They also erode democratic, state-centred approaches to governance and public affairs.  

One challenge for women in the public sphere is learning how to navigate the harassment without it undermining their efficacy as political or social actors. Feminist Internet researchers and a wide range of experts who study online gender-based violence recommend strengthening the digital security skills of public-facing women and building safe and inclusive digital spaces and networks.  

Although policy solutions take time to develop, leaders and advocates in the Global South are working to bring evidence to bear and enact laws that criminalize online harassment and gender-based hate speech. In one example, the lower house of the National Congress in Brazil is debating a bill to address political violence against women, thanks in part to IDRC-supported research by InternetLab and local advocates. Yet more research is needed to understand the prevalence of online violence and hate speech. To this end, IDRC is supporting a global survey with the Centre for International Governance Innovation on the nature, prevalence, and impact of online gender-based violence around the world.  These and other efforts will provide the evidence needed to scale up actions for change. 

Online effects on peace and security on the ground

Research supported by IDRC in Mali and Niger is bringing women’s experiences into laws and reintegration policies to help counter and prevent violent extremism. As the influence of digital tech grows, however, policymakers and program designers would benefit from a stronger global understanding of how digital platforms help to create online echo chambers that propagate dangerous, risky, and violent activities. For example, women are largely invisible in the ample research carried out in high-income countries on the role of digital tech in male radicalization. The existing body of knowledge on women and violent extremism — for example by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe and the United Nations Development Programme — can be enriched by locally-generated evidence that sheds light on how digital tech enables women's willing or unwilling involvement in conflict and violent extremism.    

Technology governance is a local, national, and global challenge

Fostering peace, security, and gender equality in the physical and online worlds requires global cooperation and new coalitions among States, multilateral and regional organizations, civil society, and the private sector. Negotiating and charting new pathways with powerful and globalized private-sector and national interests is a vital part of this effort.  

Engagement with private-sector technology and platform companies is essential to counter online violence. IDRC-supported researchers are participating in global multi-stakeholder fora, such as the Internet Governance Forum, to foster these critical dialogues and provide evidence to policymakers and tech companies to address the challenges associated with global governance of the Internet and new technology tools.  

A call to action

We know after decades of research that sexual violence, harassment, and other forms of harm are gendered weapons of confrontation and conflict. And now gender equality advocates — from entrepreneurs to social influencers in the private, civil, research, and governmental sectors — need to build awareness, evidence, and solutions to counter tech-facilitated gender-based violence.   

It is possible to turn the tide in favour of justice and empowerment as was done in 1998 when feminist leaders used research and evidence to champion the inclusion of conflict-driven gender-based violence as a crime against humanity in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  

As levels of violent conflict continue to rise globally, it is time to re-energize the Women, Peace and Security movement and grapple with the positive and negative roles of digital technologies in the lives of women and girls. This issue is central to a sound and just implementation of the Women, Peace & Security and Humanitarian Action Compact that will emerge from the 2021 Generation Equality meetings and future action plans.  


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