The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated a global digital and data-driven transformation, with more people online for work, leisure, and learning. More time online means increased opportunities for virtual connection, but also poses new and unique challenges.
Digital technologies are a powerful driver of gender equality, giving women and girls new information, opportunities, and resources. But the digital gender divide persists, in part because of social and gender norms and deep-rooted gender stereotypes. This means that many women, especially those from developing countries, face continued challenges in accessing and making use of digital technologies. The rates at which girls and young women are learning to code, for example, continue to trail those of boys and men. And globally, women make up only 29 percent of the STEM workforce, and are less likely than men to have an education in science and tech-related fields.
Even when they do have access to the internet, women and girls often face online violence and harassment in the form of explicit or pornographic messages and cyberstalking. In the European Union, one in 10 women has experienced some form of cyber-harassment since the age of 15. In Pakistan, an estimated 40 percent of women have dealt with various forms of online harassment on. The pandemic has worsened the situation. In nine countries across the Middle East and North Africa, a UN Women survey found online harassment was the most commonly reported type of violence against women.
Online harassment can also lead to offline consequences. In Latin America, the potential for harassment and privacy breaches has been cited as one of the major barriers to women’s access to digital services, particularly in Guatemala and Mexico. The pressure can have devastating effects on women’s mental health, with online violence linked to depression and even self-harm.
We need a safe, affordable, and inclusive internet, one that doesn’t fuel harmful gender stereotypes, silence women’s voices, and imperil women’s safety and rights. Equally, we need digital tools to boost women’s participation and leadership in the digital space. It is not enough for women and girls to simply have access to technology and digital skills; they must also become active agents of change to create a safer and equitable digital future for all.
This responsibility falls on all of us--governments, civil society organizations, the private sector, including tech companies, and law enforcement. Without rights-based governance and ethical guard rails, we risk leaving women and girls further behind in the digital transformation.
Not enough is being done to counter cyberviolence and to design safe online spaces. A small number of countries have enacted legislation against online gender-based violence, but with technology advancing rapidly, many are lagging. Stronger regulations and laws are needed, as is investing in law enforcement and justice officers specialized in addressing online violence with a human-rights and gender approach. We must also continue to work together to tackle discriminatory and harmful social norms and stereotypes. Tech companies need to further commit to addressing gendered violence and keeping their platforms safe for everyone. Last year Facebook, Google, Twitter and TikTok took a step in the right direction, pledging to fix persistent weaknesses in how they tackle online gender-based violence, especially through better and more reliable systems for flagging online abuse.
At UNDP, we are working with global partners to counter the shadow pandemic of violence against women, including online violence. UNDP supports almost 100 countries in ending gender-based violence, including as part of the Spotlight Initiative. With UNDP’s new Digital Strategy, we are also re-committing to driving inclusive and gender-sensitive approaches to boost gender equality and to address the persistent and emerging challenges affecting women online, including safety issues and the digital gender divide. As part of our efforts, gender will be mainstreamed across UNDP’s digital work. Digital transformation will also be one of the core parts of UNDP’s next Gender Equality Strategy, which is launching this summer.
The Digital Strategy builds on UNDP’s existing work to ensure our digital transformation initiatives are gender inclusive, including through developing locally tailored tools to help women recognize, report, and recover from online abuse. In Kyrgyzstan UNDP helped develop Mildet, a chatbot that enables women to identify signs of psychological and financial abuse online. In Kosovo*, with support from Norway, UNDP launched a campaign called ‘Careful on the Internet!’, which brings together cybersecurity professionals, members of civil society, and concerned citizens to raise awareness about internet safety. To motivate governments to tackle the pandemic through a gender lens, UNDP and UN Women developed the COVID-19 Global Gender Response Tracker, which monitors global pandemic policy responses.
As we pass the second anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial that we ensure that digital technologies are being used to accelerate progress on the Sustainable Development Goals and gender equality, not set us further back. We must work together to combat cyberviolence and develop digital tools to prevent and respond to gender-based violence. We must eliminate the digital gender divide that is holding women and girls back. We have no time to waste.
*References to Kosovo shall be understood to be in the context of Security Council resolution 1244 (1999).