United Nations, New York — "Can you put a price tag on human life? Can there be a penalty strong enough against those who, for their own amusement, mentally torture people until they end their own lives?"
Teenah Jutton, a Member of the National Assembly of Mauritius, knows the torture she speaks of. She was subjected to digital violence when manipulated and degrading images of her were widely circulated online. Ms. Jutton took action in the most immediate way she could, not only for herself but for other survivors as well: she worked to change the law.
"The unbridled freedom that cyber platforms offer to those bent on harming innocent people means we must constantly introduce new safety controls, keep reinforcing and updating existing laws and explore the need to introduce new and sterner legislation," she explained.
A staggering 85 per cent of women around the world have reported witnessing digital violence; nearly 40 per cent have experienced it personally. The abuse spans bullying and flashing to doxxing (revealing identifying information about someone online), sextortion, online trafficking, hate speech and non-consensual sharing of images and video. These include the disturbing trend of deepfakes, where one person's likeness is altered so they appear to be someone else: One study showed a staggering 96 per cent of deepfakes were of pornography. All the targets were women.
Digital violence is one of the newest and hardest-to-police forms of violence. It is just as real and life-altering as other forms of abuse, with a psychological and physical fallout that can be severe and long lasting - even leading some to take their own lives.
Misogyny, gender inequality and online impunity
Digital violence is overwhelmingly aimed at women, girls and society's most marginalized and vulnerable. UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem said of the abuse, "For women and girls, no place is completely safe. Violence against them remains the world's most chronic, most devastating, most overlooked violation of human rights."
To raise awareness about this alarming trend, UNFPA's bodyright campaign was launched a year ago, with the aim of galvanizing governments and private sector tech companies to overhaul the systems that have allowed this abuse to flourish. The campaign coincided with other high-profile calls for action to protect vulnerable people in online spaces. Since then, a number of countries have seen progress in understanding and addressing the issue.
In Serbia, for example, a UNFPA-supported study called In front of the screen evaluated the frequency of abuse faced by girls in secondary school. A digital violence taskforce has been set up in Iraq, working with local organizations and leading tech companies to strengthen prevention and response, and to lobby for stronger engagement at the government level. Changes to legislation and private sector initiatives are also starting to proliferate. In Japan, the death of Hana Kimura - who killed herself following a barrage of online abuse - spurred a national revision of laws on insult and defamation, while governments in the United Kingdom and United States of America have over the past year proposed online safety bills specifically to protect women and children.
"This is where creating the change happens: Acts like using a fake profile to cause harm should be an offence punishable by law, with the perpetrator liable for a fine or penal servitude," said Ms. Jutton.
It's a view shared by Hera Hussain, founder of Chayn, a global nonprofit for gender-based violence survivors. "Tech companies must ensure they have adequate infrastructure to prevent abuse and support survivors, while regulators and investors should provide a minimum standard for the industry and have penalties for companies that do not meet these," Ms. Hussain said.
The cost of inaction
Digital violence is no less real than violence committed on the street or in the home. Violence online often spills over into the real world, as well. Women in public and leadership roles - especially journalists, human rights activists and those working in politics - are singled out for abuse, often part of a direct effort to drive them from the public sphere. When half of society is routinely threatened into silence, gender equality is undermined and the whole of society loses out.
Yet women have scant legal recourse to demand that even illegally obtained or falsified images be taken down, amounting to near total impunity for perpetrators. A handful of companies govern the online lives of billions of people, and none has yet devised systematic or effective solutions to digital violence.
Both Ms. Hussain and Ms. Jutton will be exploring these ideas further at a survivor-driven UNFPA event on 7 December, part of the broader 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence campaign.
Speaking on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Dr. Kanem said, "We can stop this crisis by acting in solidarity with the growing numbers of people who are standing up and saying 'enough'. Everyone has the right to bodily autonomy and to live in safety and security."
Beyond online safety legislation and tracking tools, there is a need to recognize and protect women and girls' rights to make choices about their bodies and live free from violence - on and offline. As Dr. Kanem urged, "This is a moment to renew the urgent call for society-wide activism to prevent violence, wherever it happens, until we reach the end."