From buying your favourite lingerie, studying for a degree, monitoring menstrual cycles, finding the love of your life or staying connected with family and friends, the internet has become an essential component to the lives of the connected.

The internet presents us with hope, opportunities and enormous benefits, however on the dark side it deepens inequalities, heightens violence and even causes death. Of concern in this evolution of the internet is the safety of women and girls online.

On March 8 every year, the world celebrates International Women's Day, this year's theme is  “DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality.” This call seeks to bring more women into the technology space not only as consumers of technological innovations but creators as well, with the hope that they participate or lead in the designing of technologies that are safe and meet their needs and advance gender equality.

While this call is laudable and very critical, considering that the majority of technological products are designed for and by men, and does not account for the needs of women, it is important to pay attention to the safety of women and girls online.

Anyone can suffer from online abuse, nonetheless women and girls are the target victims, especially women's rights activists, journalists, women in leadership positions, politicians or simply being a woman.

Globally, overall prevalence of online violence against women is 85% and 39% of girls residing in major cities in Africa indicate great concern for their safety online. 

When people hear of abuse, the immediate thought of many is physical , which is the reason why it is difficult to deal with this increasing incidences of Online Gender-Based Violence (OGBV) - cyberstalking, body shaming, online grooming, trolling, non-consensual exposure of nudity, deepfake pornography etc.

Social media companies are doing little to counter the violence and abuse perpetrated on their platforms. They have said there are mechanisms to protect women and girls online but these safety mechanisms are not fundamental in the design of the platforms but the responsibility of the users.

This shifts the responsibility of safety onto users rather than working on their platforms. Have you tried reporting a case of online harassment on any of these social media platforms? This daunting process makes it difficult for women and girls to report cases.

The familiar saying is "block them" knowing very well the anonymous nature of these platforms means perpetrators can create multiple profiles to continue to harass and abuse women and girls. Technology in itself has paved the way for new ways of abuse, for example sexual deep fakes.

Social media companies need to understand that women and girls from different parts of the globe have different experiences on the online space, as such what may be described as abuse in one state is different from another state, thus, their reporting mechanism should take into consideration the different categories therein.

Again, these companies should be timely in their response to cases of OGBV, as these issues are about the safety of individuals. The longer a post stays online, the more it is shared widely and the more harm it causes.

Women and girls safety online is a critical issue, not only does it cause emotional and psychological harm to the victims, it’s an evasion of their rights to privacy. Also, OGBV prevents women and girls from participating in the virtual sphere thus undermining freedom of expression.

Women and girls' exclusion from participating in the digital space has severe consequences on the economy. According to the UN Gender Snapshot 2022 report women’s exclusion from the digital world has shaved $1 trillion from the gross domestic product of low- and middle-income countries in the last decade—a loss that will grow to $1.5 trillion by 2025 without action.

There have been calls for the creation of alternative platforms which understand and prioritize the safety of women and girls. For what has been achieved and the progress made towards gender equality, it’s sad that online abuse and violence threatens this cause.

There is not enough research on OGBV and its effects thus funds need to be dedicated to the issue, to help understand its gravity and the gaps that furthers it, which will help gather data to better shape policies and regulations.

When designing and implementing digital tools, women and girls should be involved in the process, the approach should be gender transformative, social media companies should develop additional ways for women and girls to seek help and support.

There are situations where some girls reported cases of OGBV to the police and they didn't acknowledge the seriousness of the issue and did nothing about it . Law enforcement agencies should be educated on OGBV and how sensitive the situation is, to encourage women and girls to report cases of OGBV and trust that the issue will be dealt with in all seriousness and immediately.

In conclusion, online abuse is real world abuse, thus the call on social media companies to take action to eliminate OGBV and improve women and girls’ safety on their platform. They have the power to change the online experiences of millions of women and girls to a meaningful one.

Vanessa Otchere is a Communication Specialist.

DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.

DISCLAIMER: The Views, Comments, Opinions, Contributions and Statements made by Readers and Contributors on this platform do not necessarily represent the views or policy of Multimedia Group Limited.