“Why nations that fail women fail,” an article published on Sept. 11, 2021, by the Economist, states that studies over the years have discovered that repressive attitudes toward women are closely related to the level of societal violence and instability in a country. It goes on to say that “policymakers who fail the interest of half the population cannot hope to understand the world.”
Gender-based violence occurs online in a context similar to what occurs in real life, and it could be just as harmful as offline violence. Since we live in a virtual society, offline violence has spread to the internet, making it easier for people to engage in violence without consequences. Research has indicated that women and girls are the most common victims of online violence. This risk has increased as people's lives have become more online, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Today, we frequently hear about harassment through e-mail, chats, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Physical threats, sexual harassment, cyber stalking, hate speech, public shaming and identity theft are all forms of online violence against women and girls. It is a form of psychological abuse, and its repercussions can often be more severe than those produced by physical assault in real life. Women's voices and involvement as engaged digital citizens may be silenced if online abuse and violence rises.
According to a study published by the UN Women titled “Online and ICT facilitated violence against women and girls during COVID-19,” 2 out of every 10 young women aged 18-29 have been sexually harassed online in the United States; one in every five women reported experiencing online harassment in Canada in 2018; 15 percent of women reported experiencing some form of cyber harassment in France; and approximately 1 in 10 women in the European Union claim having been subjected to cyber-harassment since the age of 15. As a consequence, digital safety systems have become a global priority for preventing all forms of violence.
While access to the internet and other digital places is frequently enabled by private businesses, it is still critical to view these spaces as public rather than private. After all, millions of people access these areas. Lebanon's internet user base hit 5.31 million people in January 2021, representing a 78.2 percent penetration rate. Simultaneously, the number of social media users reached 4.37 million, or approximately 64.3 percent of the total population, according to the DataReportal digital platform.
Lebanon's unparalleled economic and political turmoil exacerbates the intensity of violence against women (VAW). Extended periods of exclusion, economic uncertainty, social unrest, and limited access to medical and social assistance have exacerbated power disparities, allowing for the increase of VAW against girls and the emergence of new kinds of violence. According to a report released by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces, rates of online violence spreading via social media are growing annually, having increased by 100 percent since 2017. According to the report, women account for more than 75% of victims, and a sizable portion of them are minors.
To address this challenge, the National Commission for Lebanese Women launched the project "Combating and Preventing Violence Against Girls and Women in Lebanon" last week via a virtual meeting. The project is implemented in partnership with the ISF, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeitis and funded by the German government. It seeks to increase the online safety of women and girls and to assist MOSA's centers and women's groups in strengthening their advocacy activities. Additionally, it intends to enable women to report violence via a hotline that was publicized by the ISF during the event.
The event marked the start of a media campaign to raise awareness about the risks of online gender-based violence, emphasizing that it is as harmful as offline violence; it is real, has actual consequences, economic cost, and occasionally crosses over from online to offline.
Although research into the links between violent acts and social media is still in its early phases, it is vital that the issue is addressed as early as possible. A number of questions might be posed such as: Can online interventions help to prevent offline violence? What impact does social media have on people who are at risk in getting involved in violence? Is it possible that a “robust” use of social media ought to be part of anti-violence efforts?
Violence against women, whether offline or online, must be recognized as a symptom of women's systematic marginalization across society. Thus, developing the use of enabling technology to advance gender equity necessitates eradicating online violence against women.
Numerous states and internet intermediaries respond appropriately to eradicate online gender-based violence through taking reasonable steps preventing violence before it occurs, conducting effective investigations, and regulating content that may lead to violent conflict. A successful preventive program raises awareness about online violence against women, the support and the legal protection accessible following an incident.
Eliminating violence against women from digital and internet platforms promotes and strengthens freedom of expression. While the legal concept of violence against women has been widely interpreted, and its definition is found in a variety of international human rights agreements, the law has failed to catch up with technological progress. It is critical today to develop tangible strategies to prevent offline and online violence, as well as to start a discussion about the roots of online violent crime since it doesn't make violence less harmful simply because it is online.
Rubina Abu Zeinab-Chahine is Executive Director at the Hariri Foundation for Sustainable Human Development.