I was deeply concerned and saddened when I saw a video for an Arab 13-years old adolescent girl crying and shaking while telling what she was exposed to through social media when a stranger penetrated her account and started to send her photos, videos and texting sexual phrases that scratched her modesty and innocence, this is definitely unacceptable violence.
Gender based violence (GBV) refers to any act that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women and girls, whether occurring in public or private life. It refers to the violence that is directed against women and girls because of their gender; it also includes the violence that affects women disproportionately such as physical, sexual, and psychological harm and has been committed both offline and online. Cyber SGBV refers to the technology-facilitated sexual violence based on the use of information and communication technology to facilitate or extend sexual and gender-based harm to victims. This includes technology enabled sexual assault, image-based sexual abuse, cyberstalking and criminal harassment as well as online sexual harassment and gender-based harassment.
Recent research reported that women are disproportionately subjected to various forms of online abuse in various parts of the world, particularly women of specific religions, ethnic or racial groups, sexual orientation, economic status and those with disabilities. The Arab region is not an exception in this regard. Some governments took measures against social media activists who committed violence and exploited girls and adolescents, but the response is still ad hoc.
Cyber bullying is another form of GBV because women and girls are disproportionately affected by violence. Online child and adolescent sexual abuse and online sexual exploitation involve the use of information and communication technology to sexually abuse and sexually exploit children and adolescents. Another form of cyber violence is the use of adolescents particularly girls who have willingly posted images and/or videos of themselves on social media and video sharing platforms, like Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and TikTok inviting others to post insults about them; this is sometimes used to bombard the victims with abusive online comments, images and videos, among other things, until the victims cannot take any more abuse and engage in the desired reaction (e.g. crying, self-harm, etc.).
In the Arab region, over the past few years, we have noticed active judicial prosecutions and prison sentences against young social media activists on the pretext of protecting society from moral corruption, but we have not observed such measures against people who bully teenagers and young people particularly adolescent girls. We believe that governments have the duty of protecting young and adolescents from bullying, and their response needs to be gender sensitive.
UNFPA strategic plan advocates for zero GBV including cyber GBV. We believe that all people are entitled to use the Internet and share information and communicate with individuals online free from abuse and violence. UNFPA has just launched bodyright, a new ‘copyright’ symbol to demand protection from online violence. “It’s time for technology companies and policymakers to take digital violence seriously,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem. “Right now, corporate logos and copyrighted IP receive greater protection online than we do as human beings.”
However, the reality is unfortunately that the online environment is not free from such abuse and violence. Children and adolescents can be (and have been) sexually exploited, sexually abused, bullied, harassed, cyberstalked and extorted online by people in various parts of the world. These cybercrimes come at great costs to victims and their adverse impacts can be irreversible. For this reason, appropriate legal and technical measures are needed at the national, regional and international levels to counter, combat, respond to and prevent these interpersonal cybercrimes.
*Luay Shabaneh, UNFPA Arab States Regional Director