Tech companies responded with initiatives to combat digital abuse, but some say it’s not enough.
During a week when the world has focused on how governments and corporations can support initiatives that uplift women and girls globally at the Generation Equality Forum (GEF), more than 200 distinguished women have signed a letter urging tech companies to fight digital abuse.
Published by the World Wide Web Foundation on Thursday, the letter calls on Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and Google to promote gender equality by protecting women online.
“The scale of the problem is huge: 38% of women globally have directly experienced online abuse. This figure rises to 45% for Gen Zs and Millennials,” the letter said. “For women of color, for Black women in particular, for women from the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups — the abuse is often far worse. The consequences can be devastating.”
The GEF culminated in Paris this week with global activists calling for the greater prioritization of women’s rights. Focusing on topics ranging from girls’ access to education to sexual and reproductive health, the event focused on the progress of women’s rights since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. It also called attention to new challenges that women face globally, including those arising from the growth of the internet.
The disproportionate levels of digital abuse faced by women is considered an extension of gender-based violence, which is characterized by the physical, sexual, mental, or economic harm forced on a person, usually a woman or girl, because of their gender identity. Social media platforms that have grown exponentially during the digital age have led to a breeding ground for people to abuse and harass women, often without consequences.
The letter’s signatories drew attention to this fact, encouraging the CEOs of the most popular social media platforms to use the occasion of the GEF to support gender equality and the empowerment of women and help end the practice of digital abuse. The letter’s signers include Diane Abbott, UK member of parliament; Gillian Anderson, actor and activist; Sopheap Chak, executive director of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights; Emma Watson, actor and activist; and Farah Nazeer, CEO of Women’s Aid.
On the same day the letter was published, the Web Foundation also shared a pledge from Facebook, Google, TikTok, and Twitter to invest in initiatives that will tackle online gender-based violence and abuse. Some of these initiatives include proactively reducing the amount of abuse targeting women, providing more policy and product guidance when reporting abuse, and offering users the ability to track and manage reports of abuse on their platforms.
But some of the letter’s signatories say these commitments aren’t enough to prevent the practice of digital abuse and engender women’s empowerment.
“As you work toward these goals, we’ll be watching: We will recognize when you make progress and hold you to account when you don’t,” the letter said. “If you build this better internet for women, you will build a better internet for everyone. You have the way. Now show the world that you also have the will.”
Here are seven women who signed the letter urging tech companies to stop online harassment on why it is necessary to prevent online gender-based violence to empower women everywhere.
1. Michelle Bachelet
As the first female president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet has long been a champion for women’s rights. She initiated policies to encourage women’s reproductive rights and addressed issues that plague women disproportionately, including domestic violence and gender inequality. Currently, Bachelet is serving as the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Human Rights.
As part of her work during the GEF, Bachelet signed the letter urging tech companies to promote inclusive spaces for women and feminist movements to participate in safely.
2. Ashley Judd
American actress and gender equality activist Ashley Judd uses her platform to call for policies that empower women around the world. She has worked with global organizations like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and International Center for Research on Women to raise awareness about the harms of female genital mutilation and advocate for women’s economic justice.
In 2016, Judd gave a TED talk about the threat of online gender-based violence, speaking about her personal experience with digital abuse to call on legislators and the tech community to take a stand against online harassment.
“It’s clearly traumatizing. Our mental health [and] our emotional well-being are so gravely affected because the threat of violence is experienced neurobiologically as violence,” she said. “We must, as individuals, disrupt gender violence as it is happening.”
3. Julia Gillard
Julia Gillard served as the 27th Prime Minister of Australia and has been universally recognized as a role model for young girls for her commitment to gender equality and accessible education.
As a signatory of the letter calling attention to digital gender-based violence, Gillard recounted her own experiences with online harassment.
“As prime minister of Australia, like other women in the public domain, I regularly received highly gendered and ugly social media, including the circulation of pornographic cartoons,” Gillard told the BBC.
She added that it made her “angry and frustrated that women still face this kind of abuse,” which inspired her to add her name to the letter.
4. Diane Abbott
Diane Abbott is a British politician and member of the UK Parliament. She has been outspoken about issues concerning women’s rights, including the right of women in Northern Ireland to exercise their reproductive rights. As a Black politician, Abbott has been the target of both racism and misogyny online.
“There’s always been an undercurrent of racism and misogyny,” Abbott said in an interview, according to the New York Times. “But social media has made everything so much worse. Every day you click on Twitter or Facebook, you have to steel yourself to see racist abuse — that’s a horrible feeling.”…
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