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Speeches Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

Building a common front against the digital dimension of violence against women

Side event organized by the Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women - Keynote speech

15 March 2022

Delivered by

Assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights


New York

It gives me great pleasure to take part in this important side-event on the margins of this year’s Commission on the Status of Women. I wish to express our gratitude to the Platform of Independent Expert Mechanisms on Discrimination and Violence against Women for convening us.

New technological tools have significantly opened up the space and expanded the outreach for new voices, concerns and perspectives. Women have benefited from these new channels for influencing debate and decision-making. 

Unfortunately, the digital universe mirrors and amplifies offline power structures and patterns of discrimination. The same is true for misogyny and gender biases. In today’s digital age, women and girls around the world are increasingly the target of new forms of internet-facilitated violence, subjected to new forms of harassment, intimidation and threats of sexual and gender-based violence. A UNESCO study from 2015 suggests that 73% of women had already at that time been exposed to or have experienced some form of online violence. This alarming level of prevalence has drastically increased in the context of COVID -19 pandemic.

In a most disturbing trend, gender-based intimidation and harassment can now be perpetrated across borders and without physical contact. Mobile Internet access means that these threats can be made at any time and can pursue their victims anywhere. Observers have also documented a rise of digital surveillance, whereby personal information, including private photos, videos, and conversations, can be misused in harmful ways, targeting women and girls.

Consent is key in differentiating lawful from unlawful behaviour. It is the pillar around which preventive measures and post-incident responses are implemented and must be addressed by any mechanism dealing with online violence. The emergence of non-consensual distribution of intimate images is a means of intimidating and humiliating women and girls. Such violence can lead to significant emotional distress, as the violation of privacy which follows may result in increased anxiety, loss of self-confidence, feelings of disempowerment, social ostracization and, in the worst cases, even to suicide. The online dissemination of content that promotes and reinforces violence against women and girls, and the fact that a permanent digital record is created can result in revictimization and re-traumatization.

Beyond the specific individual harm on victims, digital violence against women can also have a dangerous negative, disempowering effect on women’s rights to political participation and freedom of expression, both at the national and international level. Women human rights defenders and journalists are especially at risk. Last year’s report by Secretary-General on reprisals for cooperation with the United Nations documented several cases of online attacks against women human rights defenders for engaging with and reporting to United Nations mechanisms. Such attacks also aim at discouraging women from bringing their concerns and testimonies to the attention of international mechanisms. Hence, protection against online violence against women and ensuring their effective access to justice and reparations also contribute to our efforts of strengthening civic space where women can freely participate and express their views.

All efforts to limit or prevent online abuse need to comply with international human rights law. Overly broad and vague laws lend themselves to censorship – and often end up undermining the rights of the women we seek to protect. For example, vague laws prohibiting obscenity could be used to limit critical discussions about sexuality, gender and reproductive health.

The rapid spread of the Internet has also presented governments with an immense challenge of passing legislation and establishing regulatory mechanisms that protect women and girls from abuse and harm while upholding freedom of expression. Many states still fail to recognize violence against women in digital spaces as a form of violence. Continued discussion regarding the need for regulations explicitly considering online violence as a form of violence, or legislation on violence against women that includes online violence, is needed.

States should also ensure access to justice: women must feel that they can come forward and report the abuse, and that action will be taken for perpetrators to be held to account, so there is no impunity for such forms of violence. Social media companies must also do their part and need to put in place gender-sensitive mechanisms and policies to ensure that any case is promptly and effectively addressed – for instance by blocking or taking down a post.

In addition, the decentralized and global scope of the internet creates governance and regulation challenges, necessitating new legal and practical solutions to enforce the human rights of women.

We need a multipronged approach, both proactive and reactive, that is inclusive of all relevant actors, including privately-owned social and digital media, to eliminate violence against women and girls in digital contexts is required. This includes global and national education and media campaigns to promote a culture of respect, protection and non-discrimination both online and offline. And technological changes need to be closely monitored in order to respond to new online forms of violence against women and girls in a timely and effective manner.

Indeed, we need to urgently intensify efforts at all levels and with all stakeholders, including men and boys alongside women and girls as agents of change, to eliminate and prevent all forms of violence against women and girls, in both the public and private spheres. This includes the need to challenge gender stereotypes and the negative social norms, attitudes and behaviours that underlie and perpetuate such violence.

The Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights recognizes that the promotion and protection of the human rights of women in all areas of work of the United Nations is foundational to our goals and values. The Call to Action also highlights the challenges posed by the digital age, and advocates for the application of the human rights framework to the digital space. It highlights the need for a joint effort across all UN agencies to address the many aspects of this complex and urgent challenge.

Reinforcing the Call for Action, online violence against women has been highlighted by the Secretary General in his “Our Common Agenda” report as an emerging issue and crucial for the achievement of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development. The report identifies the gaps in cyberspace governance as a global challenge, underscores that digital harassment has particularly targeted women and girls and pushed many women out of the public conversation, and calls for the application of human rights online to help ensure an open, free and secure digital future for all. The human rights community needs actively participate in this debate, and ready to suggest innovative proposals, capable of unpacking and explaining how existing universal human rights principles apply in the digital age or – if protection gaps are identified, how to fill these. Action Point 22 of “Our Common Agenda” calls for further work in this area, and our Office is working closely with partners across the Secretariat to develop a roadmap to guide the way forward.

I am very much looking forward to hearing the experiences, ideas and perspectives of the panellists on the topic. By working together, the human rights community can help propose creative solutions to end the scourge of online violence against women.

Thank you.