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U.N. Says Cyber Violence Is Equivalent to Physical Violence Against Women

2015 International Women's Day March
Mark Sagliocco—Getty Images Assistant Secretary General Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka in New York City, on March 8, 2015.

73% of women have experienced cyber violence, according to a new report

Cyber violence is just as damaging to women as physical violence, according to a new U.N. report, which warns women are growing even more vulnerable to cyber violence as more and more regions gain internet access.

The report calls itself a “wake-up call” about cyber violence as a systemic concern, especially as technology is spreading across more regions. Presented by U.N. Women and the U.N. Broadband Commission, the report estimates that 73% of women have endured cyber violence, and that women are 27 times more likely as men to be harassed online. In Europe, nine million girls have already experienced some kind of cyber violence by the time they’re 15. Anita Sarkeesian, a gamer and activist who has long agitated for more action against cyber violence, spoke at the launch of the new report, titled “Cyber Violence Against Women and Girls: A Worldwide Wake-Up Call.”

The U.N. defines violence against women as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts.” The report notes that cyber violence is an extension of that definition, that includes acts like trolling, hacking, spamming, and harassment.

The report also argues that “cyber touch is recognized as equally as harmful as physical touch,” suggesting that online harassment might be just as lethal as domestic violence or sexual abuse.

“Dead is dead,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General of the U.N. and Executive Director of U.N. Women. “Whether you are dead because your partner shot you or beat you up, or you killed yourself because you couldn’t bear cyber-bullying, or you were exposed to many of the sites that lead people to suicide pacts— bottom line, we lose a life.”

Mlambo-Ngcuka explained that the report is intended to encourage governments to take action against cyber bullying, and U.N. Women is committed to making sure those efforts are sustainable and enforceable. She said the three most important ways to combat cyber violence are sensitization to the dangers, safeguards against harassment, and sanctions against those who perpetuate internet abuse. “This is a 21st century challenge that needs us to have new ways of reacting,” she says. Still, one in five female internet users live in countries where law enforcement are extremely unlikely to respond to internet violence, and only 26% of law enforcement agencies in the 86 countries surveyed are properly prepared to address the problem.

Even with her position at the U.N., Mlambo-Ngcuka says it’s been difficult to convince some people that this is a problem to take seriously. She recalled some resistance from industry leaders, particularly in the gaming space, who seemed to think that cyber violence was not their problem. “The attitude was like, ‘this sells, this is a business we make money off it, so what are you asking us, to reduce profits?'” she says. “This gentlemen said to me, ‘Lady, you are so intense, chill!’”

She emphasized that cyber violence exists on a continuum with physical violence, and that both problems are byproducts of a society that is inherently unequal for women.

Even if women don’t end up dead, the Under-Secretary-General said, cyber violence can still dramatically affect women’s ability to participate in the modern world. With 450 million more women expected to come online in the next three years, more and more women are relying on the internet for educational and professional resources.

If the internet isn’t a safe place for them, Mlambo-Ngcuka added, they risk swearing off it altogether. “If the woman is tormented, she may then decide that ‘I don’t want to have anything to do with technology,” she said. “To be disconnected from technology in the 21st century, it’s like having your freedom disrupted: your right to work, your right to meet people, your right to learn, your freedom of speech. So if women become so intimidated and traumatized from the experiences they may have, it’s a whole world that will be lost to them for the rest of their life.”


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