Creating safe digital spaces for women
International Women’s Day, celebrated every March 8, is a day to commemorate the achievements of women and gender equality advocates. This year’s theme focuses on innovation and digital technology for gender equality, recognising the rising influence of technology, and the important role it plays in society today, including the negative and positive effects.
Over the last two decades, digital technology has had significant impact on global industrialisation, knowledge democratisation, access to power and opportunities, and networking. Indeed, the growth of digital technology has revolutionised human experiences and social interactions across the world.
For many women, the emergence of social media, an aspect of digital technology, has provided powerful platforms for sharing pivotal experiences, learning and openly challenging unhealthy gender norms – allowing them to hold bold conversations that are deemed taboo in offline spaces. In developing economies like Nigeria, new media frontiers such as virtual and augmented realities, Facebook and Twitter, among others, have empowered a budding feminist movement to thrive in recent years with actors using digital platforms to challenge gender stereotypes and empower communities of women with knowledge to thrive in confidence and economic independence.
However, the expansion of digital spaces and transformative gains of interactive technologies have also created new risk patterns and threats for women and young girls, providing perpetrators of Gender-Based Violence (GBV) with new pathways for abusing victims in largely ungoverned digital spaces. Cyberbullying, harassment and stalking are all too common for women online and can have serious and lasting consequences for their mental health and well-being.
Women, especially those who utilise digital platforms to express their opinions on sexism and gender equality, are often vulnerable to a range of abusive and harmful behaviour. This includes receiving threatening comments and messages, having their personal information publicly shared without their consent (known as doxxing), and being subjected to online shaming tactics such as slut-shaming.
Another growing form of attack is the demonising of gender equality ideologies such as feminism, reproductive rights, and equal pay for equal work by misogynists and mischievous individuals to undermine the legitimacy of these discourses, maintain and reinforce harmful gender stereotypes, deter inquisitive women, who are just starting to engage in conversations about gender equality and may not yet have a strong sense of their own beliefs and values.
In patriarchal societies, like Nigeria, where traditional gender roles are deeply ingrained, it is not surprising that these attitudes are imported into digital spaces, forcing women to remain subservient and resort to self-censorship to protect themselves from online GBV. In extreme circumstances, victims limit their exposure to digital platforms or adopt masculine names to avoid cyberbullying.
To address these challenges and enhance the opportunities that digital tools offer for bridging gender inequality, it is essential to create safe digital spaces for women to flourish. Such spaces must be characterised by freedom of expression, respect for diversity, protection from harm, and the awareness that individuals must take responsibility for their own online behaviour, refraining from perpetrating or condoning acts that promote violence and the discrimination of women.
To this end, digital platforms and technologies must be designed with mechanisms that accurately recognise and prohibit all forms of GBV, no matter how subtle. Such platforms must also provide users with effective tools to report and block abusive content, simplify the process of seeking help for victims as well as tracking perpetrators of GBV to face the consequences of their actions as legally appropriate.
Moreover, women need to be aware of the risks they face online and be equipped with the skills to protect themselves. This can include teaching women how to recognise online harassment, how to report it and how to protect their personal information online.
But promoting digital equality and access in the digital space is not just about safety; it is also about empowering women with the technical skills and digital literacy they need to thrive, understanding that these are critical building blocks towards gender equality.
Women’s access to technology must be expanded, and they must be involved in tech design and governance to help address the digital gender divide and challenges. This requires significant investment in developing women’s skills in complex tech activities and programmes, as well as involving more women in tech governance and decision-making.
As we celebrate the International Women’s Day, it is crucial to remember that creating safe digital spaces is not a luxury but a necessity. It is essential for promoting gender equality, protecting women’s rights, and empowering women to take their rightful place in the digital world. This requires a whole-society approach that recognises the importance of sustaining offline and online cultures that are inclusive, respectful and safe for everyone, especially women. By working together, we can create a digital world that is truly transformative, one that harnesses the power of technology to build a more equitable and just world for all.
Ikpa and Ibe wrote from Lagos.