The transformative potential of information and communication technologies (ICTs) is only just beginning to be realised.  Digital technologies have enhanced opportunities for dialogue, communication and understanding that have a multiplier effect to foster peace and security. ICTs have also contributed to women’s political, economic and social empowerment and new avenues for advancing gender equality, notwithstanding the existing digital gender gap. Yet, this potential for good has also brought with it a dark side.

Louise Arimatsu and Madeleine Rees introduce the LSE Women, Peace and Security blog’s series on online violence against women, highlighting why gender-based violence perpetrated in digital spaces is a peace and security issue.

woman on a laptop

by MIKI Yoshihito [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Trends in the digital sphere have undermined the attainment of two goals of the Women, Peace and Security agenda (WPS) – sustainable peace and gender equality. Increasingly sophisticated technological capabilities have created new means and methods of warfare that, some maintain, make conflict more likely. It has also provided states with extraordinary surveillance powers enabling authoritarian regimes to smother  dissent and opposition.

And it’s not just states that abuse ICTs. ‘Trolling’ has become normalised as a social media ‘tool’ and across the globe women, in particular those in the public sphere including human rights defenders, journalists and politicians, are targeted and subjected to different manifestations of online violence. Abusive gendered language is used to humiliate, discredit, stigmatise, generate fear and incite further violence against women, simply because they are women or in a bid to silence them. Online violence against women (VAW; namely, violence directed against women by virtue of their gender or that affects women disproportionately which is committed, facilitated or aggravated by the use of ICTs and in online spaces) is an obstacle to the achievement of gender equality and women’s enjoyment of their human rights.

The prevalence of online VAW has not gone unremarked. Women politicians and others have gone public on the hatred they are exposed to and its consequences. At the international level, there have been calls to take action but such efforts have often been framed in soft law instruments. Measures taken by states remain inadequate and reactive. In conflict and conflict-affected situations, where online VAW is all-pervasive, the failure to register such harm let alone prevent it, bodes badly for the future.

Our argument is simple: if women are intimidated, harassed and denied access to their rights, there is no security pre-conflict, during conflict or post-conflict.

The absence of security obstructs women from participating in the public sphere and from taking on governance and leadership roles most conspicuously in the context of conflict prevention. Without participation the ground is ceded to those who already hold power within existing institutions and establishments forestalling the transformative change that the WPS framework envisages. State failure to address online VAW thus has damaging implications for all four pillars of the WPS agenda: protection, participation, conflict prevention and relief & recovery.

Since its launch, the WPS agenda has been dominated by measures to prevent sexual violence in conflict. The need for attention was overdue but this focus has elided other forms of violence perpetrated against women in conflict-affected settings, including online VAW. The direct and indirect harm perpetrated through this medium is only beginning to be understood; we need to recognise that harm done in the virtual world is experienced as reality with material consequences that shouldn’t be underestimated. What happens in the digital sphere is both constituted by and constitutes our social and cultural reality.

Nor should online VAW be conceptualised as distinct from real-world contexts: it’s not the technology that creates the harm but the social context in which gendered norms and sexist behaviour prevails. Online VAW is simply an extension of offline behaviour which is rooted in ‘gender-related factors, such as the ideology of men’s entitlements and privilege over women, social norms regarding masculinity, and the need to assert male control or power, enforce gender roles or prevent, discourage or punish what is considered to be unacceptable female behaviour’.  As a social rather than individual problem, it is incumbent on states to adopt and implement comprehensive gender-sensitive policies to address this growing problem. Non-action would amount to failure on the part of states to comply with their international obligations, including in the digital environment.

There are distinct characteristics of the digital space that do raise questions about how international law is to be interpreted and applied. How does accountability operate when the space and infrastructure upon which it is constituted is dominated by non-state actors that are not, as a rule, directly subject to international law? This does not mean that relevant legal norms are entirely lacking but, rather, that further work is needed. Private sector service providers can be rightly criticised for failing to comply with existing norms but responsibility for addressing gaps and for providing guidance on implementation, which are quintessential public functions, rests exclusively with states. Currently, states are failing to meet their existing obligations; without fundamental change, the political commitments embodied in the WPS agenda will simply not be delivered.

What steps must be taken to reverse the current trajectory?

States have a legal responsibility to protect women from VAW, including from online violence. This duty derives from the obligation to protect women from all forms of VAW as addressed in human rights instruments including the UDHR, ICCPR and ICESCR. As with other forms of VAW, online VAW constitutes discrimination against women and, given the customary international law status of the prohibition, all states must take steps to eliminate it. The need for states to adopt measures to eliminate online VAW is even greater when one recalls the right of women to a life free from such violence is indivisible from other human rights, including the right to liberty and security; the freedom from cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment; the freedom of expression, participation, assembly and association; the right to privacy and the right to health, physical and mental.

States have an obligation to ensure their organs and officials refrain from online VAW and that there is an effective and accessible legal framework in place to address violations committed by state agents whether within the territory or extraterritorially and in times of peace and conflict. To comply with their obligations it may be necessary for states to adopt further measures such as additional training. States must also ensure that in cases of failure, negligence or omission by public authorities adequate reparations are provided to victims.

The due diligence obligation requires states to take all measures to prevent, investigate, prosecute, punish and provide reparations for acts or omissions by any non-state actor that results in online VAW. The Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights reinforces this obligation and requires states to adopt and implement legislative, judicial, administrative, educative and other measures that require or enable businesses to respect human rights and to provide access to an effective remedy. Furthermore, states must take the steps necessary to prevent human rights violations perpetrated abroad by all corporations, over which they exercise influence. The Principles represent a step in the right direction to the extent that businesses, including those in the ICT sector, are expressly reminded of their responsibility to respect human rights  and are encouraged to conduct due diligence processes which meaningfully ‘identify, prevent, mitigate and account for’ actual and potential rights impacts throughout the company’s operations. Nevertheless as a soft law instrument it remains non-binding.

The failure by states to take adequate measures to prevent and protect against online VAW undermines the commitment to ensure women’s effective participation in the public sphere not least in post-conflict and political transition environments. Moreover, given the correlation between the increased prevalence of VAW and discrimination and the outbreak of conflict the need to prevent VAW is a pressing one that demands immediate action. The protection of women’s rights in both peace and war-time and, including against online VAW, not only constitutes a legal obligation on states but is a necessary condition to securing an environment in which women can participate effectively to further both peace and gender equality.   

About the authors

Dr Louise Arimatsu is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow in the Law Department, Exeter University, focussing predominantly on international law and war.


Madeleine ReesMadeleine Rees, OBE is a British lawyer and current Secretary General of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.