A woman's place in a digital world

A woman's place in a digital world
© Getty

As I scrolled through online images, articles and comments about the third annual Women’s March earlier this year and with women’s history month upon us, I reflected on both how a single Facebook post incited this global demonstration and the complex role social media and the internet play in women’s lives. Particularly its power to galvanize a global sisterhood based on common challenges and a shared will to overcome them.

While access to the internet is quickly becoming a necessity for employability and is starting to be seen as a fundamental right, the digital public space is far from being a safe and empowering place for women and girls.

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Globally, women use the internet 12 percent less than men, with the gap widening to 32 percent in the least developed countries, due to a  wide range of reasons that relate to social norms and women’s place in society including income, perceptions about technical aptitude and concerns around privacy and safety.

Women’s fears are very well-founded. The statistics on online violence and harassment to women are sobering. Research from a 2017 study from the European Institute for Gender Equality found that in the European Union, “one in ten women have already experienced a form of cyber violence since the age of 15.”

According to the Women’s Media Center, “Women, (compose) the majority of the targets of some of the most severe forms of online assault — rape videos, extortion, doxing with the intent to harm…(and are) victims of nonconsensual pornography, stalking, electronic abuse and other forms of electronically-enhanced violence.”

This type of harassment is scary and can be very traumatic. I can still recall my shock at the threatening messages and sexist comments I regularly received when I wrote a blog for The Huffington Post Italy. In spite of those comments, I persisted to create a channel to broadcast my voice, connect with key policy-makers and launch an online campaign to promote women’s equal representation in my country.

Despite receiving threats far worse than mine and living in circumstances in which their safety is much more precarious, around the world, women are using online spaces to actively change the gender narrative, amplifying their protests in the face of oppressive regimes or social norms. 

A 2017 study by the Harvard Kennedy School, found that while a minority of Change.org petitions were created by women, those petitions attracted the highest number of signers (particularly among women) and hold the greatest success in affecting policy — a statement on both women’s initial reticence to participate in digital public spaces, as well as their ability in accomplishing meaningful change once they do engage.

Aside from online activism, women are proving to be extremely adept at using social media to foster and maintain relationships that provide personal support, as well as utilizing female-only networks to find the information, advice and sponsorship to succeed professionally.

As one million new users join the internet daily, improving the digital landscape for women is a global imperative. While critical responsibility sits with today's social media companies, much can be done by governments and civil society organizations to facilitate a positive transformation.

International nonprofits like Gender Links and Room to Read are leading the way in their design and implementation of programs aimed at enhancing gender and media literacy with the goal of safer use of the internet among school-age youth. This work ensures young people evolve from being simple consumers of media to lifelong learners, aware of and able to denounce the signs of bias and harassment.

Ministries of education all over the world are piloting curricula on media literacy, promoting critical thinking and preparing young people to consume and create media content in a positive, thoughtful and effective way.

As Uma Mishra-Newbery, Interim Executive Director of Women’s March Global said, “Social media is an amazing and potent tool for the women human rights defenders’ movement and activists around the world. It can unite thousands of people behind one issue, it can help educate another group of people about an issue they never knew about.”

By improving the tools and educating users, women and girls can further take advantage of the opportunities that social media offers to foster activism and civic engagement, both online and offline.

Fair and equal representation in the digital space is an important frontier for women’s rights and we need to ensure the internet works for us rather than against us.

Lucina Di Meco is a senior gender expert, speaker and author with more than 15 years of experience in international development programs empowering women and girls worldwide. She currently is the director of Girls’ Education at Room to Read, as well as a global fellow for Women’s Leadership at The Wilson Center.