Girls’ online reality must be free of gendered violence

Angelica Ojinnaka, youth advocate for Plan International Australia. Source: Plan International Australia/ Getty

OPINION: Girls have a right to a life that's free of violence - both online and offline, Nigerian-Australian, Angelica Ojinnaka writes.

As we mark the final day of 16 Days of activism against Gender-Based Violence and Human Rights Day, it is important that we continue the momentum on tackling online abuse and harassment experienced by girls and young women around the world. 

Human rights must extend to everyone’s right to participate freely online. However, girls and young women like myself are increasingly susceptible to physical threats, racial abuse, sexual harassment and body shaming online.

As a Nigerian-Australian youth advocate, I have had to be conscious about the types of engagement I have online in an effort to avoid online abuse that I may be susceptible to, based on my racial and gender identity. However, even while using strategies to protect myself, I have experienced unprovoked abuse.

Unfortunately, for many girls and young women whose identities cut across various marginalised demographics, online violence is an almost daily occurrence that is heightened and sponsored by trolls who veil their true identity.

Fingers typing on a laptop
Girls and young women should be empowered online, Angelica Ojinnaka writes.

Girls have a right to a life (both online and offline) free from violence. Plan International Australia’s youth activists such as myself have been in conversation with social media companies including Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and TikTok to address this serious form of gender-based violence.

Through consultations, Instagram has committed to a series of Girls Get Equal Listening Sessions with girls and young women around the world with varying experiences online/with technology. These listening sessions are pivotal to centring voices like my own to establish non-tokenistic and genuine commitment to improving reporting mechanisms.

I believe that the elimination of violence against girls and young women online cannot be achieved without persistence and push to hold these platforms accountable for their role in solving this societal problem and mitigate harms online. My hope for the future is to also see a decrease in statistics on cyberbullying/violence and online freedoms. 

In addition to creating safer platforms and reforming reporting mechanisms with gendered-lens, data on the true reality of online gender-based violence needs to be widely published. This information should also be accessible to the public including girls and young women with limited/restricted access to technology.

Research by Plan International found one in four girls exposed to harassment are left feeling physically unsafe (24%), 42% lose self-esteem or self-confidence, 42% feel mentally or emotionally stressed, and 18% have problems at school. Additionally, one in five (19%) girls have left or significantly reduced use of a social media platform after being harassed, while another one in ten (12%) have changed the way they express themselves.

As we rapidly approach 2021, children should not be receiving messages asking for explicit images. Bla(c)k women should not be abused for speaking up about racism. Trans women should not be devalued online by transphobic trolls. Girls and young women with disabilities should be able to appropriately report ableist abuse online through accessible measures.

The support for creating supportive online environments for girls and young women is growing but the momentum must not be lost. With COVID-19 increasing our reliance on the internet for even the smallest things, continuing to converse with vulnerable groups and social media companies to co-design appropriate solutions to combat online abuse is more urgent than ever.

Digital technology in schools
Plan International found one in four girls exposed to harassment are left feeling physically unsafe.
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Most importantly, girls and young women should continue to be liberated and empowered online - knowing that social media companies are supportive of ensuring online environments are safe and secure from Cyber-abuse; valuing the importance of technology to specific communities.

My hope for the New Year is to see continued investment from online platforms to detest vulgar acts of bullying and violence and work with girls and young women to reduce the negative mental health impact this deplorable violence has on them. We should all feel free to be online, now is the time for social media companies and online communities to step up and create an online reality for girls that is free of gendered violence.

Angelica Ojinnaka is a youth advocate for Plan International Australia