Making invisible voices visible in online EVAW campaigns

Amy O'Donnell Gender & Development Journal, Violence Against Women and Girls

Online spaces are not free from violence against women and girls (VAWG) but, in this blog, Amy O’Donnell and Miranda Dobson discuss how specific online platforms, including Hollaback! are supporting EVAW (ending violence against women) work by providing spaces to report experiences of street harassment and promote solidarity. 

Hollaback! recently launched in Oxfam’s city of origin in Oxford – making it one of the more recent cities to join a global movement using ICT platforms to raise awareness about and put a stop to street harassment. A similar model which calls out violence and intimidation is Harassmap from Egypt, which not only connects people who report harassment to support services, but aggregates reports to help advocacy movements, such as to lobby for better street lighting in certain areas. While a movement using digital platforms are tackling issues head on which often go unreported and unchallenged in society play a role in challenging social norms about violence against women and girls (VAWG), online spaces are not neutral and on the flipside can facilitate forms of online VAWG.
The very nature of the topic of violence and intimidation often makes reporting incidents somewhat taboo and platforms like Hollaback! have found that victims of street harassment often suffer in silence because the gendered violence they have experienced is so societally accepted, that they don’t think there is anything to report. But the uptake has been surprising.

Silencing of people affected is what such digital platforms aim to cut through by promoting solidarity between those who want to see change and enough of a layer of anonymity so as to be detached from individual reports. By using digital spaces to virtually shout from the rooftops (or ‘hollaback’) against violence against women (VAW) and men, platforms like these hope to unite people in a strong statement that this is not acceptable and says to those who experience gendered violence: “you are not alone.”

Many people will agree that online violence is not just virtual

What is becoming clear, however, is that this approach of offering a digital “safe space” has some inherent limitations. Of course the reporting model isn’t universally accessible and sadly civil society spaces are shrinking which allow women (and men) to speak out around the world. Furthermore, while digital tools can create spaces where social norms can be challenged, violence against women and girls can also be exacerbated online.

Many people will agree that online violence is not just virtual and no less real and the disproportionate effects of violence against women is mirrored in digital spaces. “The UN estimates that 95% of aggressive behaviour, harassment, abusive language and denigrating images in online spaces are aimed at women and come from partners or former male partners” This can result in invisibility within the very spaces which set out to give visibility to under-reported issues.  A powerful reason why Hollback! launched “Heartmobbers” offering real-time support to individuals experiencing online harassment and empowering bystanders to act.

As the Internet and digital tools are increasingly used to “democratise” decision making – for instance governments asking citizens for their budget preferences or inviting them to feed back on services- there is a huge danger of treating feedback as representative when in reality there is invisibility of some voices and groups. It’s not only the case that women are less likely to own technologies – and face barriers of time, literacy and cost – but context of how they are used which defines the enabling role in facilitating voice. If spaces are intimidating, they are not neutral and not equal.  If women already have limited political participation – technology will not automatically solve this. And the repercussions go beyond individuals – as intimidation online “tarnishes” and negatively affects the spaces where women feel willing to speak out. So the cycle can continue.

Digital tools can be used for harm as well as progress

In a world where social change seems slow, increasing opportunities for anti-VAW activism through the Internet demonstrably allow us to actually do something about violence and intimidation which we observe. While it’s encouraging to see how different groups are using their amplified voices through social media and online tools, some trends have been observed that anti-VAW ICT initiatives focus on mitigation and response – but need to do more to actively challenge social norms and platforms for reporting need to be coupled with support and advice about the risks involved.

In the process of establishing the role of technology, a core message is that digital tools can be used for harm as well as progress. A fundamental starting point is ensuring platforms are set up in such a way that voices are not missing from the dialogue. Hollback, Harassmap and others are demonstrating how to not only use technology to invite women to speak out – but taking on the challenge in tackling the barriers which prevent unheard voices from speaking out.


Razan Wazwaz