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UN urges action to combat online violence against women

Almost three quarters of women online have been exposed to some form of cyberviolence, says a new UN report.

A UN report calls on tech companies, governments and others to help combat online violence against women. CNET

The United Nations is calling on both the public and private sector to do more to stem the tide of violence against women online.

A report released by the United Nations Broadband Commission on Thursday called violence against women online a "problem of pandemic proportion." The report, entitled "Cyber Violence Against Women And Girls," found that 73 percent of women online have been exposed to or experienced some type of cyberviolence. Among the 86 countries included in the survey for the report, only 26 percent of law enforcement agencies have taken action against such violence.

Violence against women in cyberspace has repercussions throughout society, not just the online world, according to the report. Stalking as well as threats of rape and even death impact the status of women on the Internet. It also taps into financial resources such as legal fees, online protection and missed wages as women are forced to protect themselves. Further, such violence can affect free speech as women become afraid to voice their opinions online.

The report revealed several key findings. Women ages 18 to 24 are likely to be victimized by stalking and sexual harassment as well as physical threats. Among the European Union's 28 countries, 9 million women have experienced online violence, some of them as young as 15. One out of every five female Internet users live in countries where online harassment is not likely to be punished. Further, women in many countries are hesitant to report online harassment due to fear of social consequences. As one example, data from India indicates that only 35 percent of women in that country have reported online violence.

"Online violence has subverted the original positive promise of the Internet's freedoms and in too many circumstances has made it a chilling space that permits anonymous cruelty and facilitates harmful acts towards women and girls," Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of Executive Director of UN Women, said in a statement. "We want to reclaim and expand the opportunities it offers. That means recognizing the scale and depth of the damage being done -- and taking strong, concerted steps to call it -- and stop it. Abuse online is still abuse, with potency and very real consequences."

The report suggested three recommendations to try to address the growing problem of online violence against women.

  • Sensitization: Prevent violence against women and girls through training, learning, campaigning and community development to promote changes in social attitudes and behavior.
  • Safeguards: Implement, oversight and maintain a responsible Internet infrastructure through technical solutions and more informed customer care practices.
  • Sanctions: Develop and uphold laws, regulations and governance mechanisms to deter perpetrators from committing these acts.

Further, the report called on tech companies, such as Internet providers, wireless carriers, social networking sites and online dating and gaming sites to see violence against women as unlawful behavior.

Such industry players are urged to develop better systems for cooperating with law enforcement, set up better processes for removing abusive and harmful online content, use the threat of account termination for anyone who engages in online misconduct and provide transparency reports revealing how they've dealt with violence against women online.