Being online, being threatened: About the digital gender divide

In 2012, Malala Yousafazi was attacked on her way to school by the Taliban who aimed to punish her for her promotion of girl schooling. She was 15 years old and had published diary entries on the Taliban’s violence on a BBC blog. Malala survived the attack with severe injuries. By now, she is a well-known Nobel Peace Prize winner. Nighat Dad is a Pakistani lawyer and leader of the Digital Rights Foundation which educates women in secure online communication. After she took position on the attack on Malala, who she knew through her teaching, she herself was threatened online in a way that made her and her daugther go hiding for two weeks (Ebeling, 2015).

Providing digital access to women has been focus of many development agencies’ agendas due to the digital gender gap. According to Renee Wittener (Ted 2011), Director of Social Impact at Intel, 23% fewer women than men are online in development countries. But apart from the lack of appropriate resources, such as access to a computer or money for a cell phone, cultural norms also make it difficult to follow what is a global trend: Being online. Being Connected. Nighat Dad points out that many Pakistani women use the internet secretly, afraid of their family’s suspicion concerning new online relationships with men. Kenaw (2015) reports that many Ethiopian men buy phones for their wives to have better control over them. And many more reports online record online harassment and threatening of women in many other parts of the world, including the so called ‘developed countries‘. Violence happens in the 2.0 world as much as it does in ‚real life‘.

So while the internet is being celebrated as the liberator of all oppression and enabler of democracy, it shall not be forgotten that not only access is a limiting factor for billions of people on the globe who do not have it, but also culture is. Wittener (ted, 2011) points out that 1 in 5 women in India thinks that using the Internet is inappropriate for them. Engrained cultural norms, shielding women from the digital world, can lead to new forms of inequality and enforce existing gender differences. The digital divide in general is what Molinari (2011) calls „new illiteracy“: People excluded from it miss out on opportunities. The No Ceilings Project of the Clinton Foundation reveals that of the women with access to Internet and phones, 30 percent report earning additional income, 45 percent report searching for jobs, and 80 percent report improving their education (ictWorks, 2015). Missing out on Internet connection means missing out on opportunities. Nowadays, the Internet is „a basic social necessity“ (Molinari, 2011).

What needs to be done? The Internet is full of ideas. While promoting internet access by means of improved and cheaper technology and educating people in how to use the world wide web, education especially needs to focus on how to protect oneself online, starting from choosing the right password to data protection ending with aid-platforms to turn to in case of serious online harassment in short: increasing the so-called „media literacy“. Nighat Dad examples such approach with the trainings she runs; Reporting systems such as sms-to-web reporting in emergency situations can both help the victim while „harass maps” provide a real-time warning system for others, preventing them from going to certain areas in which violence ranks high. Awareness needs to be risen not only to female users of the internet but also to those threatening their liberty: Consequences of cyber bullying and harassment need to be communicated. For that to happen, legislation pursuing and punishing these ‚new‘ forms of violence need to be in place first. Looking at the existing lack of gender-sensitive legislative in the world, this seems to be the most ambitious and difficult target. Maisonet-Guzman (2015) stresses the need to pilot indicators for measuring digital violence so that a methodology applicable across countries and recognized by international organizations can be created. Open data on gender-based violence can be of use for this venture “for learning, analysis, and invention“ leading to better policy and implementation securing internet security for women (Hussain, 2015).


Ebeling, F. (2015). Viele Frauen nutzen Facebook heimlich. [Interview with Nighat Dad, Digital Rights Foundataion]. Kulturaustausch, (4), 23.

Hussain, H. (2015). Missed Opportunities in Using Tech to Fight Violence Against Women. Retrieved from

Kenaw, S. (2015). Der Spion, der mich liebte. Kulturaustausch, (4), 28.

Maisonet-Guzman, O. (2015) “Gender-Violence 2.0: The Digital Safety Gap for Women. Retrieved from

Molinari, A. (2011). Let’s bridge the digital divide. Retrieved from

Rosenthal, L. (2013). Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls? There’s An App for That Retrieved from:

ted (2011). Magdalene and Naema: Bridging the gender digital divide. Retrieved from

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3 Responses to Being online, being threatened: About the digital gender divide

  1. Anne Sweetmore says:

    In April this year, the UK’s (liberal) Guardian newspaper published the results of research into the 70 million online comments left on its site since 2006. They found that:
    “Although the majority of our regular opinion writers are white men, we found that those who experienced the highest levels of abuse and dismissive trolling were not. The 10 regular writers who got the most abuse were eight women (four white and four non-white) and two black men. Two of the women and one of the men were gay. And of the eight women in the “top 10”, one was Muslim and one Jewish. And the 10 regular writers who got the least abuse? All men.”
    Gardiner, B., Mansfield, M., Anderson, I., Holder, J., Louterand, D. and Ulmanu, M. (2016) ‘The dark side of Guardian comments’, Guardian Online, 12 April.

  2. Julia Nosti Ekebratt says:

    It is interesting that although this discussion is linked to something connected to technology, access and digital divide, the solutions are very much in line with those one would see in relation to problems and threats women face in “the real world”. The discussion concerning a woman’s right to walk home by herself late at night without being threatened, and the solutions connected to it, are in my eyes reflected in the discussion and solutions presented.
    Educating women, using technology to keep them safer, reporting systems and monitoring.. there is nothing wrong with them per se. But I feel that we seem to miss the mark. The reason why this type of harassment and bullying exists online is because they exist in our “real world”. It is not the women’s responsibility to keep safe – to use better passwords, to cover themselves or never walk home alone late at night – it is the men’s responsibility to leave them alone. And although education in regards to online behaviour is not a bad idea due to all the dangers one can find there, keeping women safe from men online starts with teaching men how to respect and act towards women – not to teach women how to avoid the dangers. I feel like what this type of gender divide is based on is just a very real problem that has been moved online as well as as such the battle and solutions belong somewhere else.

    • Annika Brockmann says:

      I totally agree Julia, you are setting the perspective right. Though I’d like to continue this exchange highlighting that not only women are victims of men violence but anyone can fall victim of anyone.
      I think online harassment in particular shows how people are losing morality and respect because the attacked is digitalized, read: not present in time of the attack and thus not able to react and show emotions of disgust, anger, fear or, in fact, fight back. So the ‘line crossing’ is much easier without the victim to oppose me.

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