The Commonwealth Secretary-General led a panel of government, civil society and tech industry representatives in condemning the “silent pandemic” of online abuse directed at women.
The webinar on “COVID-19, Cyberbullying and Political Violence against Women” was organised by the Commonwealth Secretariat as part of the annual 16-day global campaign against gender-based violence.
Opening the virtual event, Secretary-General Patricia Scotland cited recent studies showing a 50 to 70 per cent surge in internet use due to lockdown and self-isolation policies, leading to a rise in cyber-enabled violence against women and girls.
She said: “We recognise the debilitating impact of COVID-19 and the attendant ‘silent pandemic’ on women, particularly the rising incidences of violence at homes and in virtual convening spaces.
“We are appalled by the alarming rise and goring statistics on the incidence of domestic violence which has increased up to 300 to 500 percent in some jurisdictions. This is unacceptable.”
High-level speakers included United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women Dubravka Šimonović, who urged Commonwealth countries to leverage international instruments and human rights obligations to stem these trends.
Jamaica’s Attorney-General Marlene Malahoo-Forte outlined robust legal measures taken by the country to bring ‘cyberbullies’ to justice and strengthen cybersecurity. She highlighted that Commonwealth Secretariat support was “instrumental” in the creation of the Data Protection Act passed in the Senate this year.
On a personal level, Ugandan parliamentarian Sylvia Rwabwogo shared her own traumatic experience, which ended up in court, forcing her to take a year off political activities.
“Cyberbullying is nothing new and is used to intimidate women who are vying for political positions,” she said.
A wide range of panellists called for more action on the issue, including Caribbean cybercrime specialist Dale Joseph, anti-abuse campaigner Seyi Akiwowo, social work professor at the University of Nigeria Uzoma Okoye, public policy manager at Facebook Emilar Gandhi and youth activist Senel Wanniarachchi.
They stressed the need to raise awareness about the consequences of cyberbullying and to build strong support networks, especially for women in politics who are often the targets of vicious online abuse.
The Secretary-General added: “We must continue to utilise international and regional mechanisms, and to introduce new legislation to stamp out [online abuse].
“We need to increase ICT skills and build resilience of our women and girls towards the objective of fostering gender equality through digital citizenship.”
She challenged panellists to take concrete steps in their areas of work, and to collaborate across sectors to find solutions.