LONDON. – When Priya’s boyfriend posted a nude photo of her online, he told her it would give her a confidence boost by making her an object of desire for other men.
Instead she felt powerless knowing that someone she loved had shared an intimate photo without her consent.
“He said all these people dream of having you but only I get to have you,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from Mumbai, not wanting to reveal her real name.
Priya’s story is all too common.
There has been a global rise in online harassment of women and girls in the past year, usually by abusive partners or ex-partners who are stuck at home in front of a screen due to coronavirus lockdowns, according to UN Women.
For Priya, it was the start of a series of privacy breaches as her boyfriend began to control her online presence.
“I was constantly walking on eggshells. It may not be physical violence but it would mean either I’m slut-shamed (for talking to people online) or I worried how my behavior would trigger him which always meant trouble for me,” she said.
As worldwide restrictions push more people online, digital gender abuse is likely to worsen now that the internet is an absolute necessity and there is no escape from it, said Azmina Dhrodia, a senior researcher at the World Wide Web Foundation.
“The entire way you use the web has changed. It’s no longer seen as a luxury, it really is a lifeline for many of us. But with that comes certain risks, especially if you’re a woman,” said Dhrodia, who researches digital rights for women and girls.
Even before COVID-19, more than half of girls and young women had experienced online abuse, according to a global poll last year by the Web Foundation, an organization co-founded by the inventor of the web, Tim Berners-Lee.
Sharing images, videos or private information without consent – known as doxxing – was the most concerning issue, according to the February survey of more than 8,000 respondents.
Dhrodia said online violence was a manifestation of existing discrimination that women face offline so it was not surprising that it has proliferated under COVID-19.
“It’s a hostile space and it’s become more hostile because we’re all online a little bit more,” she said.
Girls as young as eight have also been subject to abuse, with one in five young women quitting or reducing their use of social media, according to a survey in October by girls’ rights group Plan International.
Nearly half of girls targeted had been threatened with physical or sexual violence, according to the poll. Many said the abuse took a mental toll, and a quarter felt physically unsafe.
“It’s a sobering fact because if you think about how much work is being done in terms of digital inclusion and getting people online,” said Neema Iyer, head of Uganda-based digital rights group Pollicy.
Although more women are online than ever before, there were 17% fewer women than men with access to the internet worldwide, according to UN agency International Telecommunication Union.
“To think that after all this effort, women come online, experience violence and are pushed back offline. And that’s really the purpose – to silence women and to keep women in their place,” she said.
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic abuse, had intensified, with shelters at capacity and helplines in some places seeing a five-fold rise in calls, UN Women says.
While many victims are targeted by vengeful former partners, others are singled out by strangers who hack their social media accounts to steal photos and information.
There has also been a surge in spyware, stalkerware and other online monitoring software, said New York-based lawyer Akhila Kolisetty, co-founder of End Cyber Abuse, which mostly works to tackle digital abuse in South Asia.
“As people are working at home, abusers are coercing people to share passwords, coercing people to share intimate images as part of an abusive relationship, or tracking someone’s activity online,” Kolisetty said.
It is an issue that led Indian artist Indu Harikumar to document online domestic violence last autumn, featuring Priya’s story as part of her art project.
“Someone actually told me that if people don’t share passwords in relationships then there’s something shady happening,” said Harikumar, who illustrated stories of digital abuse submitted anonymously by her Instagram followers.
Campaigners say online sexual harassment is difficult to regulate and is often only partially covered by legislation, which varies in each country, with researchers, lawyers and advocates worldwide working to plug legal gaps.
Human rights lawyer Kolisetty said India, Canada, England, Pakistan and Germany were among a small number of countries that have outlawed image-based sexual abuse, where private pictures are shared without consent.
But with technology advancing so rapidly, the laws are lagging, according to legal experts and advocates.
For example, many countries do not have laws for emerging forms of digital abuse like “deepfakes,” where a woman’s face can be superimposed onto a porn video and shared on messenging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram to shame them, Kolisetty said.