Bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective
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Bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective

Association for Progressive Communications

The human rights implications of the gender digital divide are that women are excluded from participating fully in public and social life, and as such are unable to fully exercise their human rights, online and offline. The gender digital divide exacerbates existing inequality and perpetuates discrimination as ICTs become indispensable to others in society. Without meaningful internet access, women are not able to fully realise a range of human rights, whether civil and political rights – such as freedom of expression, to seek and impart information, to assemble and associate with others freely – or economic, social and cultural rights – such as to pursue their education online, seek health-related information, or find work and advance their economic well-being.

It is important to note that even when women are able to access the internet affordably and have the skills to do so, they may not be fully able to use it to exercise their rights because of cultural norms, in particular, deeply rooted societal discrimination against women, and the policies and practices of states and the private sector. This is also part of the gender digital divide, and is critical to address in order to bridge the divide from a human rights perspective.


When addressing the gender digital divide, it is critical to not just consider access for “who”, but access to “what”, in other words, content that is meaningful and empowering. If a woman does not see the value of using the internet, she will not take it on. The internet has become a critical space for women to access relevant information, which is often unavailable to them offline due to social and cultural norms – for example, information on sexual health and reproductive rights.

Yet increasingly, this information is being dubbed obscene and then censored online too. A human rights-based approach to bridging the gender digital divide requires ensuring that women have access to all information online, to make informed and vital choices about their lives and to fully exercise their rights enshrined by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). And at the same time, women also need public access spaces that are gender sensitive and able to provide guidance in accessing online content for them without fear or prejudice.

The private sector is playing an influential role in this regard. A recent report from UNESCO indicated that state policies, laws and regulations – to varying degrees – are inadequately aligned with the state’s duty to facilitate and support intermediaries’ respect for freedom of expression.1 In fact, rather than fulfilling their obligations under the Ruggie Principles,2 states often make it difficult or impossible for companies to respect human rights online by imposing legal and regulatory frameworks that are incompatible with the right to freedom of expression as defined under international human rights law. As a result, some states are effectively extending the restrictive environments for freedom of expression that exist offline to the online sphere by enlisting or coercing the private sector.

In addition, through their own terms of service and community guidelines, the private sector often takes measures that negatively impact freedom of expression online and access to information beyond what is strictly required from them under law.3 In both the cases of state regulation and the private sector’s own policies, information that is relevant and vital to women is restricted according to notions of obscenity and morality that are based on deeply entrenched societal views on women and their place in society.

As noted above, culture and norms act as a significant barrier to women’s expression online, often causing a chilling effect where women’s ability to express themselves online is concerned. In the words of one BPF respondent, referring to the situation in Kenya and the East African region in general, “Women are expected to act, dress, communicate in a certain way which is often determined by society, religion, culture among other things. This has caused a lot of women to censor their expression online to the extent that some prefer not to get online at all.”4 

Violence against women online

Acts of gender-based violence that are committed, abetted or aggravated, in part or fully, by the use of ICTs such as phones, the internet, social media platforms and email are violations of women’s fundamental human rights. They also act as a significant barrier to women’s use of the internet. Threats enabled by ICT use and threats pertaining to online abuse and violence were not explicitly listed in the survey as a separate barrier; however, many survey respondents highlighted this as a significant other barrier in the open-ended question pertaining to barriers. It was similarly noted as the third most important barrier to mobile phone ownership and usage and a key concern for women by the GSMA,5 and highlighted as a “worrying new development” by the Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband and Gender in 2013.6 

APC’s own research has found that violence against women and girls online – such as cyberstalking, cyberbullying, harassment and misogynist speech – limits their ability to take advantage of the opportunities that ICTs provide for the full realisation of women’s human rights, including freedom of expression.7 Just as violence is used to silence, control and keep women out of public spaces offline, women’s and girls’ experiences online reflect the same pattern. Women human rights defenders face particular threats online, including cyberstalking, violation of privacy, censorship, and hacking of email accounts, mobile phones and other electronic devices, with a view to discrediting them and/or inciting other violations and abuses against them.

As a consequence, women and girls self-censor, reduce participation or withdraw from platforms and technology they are using all together. In addition, the normalisation of violent behaviour and the culture that tolerates violence against women that social media perpetuates and facilitates at rapid speed, work to reinforce sexist and violent attitudes, and contribute to norms and behaviour that make online spaces hostile towards women. Analysis of cases from APC’s Take Back The Tech! mapping project8 showed that the harms resulting from technology-related VAW include emotional or psychological harm, harm to reputation, physical harm, sexual harm, invasion of privacy, loss of identity, limitation of mobility, censorship, and loss of property.

APC’s in-depth research in seven countries9 found that national laws are not efficient and they fail to recognise the continuum of violence that women experience offline and online. In addition, police are less likely to record cases of poor and marginalised women facing technology-related VAW. As a result, a culture of impunity prevailed in the countries studied. The research found that access to the internet itself enables survivors of technology-related violence to claim their rights, without relying on the state. It is important to note that the ability to use the internet anonymously, which is often seen as a barrier in addressing online VAW in terms of identifying the perpetrator, is seen as an important tool for survivors who wish to re-enter online spaces with the possibility of avoiding a recurrence of violence.

Due to increased visibility of the issue, legislation has been emerging in a number of jurisdictions to address online VAW. Some trends that APC identified from analysing four such pieces of legislation include the need to provide practical avenues of redress, such as protection orders, that were not previously cognisable within the criminal or civil law frameworks. Importantly, all of the legislation reviewed recognised that harm caused by harassment online includes emotional distress, even if there is no actual physical harm. The emerging legislation studied also reflects the increasing need for internet and communications intermediaries to play a role in preventing and rectifying online violence, harassment and bullying.10 

Most legislation examined in the research did not impose criminal liability, which is undesirable from a freedom of expression perspective, but instead placed a burden on service providers to respond to requests for information about the identity of the harasser, to cease providing service upon the order of a court, and even to remove offensive content when service providers become aware of its presence on their sites.

A number of freedom of expression concerns have emerged in the legislation studied. In Nova Scotia, these concerns related to the broad powers of a court to prevent internet access or confiscate technologies; in California, initial opposition to the amendment resulted in a considerable narrowing of the offence to apply only where there was an agreement between parties that the image was to remain private. The free expression implications are perhaps the most significant in the case of New Zealand – the proposed legislation seeks to “civilise” online communications by preventing, for example, grossly offensive, indecent or obscene digital expression. In doing so, the legislation seeks to apply different standards to online communication and expression than to offline communication and expression.

On one hand, the legislation recognises the unique nature of digital communications – the speed with which they are promulgated and proliferate, the inability to permanently erase them, and the insulating nature of anonymous communications that can promote offensive or violent behaviour. The fact that the potential for harm can be attributed differently to digital technologies than offline speech is seen as a basis for treating electronic communications differently. On the other hand, however, the legislation also applies a number of subjective and general standards to all digital communications, which, depending on a court’s interpretation, could be applied in ways that limit free expression and could undermine the free flow of information.

Aside from the risk of overly broad limitations on freedom of expression, some authorities respond to online VAW by seeking to limit women’s access to the internet. Recent research from the Internet Democracy Project in India examines the practice of some local councils (or Punjarat) that have banned mobile phone usage by young and/or unmarried women on the basis that women and girls need to be protected from online abuse.11 The fact that there is a generalised perception of threat pertaining to the internet therefore tends to be used as an excuse for preventing women and girls from accessing the internet in the country.

A dimension of VAW that is particularly relevant in relation to efforts to bridge the gender digital divide, although it does not take place through ICTs, relates to the challenges faced by women in rural areas. They may find the internet especially difficult to access, particularly in areas where access is only available outside the home or in unsafe locations, and/or where social or cultural norms and safety concerns may restrict women’s freedom of movement.

Some positive common elements that emerged from APC’s research on legislation include: the use of a consultative process in designing the legislation; utilising/amending existing legal frameworks vs. creating new laws; focus on redress over criminalisation, which seems to be the most effective, efficient and meaningful way of aiding victims of violence online and ensuring that justice is achieved; the use of protection orders to address online VAW, which provide a practical means of halting violence without requiring victims to become embroiled in lengthy and demanding criminal processes; and creating a dedicated agency to receive and investigate complaints.

Excerpted from “Bridging the gender digital divide from a human rights perspective: APC submission to the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.” Association for Progressive Communications (APC). February 2017.


1. UNESCO. (2015). Fostering Freedom Online: The Role of Internet Intermediaries.

2. UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

3. Agence France-Presse. (2016, 20 October). Facebook bans “offensive” Swedish breast cancer awareness video. The Guardian.

4. Sylvia Musalagani (Kenya), quoted in Van der Spuy, A. (2016). Overcoming Barriers to Enable Women’s Meaningful Internet Access. Output document –IGF Best Practice Forum on Gender.

5. GSMA. (2015). Bridging the Gender Gap: Mobile access and usage in low- and middle-income countries.

6. Broadband Commission Working Group on Broadband and Gender. (2013). Doubling Digital Opportunities: Enhancing the Inclusion of Women & Girls in the Information Society.



9. The research consisted of mapping domestic legal remedies through literature review and conducting in-depth interviews to gather women’s and girls’ experiences of accessing justice and compiling case studies in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Mexico, Pakistan and the Philippines. See:

10. Nyst, C. (2014). Technology-related violence against women: Recent legislative trends. Association for Progressive Communications.

11. Kovacs, A. (2017). “Chupke, Chupke”: Going Behind the Mobile Phone Bans in North India. Internet Democracy Project.

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