The Rise of Internet: Assessing its role in helping eliminate violence against women

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Posted by: Aishwarya Bhatia
Category: Elimination of Violence Against Women
The Rise of Internet: Assessing its role in helping eliminate violence against women

Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, active internet users in urban India grew by 4% while in rural areas, it increased by 13%, suggesting widening reach of mobile phones and internet across the Indian landscape. Women make up 42% of these internet users in rural areas. Consequently, according to the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), cybercrimes against women also spiked around the same time. Increased connectivity has been a double-edged sword for many, but it can also be a source of relief for women stuck in abusive situations, especially from difficult situations such as intimate partner violence. Can we, then, reflect on internet’s role in helping women experiencing abuse? 

But first, what is Intimate Partner Violence (IPV)? 

WHO defines it as a form of abuse or aggression and includes physical, sexual, and emotional abuse and controlling behaviors by an intimate partner. Intimate partner refers to both current and former spouses and dating partners. A report by UN Women indicates IPV to be the most common form of violence faced by women worldwide, implying that most women are not safe even within their own homes, leaving very little scope to live fearlessly. A study reported that only one in 10 of these women formally reports the offense to the police or healthcare professionals.  

The patriarchal fabric of our society often normalizes IPV among men and women, which is why reaching out for help often becomes a source of great anxiety. Reasons behind women choosing not to seek help are highly complex, but it begins from the sense of shame cultivated around disclosing abuse of any form, which is followed further by victim blaming. The situation only seemed to get worse during the COVID-19 induced lockdown. Loss of livelihood, restricted access to basic services and their inability to leave an abusive situation only trapped women further in the vicious circle that is IPV.  

The Rise of Internet: Assessing its role in helping eliminate violence against women

In such a situation, increased access to internet opened newer doors for women to understand and address their circumstances. 

A collaborative study conducted by UN Women, UNFPA and Quilt.ai analyzed violence against women and its connection with COVID-19 by retrieving insights from big data analysis in 8 Asian countries: India, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Thailand, the Philippines, and Singapore. It identified trends based on big data about people’s search behavior between December 2019 and September 2020 on topics related to Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG).  

The report concludes that the top 10 search queries in India centered around “helplines” and “signs of domestic abuse”. Such keywords indicate that women need help and were actively looking for ways to get assistance for their situations.  

But that’s not just it.  

Women’s experience of their intersectionality emerged as one of the many discourses explored by young people on social media platforms. For example, the pandemic witnessed an increase in focus on the unique challenges faced by Dalit-women when subjected to caste-based and gendered violence. Not only did it help in creating awareness on social media platforms, but such posts also highlighted the need to address policy gaps in a context-specific manner instead of one-size-fits-all interventions.  

The study further reported that women in different countries want different help. In India, emerging cluster keywords included “Domestic violence helpline” and “Report domestic violence abuse” while women in Nepal and the Philippines are more generic in their search for help. The emerging cluster topic in these countries is “abuse help” and “women’s helpline” respectively, where most keywords don’t specify what kind of help they need such as a helpline number or help center. 

Furthermore, keywords like “marital rape law” and “sexual assault lawyer” formed an emerging topic cluster across countries, suggesting that in most countries, turning to the law for help is not seen as a viable option for women.  

What does this tell us? 

The sample for such behavior pattern analysis consists of people with access to internet and sufficient digital literacy. Remote areas are not sufficiently analyzed because there is of lack of data.   

So, while access to internet increased for many during the pandemic, the services it can offer did not reach as many as it could have. 

The Rise of Internet: Assessing its role in helping eliminate violence against women

How has IPV been addressed in India?  

Existing interventions such as special cells and wings in police stations and medical centers have been around to cater to women in distress to make solutions more accessible while sensitizing frontline health workers and police officials to the nuance of such situations.  

However, the problem is strongest at its roots. Intimate partner violence makes it difficult for many to seek help. For some, means to access help is a secondary obstacle, especially when they find it difficult to exercise agency in recognizing or reporting violent situations. Furthermore, if this primary barrier is overcome, many lack the privacy or safety to even report it or talk about it to their neighbors and other family members, let alone the authorities.    

In India, key sources of information about violence against women are the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) and National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports. Under NFHS, IPV is measured for married women aged 18-49 years, excluding those in abusive relationships outside marriage. When the NCRB records are analyzed, violence against women by an intimate partner are categorized either as cruelty by husband or relatives or simply as assault. So, when an unmarried woman faces violence by an intimate partner, it will be called abuse, thereby losing the nuance required to address it effectively. Under such pre-existing institutional muddle, the society fails to help many women escape distressing violent situations.  

This is where the rising prevalence and expanding reach of internet services can help affect positive change. The increased number of internet users in rural areas need digital literacy to use available help services while spreading awareness about IPV.  

The Rise of Internet: Assessing its role in helping eliminate violence against women

How can that be done? 

Data suggests that 9% of active internet users in rural India access online learning resources and 31% of them use it for online gaming. Such statistics reflect the increasing accessibility of digital platforms for the rural youth.  Furthermore, presently running development and impact programs and interventions have opened rural spaces to a host of opportunities and have created greater number of channels/stakeholders for engagement.  

Targeting such young groups using digital platforms can widen the reach of information about IPV.  

Existing youth groups consisting of adolescent males and females can be integrated with programs working on awareness on IPV and its consequences across the ecosystem. It is important to educate them on the widening range of impacts and stakeholders that can bear the consequences of IPV. This opportunity would not only promote digital literacy interspersed with a vital issue, but also include younger male population into the conversation on IPV.  

Adolescent girls participating as stakeholders in schemes and programs by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare and Ministry of Women and Child Development can be targeted for awareness campaigns on IPV, especially on identifying signs and situations of IPV and platforms/channels/stakeholders catering to help victims in such situations. These can be good sources to equip them with helpline numbers and resources available online to escape potentially abusive circumstances.  

All said and done, change needs to be initiated at the fundamental level for which powerful institutions still need to be educated and made aware of the ill-impacts of IPV. For example, Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) and Village Health, Sanitation and Nutrition Committees (VHSNCs) are powerful structures, capable of influencing the behavior of their communities. Strengthening, educating, and training them to detect and prevent IPV using available resources can bring the change we hope to witness. 

On 25th November of every year, prominent buildings are bathed in orange-colored lights to spread awareness about the pervasive nature of violence against women and girls. Eliminating violence completely may be a utopic idea, but it is always the right time to make the world a safe place for everyone to thrive and prosper in the way they want—that’s what all of us should strive to achieve.   

The Rise of Internet: Assessing its role in helping eliminate violence against women

Aishwarya Bhatia, Sambodhi

Author: Aishwarya Bhatia