Girls' freedom online is under attack

Photo credit: Tian Bo, Plan International

Photo credit: Tian Bo, Plan International

As part of Plan International’s efforts to mark the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, my fantastic colleague Policy and Advocacy Advisor Leila Asrari, and I wrote the below piece, originally published on the Plan International website.

Compared to their male peers, girls online are facing more threats of sexual violence, more comments about their appearance and behaviour, and are more often told not to speak out and have an opinion. We need to reclaim the internet for girls, assert our experts, Leila Asrari and Nora Lindstrom.

Violence against girls online is a growing issue. As an increasing share of our lives are spent online, we’re also seeing harassment and abuse take new forms in the online space. Plan International’s research shows that just as in the offline world, harassment and bullying online is gendered. While many young people struggle with the pressures of social media, compared to their male peers, girls online are facing more threats of sexual violence, more comments about their appearance and behaviour, and are more often told not to speak out and have an opinion.

Violence and harassment are being used, both incidentally and strategically, to silence the voices of girls and women, and to limit their engagement in political debates online. This activity mirrors concerning behaviours towards women negotiating political spaces. In a recent global survey it was found that almost half of women in politics have faced serious abuse, including threats of murder, rape and assault. One fifth said they had been subjected to sexual violence.

In addition, in 2016, FRIDA reported that over half of 1500 young women, girl and trans-led organisations they interviewed regularly felt unsafe because of the work they do. So, we are seeing that for those girls and women who take on political leadership responsibility, or who challenge the status quo, there are significant threats – different in nature, and higher in prevalence, than those faced by men.


For girls, navigating the online world brings with it these threats and more. The statistics are alarming. In Sweden, one of the most gender equal countries in the world, over half of all girls’ online report having been contacted for a sexual purpose by someone they think is an adult. In neighbouring Norway, 16-year-old girls are most at risk: 40% report unwanted sexual attention online over the past year. Only 13% of boys report the same. While global data on girls’ experiences online is scarce, experiences of women suggest the problem is global: 45% of women in Kampala and 21% of women in Nairobi have been harassed or threatened online; seven out of ten 18-24 year old women who use the internet daily have been subject to online abuse.

The threats that girls and young women face when navigating the online space are real. However, our response must not be to limit girls’ online voice, agency and freedom – protection should not mean exclusion. We must approach the question of digital safety, access and voice not simply from an individual, one-to-one perspective, but also in light of the internet being a core social structure, and a crucial platform for active citizenship and voice. If we do not support young people to exercise their voice and agency online, we risk weakening the civil society of future generations.

Already, of children interviewed across 60 countries, only 34% felt safe expressing their views in public and only 38% felt safe attending public protests and demonstrations. Responses to ensure girls’ safety and freedom online as well as their access and use of digital platforms must address the question of girls’ right to have a voice, both online and off.

Plan International’s new global campaign, Girls Get Equal, is about ensuring every girl and young woman has power over her own life and can shape the world around her. 

Girls also need to get equal online. The online space is not subject to the same scrutiny of ‘real-life’ public spaces, nor are legislative frameworks as strong. This leaves children and young people vulnerable to violence and harassment, in a world from which they should not be expected simply to disengage. Much like the response to violence against girls and women in public spaces should not be to restrict their freedom of movement, responding to gender-based violence online needs to be about making the internet a safe space – we need to reclaim the internet for girls.


Governments need to strengthen legislation and increase cooperation to ensure perpetrators of violence online are held to account. The tech industry needs to take clear actions to ensure that social media is safe for children and young people, implementing strong reporting mechanisms and responding to reports of violence or abuse sensitively and efficiently.

Educational institutions all over need to ensure children know their rights and responsibilities online, and understand how to stay safe, and how to report violence and abuse. Children and youth also need better education on human rights and gender-based violence – for instance through citizenship education, or comprehensive sexuality education. 


We can be positive citizens online, speaking out against violence and abuse, reporting it where we see it, and standing up for victims. We can encourage others, especially children and young people, to use the internet to explore their voice, and to speak out on issues that they care about or that affect their lives. And we can all ask more of those in positions to make online spaces safer for others. 

To start with, we can all sign on to Plan International’s pledge for girls’ freedom. This 16 days of activism, we can all do our part to stand up for the rights of all to feel safe navigating online spaces, we’ve signed – we hope you do too!