09 October 2020

International Day of the Girl Child: Q&A With AB Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International

The health and well-being of girls around the world has long been threatened by conflict, climate change, and contagion. Yet as the world changes, new forms of harm have developed. Recently, Plan International, released its Free to Be Online report documenting young women’s experiences of online harassment, an issue that is of growing importance now that the COVID-19 pandemic has forced so many online. The report brought together the voices of 14,000 girls from around the world and found that online abuse is very gendered, is having a big and negative impact, and that leaders need to do better.

Every Woman Every Child interviewed Plan International CEO AB Albrectsen about the status quo of girls’ virtual lives and the part we can play in making the situation better.

Why did Plan International decide to focus on online harassment for this year’s International Day of the Girl?

Because online abuse is disempowering girls. Girls have a right to speak up and take part in public life – and yet more than half are hounded by harassment and abuse when they express themselves online. By shutting them out of a space which plays a huge part in young people’s lives, online violence is limiting their potential to thrive and become leaders. This has to stop. With social media and other digital platforms becoming increasingly central to girls’ lives, it’s clear that more needs to be done to make online spaces safe so girls can take part in the debates and decisions that affect them. 

With the COVID-19 pandemic forcing key societal functions online, the issue has become yet more pressing. As of July, 134 million girls were affected by school closures worldwide, making the internet essential for them to study and communicate. Now more than ever, girls must have the access they need to be able to continue their education, seek support, socialise and speak out for gender equality in online spaces. This makes it all the more important that girls can express themselves online without fear of being harassed.

How gendered is online abuse and harassment? How much of a growing problem is online harassment for girls and what are the consequences? 

Very. Girls told us they are harassed simply because they are girls. If they are disabled, black, belong to marginalised ethnic or religious groups or identify as LGBTIQ+, the harassment gets worse. Misogyny, racism and other forms of discrimination that exist in the offline world are recreated and multiplied online.

The consequences are that girls’ voices are silenced and freedom of expression curtailed. The report found that nearly one in five of those who have been harassed stopped or significantly reduced their use of the platform on which it happened. Harassment rates also rise when girls state their opinions and speak out politically online, creating a barrier to meaningful participation in our increasingly digital world.

Online abuse also has clear consequences for girls’ lives offline, with one in five girls exposed to harassment left fearing for their physical safety. For many girls experiencing harassment or abuse, it takes a huge toll on their confidence and wellbeing. 39% said it lowers their self-esteem or self-confidence, 38% said it creates mental and emotional stress and 18% said it caused problems at school.

What are some key takeaways from the new report? Are there any stories or experiences that particularly stood out? 

Part of the research involved a deeper dive into girls’ stories. One thing that really struck me was that girls felt that being online makes them even more vulnerable to abuse than they are offline. 50% saying online harassment is more common than street harassment. And the stories of harassment themselves were powerful and distressing.

Describing her experience of using social media as a young girl, one woman from Sudan, now 20, told us: “I used to get a lot of messages from boys asking me to send nudes or blackmailing me about a picture that I posted that they’re going share it or edit it in a bad way and share it with everyone if I don’t do this or that.

“Or just generally talking, like saying bad words to me. At that young age it was, honestly, horrible. So, it was the worst time in my life, using social media. Between the age of 9 and 14.”

This kind of harassment and abuse should have no place in any of our lives. But in high and low-income countries alike, we found that girls had similar stories of explicit messages, pornographic photos, cyberstalking and other distressing forms of harassment and abuse.

The open letter calls on social media platforms to pay more attention to this problem. What should they be doing to better protect girls? 

Of all the power holders who must act, girls told us that social media companies are the priority. No major social media platform is currently doing enough to protect girls from online harassment, and none have fully recognised girls’ specific experiences and needs. One in three girls already report or block their harassers, but abuse persists because they can simply make new accounts, or because action isn’t taken until large numbers of people have reported harmful content.

Girls and young women are calling on social media companies to listen to them and work with them to create stronger, more effective and accessible reporting mechanisms. These must be specific to online gender-based violence, hold perpetrators to account and be responsive to girls’ needs and lived experiences. We are also asking social media companies to publish disaggregated data on online gender-based violence, to provide insight into the scale, reach, measurement and nature of harassment and violence against girls and young women in all of their diversity.

Social media companies have the power to make change. They must do more to tackle harmful behaviour and ensure that their platforms are safe environments that allow girls, young women, LGBTQ+ young people and other groups that are vulnerable to harassment to fully express themselves and play their rightful role in shaping the modern world.

What can other leaders be doing to protect girls from this online abuse?

Online harassment is a complex problem that all power holders have a role in tackling. All members of society – including communities, family, and civil society organisations – need to be allies for girls and young women experiencing online abuse. This includes being active allies and supporting girls to report online harassment.

Crucially, governments must consult girls and young women in order to better understand what their specific requirements are. They must develop and implement initiatives that support a safe online environment, including educational and awareness programmes on digital citizenship and a broad range of support services such as helplines for victims, training for government officials and collecting and publishing disaggregated data on online gender-based violence.

Finally, the international community needs to follow and implement international human rights laws to ensure corporations and businesses prevent, monitor and respond to all forms of online violence and harassment towards girls, women and other marginalised groups.