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Digital Violence Against Women: Our New “Ecosystems” Response

This International Women’s Day, we’re launching a newly holistic response to technology-facilitated violence against women (TFVAW) across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

Across MENA, women are adopting digital tech to surmount old barriers and build new opportunities for themselves. Inevitably, though, this also exposes them to new digital threats, from harassment and hacking to deep-fake blackmail. Those threats manifest in unique ways in this region—shaped by local gender norms, patterns of inequality and conflict dynamics. And the impacts include serious personal harm, but also a reality where many women defensively limit their roles in civic, socio-economic and cultural space.

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Canada’s International Development Research Centre is a global leader in researching gender-based violence.

Today, The SecDev Foundation opens a new phase in confronting TFVAW in the MENA region. With expanded support from Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), we’re launching a newly holistic approach. Recognizing that violence unfolds in complex social contexts, this project reaches beyond familiar single-frame responses (e.g. digital-safety training or psychosocial support). Instead, it seeks to build conditions for resilient governance, health and educational ecosystems that can support female tech users and victims/survivors.

While this re-frame is ambitious, it’s also a very natural progression for us. We’ll be leveraging the local networks, frontline experience and TFVAW research  that IDRC and the Foundation have been building up in the region. And we’ll start by piloting the approach in two countries: Jordan and Iraq.

Building on experience and research

In 2019, the Foundation’s Salam@ team launched large-scale efforts to promote digital resilience among women in seven MENA countries. Activities ran from localized awareness campaigns and safety training to empowering strategic cohorts of female professionals and community leaders. By the end of 2022, Salam@ had directly supported 35,000 people and reached 30 million more online—while shaping national conversations on digital resilience through 450+ media exposures.

This work gave the team close-up views of TFVAW, through the eyes of thousands of women. They witnessed its impacts, its patterns, and its diverse forms in different places. But they also ran into very real hurdles, including gaps in research that could shed light on what they were confronting. That’s why they began to commission their own research in the project’s host countries. In some cases, the results have become the first national research data sets on gendered digital violence.

A fan of three country reports on TFVAW.

Visit Salam@’s portal for TFVAW studies as they are released.

For its part, IDRC has distinguished itself since 2016 as a genuine global leader on TFVAW research. In 2022, the Centre stepped forward to help the Foundation expand its research scope in the region. Published or pending, this new insight on psychosocial and legal dimensions of digital violence now extends to nearly 20 MENA countries.

These studies unpack the diversity of women’s experience in different countries, but there are certainly common currents. Overall, the research shows MENA women facing alarming rates of digital violence, with severe impacts on their health and socio-economic standing. Yet TFVAW is rarely covered or even recognized at education institutions. Psychosocial service providers generally lack expertise to support female victims of digital attacks. Most legal systems lack any gender-sensitive approach to cybercrime. And broadly speaking, victims are not socially or professionally supported to seek support; they’re more likely to face victim-blaming.

New: Ecosystems approach to supporting women

This new project aims to support more open and safe expression for women in digital public space, focussing on Jordan and Iraq as pilot countries. The goal is to build conditions for resilient governance, health and educational ecosystems to both prevent TFVAW and support victims. Our theory of change: because those three pillars are so intimately related, moving forward on all three can drive more lasting progress for women.

On the governance side, the team will deepen the research on existing laws and their impact and relevance for women. They’ll support capacity-strengthening on TFVAW for a strategic cohort of lawyers, judges and local cybercrime units. Through new localized tools and research, they’ll support local regulatory and policy responses. And they’ll prioritize improving victims’ access to legal resources and psychosocial support services.

In the health sector, they’ll explore mechanisms to measure impacts of TFVAW. They’ll support capacity-strengthening for local organizations active in VAW, mental health and sexual/reproductive health. They’ll lead public engagement campaigns on TFVAW. And linking into governance: they’ll examine how women’s legal empowerment supports both their protection and their mental health.

In the education space, they’ll expand the research on women’s digital literacy and resilience. They’ll help empower education partners to produce localized teaching resources—on digital safety, but also on governance and health issues. They’ll also support those partners in shaping local and national curricula. And they’ll promote public education efforts so more women (and potential offenders) know their rights.

Research remains a strong focus here: we’ve seen the transformative power of better understanding the phenomena we’re confronting and how to effectively respond. And to connect research to advocacy and results, we’ll engage networks of practitioners and researchers to help lead the way. Crucially, our previous work in the region gives us a head start here. For instance, on the governance side, the team has existing connections to engaged local judges, lawyers, journalists, parliamentarians and researchers. These partners will leverage their local knowledge and networks to inform research, engage participants and shape products and advocacy activities.

Scaling up

Why start in Jordan and Iraq? The strength of existing relationships and trust built there were important factors. But both countries also present unique opportunities for progress—right now. In both cases, national policies and plans frame women’s rights and protection as development priorities. And in both cases, there is growing public discourse about TFVAW as a distinct phenomenon.

The bigger aim, though, is to support a TFVAW knowledge hub for the entire MENA region. We know that women here are eager and capable of driving substantial progress. Working across the region,  the Salam@ team found tremendous wisdom, expertise and creativity on the ground. Their essential role was to act as convenor and guide—to help create conditions for women to come together and move forward. They baked this realization into the project’s very structure, empowering locally-based national coordinators to shape strategies, activities and supportive networks of women. So really, this was already about building “ecosystems” to support women’s digital resilience.

This project simply takes that concept to a new level. Only this time, with a laser focus on TFVAW, with growing understanding of the ecosystem of sectors that can support women’s progress, and with fresh determination to sustainably improve women’s lives across the MENA region.