Gender-based violence online is a crisis

Op-ed published at OSCE blog

26 November 2021

By Hedy Fry, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly Special Representative on Gender Issues


In my 28 years as a Canadian Member of Parliament, I have been, and remain, a passionate advocate in the fight against gender-based violence. During my years as Canada’s Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women, I faced threats of physical violence, and needed police protection at events and alarms at my home. These threats of violence continued during election campaigns: my office windows were shot out, sexist graffiti was painted on my office, and, this year, targets were painted on my campaign posters. Women in public life have always been subject to gender-based violence, and I have seen this violence increase alarmingly with the growth of the internet and social media.

We can no longer imagine public life without the internet and social media. Sadly, this digital realm has become a new space to promote gender-based violence, particularly violence against women journalists and politicians. Digital violence can happen any hour of the day and its perpetrators can act anonymously and without penalty. These perpetrators harass their targets through relentless spamming and cyberstalking, through threats of rape and physical harm to them or their families, or through the non-consensual distribution of sexual images, messages or personal information. These perpetrators know that damaging content posted online is almost impossible to erase.

The sheer volume of gender-based violence on the internet is disturbing. For instance, a 2017 report by Amnesty International UK analyzed Twitter accounts of 177 women MPs in the 6 months prior to the 2017 elections; this analysis revealed a shocking total of 25,000 abusive tweets directed at these women. A 2018 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey of women parliamentarians in Europe found that nearly two-thirds of respondents had seen abusive, sexual or violent images or comments about them online.

These numbers are unacceptable. It is time for this violence to stop.


The purpose of online gender-based violence is to create fear, violate privacy, stifle speech, and spread disinformation. The ultimate aim is to silence women who have had the boldness to participate in the public sphere, whether it’s to tell the truth as journalists or to make legislation as politicians. The perpetrators particularly target women who come from minorities or who share the voices of marginalized persons.

This physical danger is real. There is a proven link between digital violence and physical violence. A global survey conducted by the International Centre for Journalists and UNESCO found that nearly three quarters of women journalists who suffered attacks or abuse in person had previously experienced violence online.

Many women do not report the violence they experience for fear of appearing vulnerable. They may self-censor, close their social media accounts or choose to leave their profession for their own mental and physical wellbeing.

The impact of these gendered attacks is to exclude women in public life. And we should all be afraid of that outcome. If women are silenced, if they leave journalism and politics, our democracies are seriously weakened. We no longer have a diversity in representation among the media and legislative bodies. We need diversity in newsrooms to ensure accurate and fulsome reporting; we need women in parliament to help ensure that legislation and government priorities reflect the needs of the population.


The extent and danger of digital gender-based violence is clear. Now it is time for each of us in our respective capacities to act. In my role as the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly’s Special Representative on Gender Issues, I have put out an Appeal to Act to address violence against women journalists and politicians. It contains recommendations for actions that can be taken by my fellow parliamentarians at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly (PA) and by OSCE participating States.

I applaud the work that’s been done to date. The OSCE is working to improve training in the police and justice sector to better support women and girls who have experienced violence. The OSCE Representative on Freedom of the Media has published a Resource Guide for the safety of female journalists online. The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights has led online briefings and conferences examining actions that could be taken to increase women’s equal political participation.

As the OSCE PA’s Special Representative on Gender Issues, I have encouraged the OSCE PA to examine this topic, through the publishing of my 2021 annual report Violence against Women Journalists and Politicians: A Growing Crisisand a recent web dialogue discussing parliamentarians’ experience in tackling this violence.

We need to speak out in support of colleagues who have been targeted. We need to champion policies that encourage women to report digital violence. We need to develop or update laws to recognize and address harms caused by online abuse.

Gender-based violence must not be the price women pay for seeking to work in the public sphere. Consider the women who will never become journalists or politicians or will leave the field prematurely because of threats and violence. In these cases, important stories are never told, and significant pieces of legislation are never written or debated. We must not allow women to be silenced. We all need to act to stop gender-based violence online.



Nat Parry

Head of Communications and Press

Office: +45 33 37 80 55
Mobile: +45 60 10 81 77
Email: [email protected]

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