In the year since #MeToowent from hashtag to global movement, the spotlight has remained focused on gender-based violence like never before. Here Girl Effect’s director of gender, Natalie Au, outlines how the digital world holds opportunities to tackle violence against girls and women.

This year the theme of UN Women’s 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence is #HearMeToo, to raise awareness of the silence and stigma that leads to one in three women worldwide becoming victims of gender-based violence.

In the countries in which Girl Effect works, issues like forced marriage, female genital mutilation, HIV, early and unwanted pregnancy all loom large for girls and women on a daily basis. More than half of female homicide victims last year were killed by intimate partners or relatives, a UN report has found.

And many women and girls are experiencing risks when they go online. Often they feel unable to participate in movements that can help them speak out like #MeToo, out of fear of harassment and violence, the GSMA has found.

Girl Effect’s recent study with Vodafone Foundation, Real girls, real lives, connected, found while safety concerns are real, the overall picture of how girls use mobile is complex. Mobile and the online world holds huge opportunities for girls and women, but they are disproportionately aware of and affected by the risks. As a result girls are often banned from using phones, or judged and shamed if they are seen to be doing so.

But the momentum around #MeToo shows the digital world presents opportunities for girls even in countries that have yet to experience any meaningful social movement against gender-based violence, as long as they are empowered to do so.

Technology can be used to create safe spaces that connect girls with one another, let them share their stories and help them find the information, advice and support they need to take control of their lives. Our own research From Browsing to Behaviour Change, conducted by think tank New Knowledge, shows that what happens in online spaces, tends to carry over into the real world, and that the digital world is ideal for girls and all young people to learn and experiment with new ways of thinking and behaving.

Through Springster, Girl Effect’s mobile platform, we have heard directly from girls who are able to comment anonymously and share their experiences without the risks. We are prototyping a chatbot to create a private and non-judgemental space in which girls can ask their most pressing questions about topics like sex and contraception.

But the onus when finding ways for girls to connect online, is on the development and technology communities to use digital and mobile in a way that puts the safety of girls front and centre.

If interventions are to harness the full power of mobile and technology to empower girls to speak out and be heard, safety has to be built in from the very beginning. In practice that could involve drawing from developments like HIV apps that send information privately and finding ways to allow girls to find safe spaces even when they don’t have a phone of their own and have to rely on borrowing, right through to campaigning and advocating at a national or even global level to shift the stereotypes and stigmas that stop girls from going online and speaking out.

The best way to make sure girls feel safe in the online spaces we create for them, is to listen to their voices and involve them in the first place. Once we understand the everyday reality for girls, we can build solutions that have the greatest chance of achieving true and lasting change.

Learn more and download our Girls and Mobile research.