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Gender equality in a digital world: IDRC at the UN Commission on the Status of Women

 
March 6, 2023
The digitalization of our world brings challenges and opportunities in the drive to achieve gender equality. This year, the primary focus of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) will be on innovation, technological change and education in the digital age for achieving gender equality.
A teacher speaks to a female teenager who is sitting in front of a laptop in a classroom in Kenya.
GPE/Luis Tato

IDRC’s support for research on digital innovation in education, artificial intelligence and technology-enabled gender-based violence has much to contribute to these deliberations. The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) is the principal intergovernmental body dedicated to promoting gender equality and empowering women.  

IDRC’s participation in the Canadian Delegation to UNCSW 

During this sixty-seventh session of UNCSW, from March 6–17, 2023, IDRC is leading one of Canada’s official side events in New York:  

Leveraging digital education, technology and innovation for gender equality in the Global South  

March 10, 2023 from 11:30am to 12:45pm EST  

This panel will highlight how proven digital solutions at scale can address development challenges like the education crisis while expanding opportunities for women in science, technology, engineering and math and addressing gender bias and violence.  

Drawing on lessons from IDRC-supported research and advocacy, speakers will outline the challenges that hinder gender equality and inclusion in their local contexts, showcase their experiences with adapting and scaling gender-sensitive innovations and propose policy recommendations.

The speakers are: 

  • Larysa Lysenko, research coordinator, Concordia University   
  • Jasmine Turner, researcher, War Child Holland   
  • Claudia Sugimaru, adjunct researcher, Group for the Analysis of Development  

This in-person event will be moderated by Naser Faruqui, director of the Education and Science division at IDRC. The event is open to UN passholders on a first-come first-served basis, but registration is encouraged so that information may be shared.

An in-person Canada-hosted event on March 6, "Exploring the impacts and influences of digital technologies on gender-based violence work" also features IDRC-supported research. Suzie Dunn will share findings of the first phase of an 18-country survey on technology-facilitated gender-based violence. This survey is led by the Centre for International Governance Innovation and supported by IDRC, which recently extended support to expand the research to more countries. See the side event schedule.

IDRC events, partner events and contributions

A new indicator for care needs – Feedback session on the Basic Care Basket  

March 7, 1:15–2:45 pm EST │Ford Foundation Centre for Social Justice 

This UNCSW side event will launch the Basic Care Basket, an innovative methodology that counts an individual’s care needs (provided through paid or unpaid care work) as part of our support to create a co-responsible care model between households, communities, markets and states. The aim is to contribute to gender equality by addressing the undue burden of care that falls on women and girls.  

The event is co-hosted by the Center for the Implementation of Public Policies Promoting Equity and Growth, Global Alliance for Care, IDRC, Southern Voice and the UN Foundation. 

Several IDRC research partners participated in the expert group meetings leading up to this sixty-seventh session of the UNCSW and prepared background and expert papers. They are also holding events at UN headquarters or in parallel to the UN session. This is the case for Research ICT Africa, LIRNEAsia, IT for Change and the Association for Progressive Communications, whose research informed debate on issues such as sexist hate speech, feminist digital justice and gender and the Global Digital Compact — a set of shared principles for an open, free and secure digital future for all that is being developed by the UN.  

Events led by IDRC research partners or featuring IDRC-supported research include: 

Closing the justice gap with research on legal empowerment

 
February 21, 2023

More than half of the world’s population is excluded from opportunities the rule of law provides, and 1.5 billion people cannot access support to resolve justice problems. IDRC supports research on legal empowerment strategies to address this growing justice gap and to promote vibrant civic spaces.

These strategies generally shift away from traditional models that involve lawyers, judges and courts to focus instead on community paralegals who help people understand and claim their rights. Many community-based justice strategies originated during earlier struggles to establish and strengthen democracy, for instance in South Africa, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Indonesia and the Philippines. IDRC-supported research assesses how such strategies can promote the respect for rights that is central to flourishing civic space and accountable governance despite challenges such as weakening political institutions and inequitable responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Following an open and competitive call for proposals, IDRC invested CAD5.8 million in eight research teams that are leading a people-centred examination of community-based justice approaches in 13 countries, to strengthen democracy and protect human rights. In 2022, IDRC awarded an additional CAD1.7 million grant to three new research teams in Latin America, bringing the total to 11 research teams in 16 countries. Four of these teams will also serve as regional hubs (in West Africa, East and southern Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America) to link the research findings to broader learning and collective action in the legal empowerment community of practice.   

This research will contribute knowledge and evidence to a larger learning agenda on legal empowerment that is supported by IDRC partners Namati and the Legal Empowerment Network. The learning agenda focuses the efforts of hundreds of organizations on a set of common questions and comparative learning to address collective knowledge gaps. They seek to learn how grassroots legal empowerment strategies such as transforming institutions, achieving progressive policy reforms and addressing the structural causes of inequality and exclusion can change systems.   

Read about the projects in the Closing the Justice Gap initiative:

Namati and the Legal Empowerment Network will act as the global knowledge hub for this initiative. In collaboration with the regional hubs, they will coordinate shared learning efforts across the projects and organize joint activities at key points in the research process. 

Learning for Life: IDRC invests in research to ensure a quality education for all

 
January 23, 2023

Education is a fundamental and widely recognized human right. IDRC is among the many Canadian and global institutions working to ensure the right to an education translates to tangible, accessible and quality lifelong learning for all.

IDRC believes in the power of innovative, Southern-based research to inform education policy and practice in lower- and middle-income countries (LMICs). This research does not exist in a theoretical vacuum. It is alive and active in classrooms around the world.

Today, we mark the 5th anniversary of the International Day of Education under the theme “to invest in people, prioritize education” by outlining a few of the ways that we invest in education research and innovations for people of all ages, and with a mind on reaching the most vulnerable.

EARLY CHILDHOOD EDUCATION: Scaling proven solutions for the right start

The evidence is clear that investments in education are the most effective and lead to the most equitable outcomes when they focus on the early years. But global disparities mean access to such programs is far from equal. In 2019, 75% of children worldwide were enrolled in pre-primary education, but in sub-Saharan Africa and in northern Africa and Western Asia, the rate was about 50% (GEM report, 2021).  

How can we close the gap? Education researchers, governments and communities are collaborating to implement and strengthen local programs that may benefit other regions through careful and informed scaling. For example, Plan International has been running a pre-primary summer program called LEARN for several years that gives children in remote villages in Lao PDR access to early childhood education. Through our partnership with the Global Partnership for Education’s Knowledge and Innovation Exchange, researchers have continued to implement this initiative across the country and are now working in Cambodia and Tanzania, where millions of children in remote areas do not have access to formal early learning. Activities include trainings for government officials, community leaders and parents who are now collaborating with teachers to not only mobilize children’s enrollment but also provide resources to sustain the centres and pay teachers. 

Media
A young girl sits in front of a laptop computer
GPE/Carine Durand

 

PRIMARY EDUCATION: How research can help policymakers ensure everyone gets foundational skills

UNESCO estimates that more than 60 million children are missing out on basic education — the fundamental literacy and math skills offered in primary school. That estimate doesn’t even take the full cost of the pandemic into account. UNESCO is warning there are likely more children today who cannot read a simple story than before the COVID-19 outbreak.

Teaching at the Right Level (TaRL) is an innovation designed to get primary students on the right track, and is the focus of another KIX project. The idea of teaching at the right level is to prioritize a child’s learning needs over their grades or age. TaRL is a promising innovation that saves more children from falling behind in learning outcomes, but it can’t function without systematic changes within schools and at the policy level. Recently, the government of Côte d’Ivoire, using KIX research, said it intends to integrate Teaching at the Right Level across the country.

EDTECH: Research helps to design the right tool for the right job

Investments in primary education are often cited as the reason for the climb in global literacy rates to 87% (from 12% in 1820), but disparities remain. In parts of the world, particularly sub-Saharan Africa, literacy rates fall below 50% (WEF). What contributes to that gap and what interventions can close it? Research is helping to find some answers in digital technology, a sector that IDRC has worked in for more than a decade.

In a technology research project in Kenya, a grade one class using the literacy technology ABRA and READS showed significantly greater improvements in vocabulary, reading comprehension and reasoning as compared to those that did not. It also helped the teachers involved to upgrade their own skills (this research is continuing under GPE-KIX).

In a recent project in Chile, researchers evaluated an innovative technology program that uses games to increase math and science learning in low-performing primary schools. Compiled by researchers from the University of Chile, the Inter-American Development Bank and Cornell University, the study indicated students who used the technology performed better on math questions in the Chilean national standardized exam.  

TOGETHER FOR LEARNING: Ensuring quality education in difficult contexts

Scaling innovative approaches to learning and teaching to improve educational outcomes is a significant focus of the educational research we support. An example is the experiential learning objects (xLOBs) model in the West Bank. Led by researchers at Birzeit University’s Center for Continuing Education, this innovative approach to teaching and learning started in select schools in the West Bank in 2012. It didn’t take long before researchers saw that the learning design — pedagogical building blocks for teachers to produce an active and stimulating learning process — helped to significantly raise learning outcomes among Palestinian refugees in the West Bank. After 14 years of planning, research and development study and testing, Birzeit-Center for Continuing Education, in cooperation with the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Refugees (UNRWA) are now scaling the implementation of xLOBs to all 96 UNRWA schools operating across the West Bank in grades one to nine. This is a significant stage in the evolution and adoption of the xLOBs model because they are being integrated within an educational system at a systemic level.

Media
A group of young female refugees writing on a whiteboard in a classroom
IDRC/Catalina Martin-Chico

 

SECONDARY SCHOOL: Research helps to understand challenges experienced by female students during crisis situations

The risk of drop-out increases as children get older, particularly in lower middle-income countries. Economic pressures, along with cultural factors, are often to blame. Either families cannot afford the often-increased costs of secondary school, or they need adolescent children to contribute to the household income. Adolescent girls are affected most by these pressures, which have been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures hit girls and other vulnerable groups particularly hard, as demonstrated by the KIX COVID-19 Observatory project that tracks education policy and practice responses to the pandemic in 40 sub-Saharan African countries that are part of the Global Partnership for Education. The project found that some education systems did adopt measures to protect girls against sexual violence and teenage pregnancy. They achieved this through targeted campaigns and building awareness about gender-based violence and adolescent reproductive health and promoting school re-entry upon the reopening of schools. But results are uneven. The Observatory also found systems do not always collect gender-disaggregated data and track student progress in a way that we can understand and address the needs of girls.

HIGHER EDUCATION: Meeting market expectations

Post-secondary institutions, whether academic or technical, must innovate and develop to prepare graduates to meet current job market demands. This is a struggle for many places of higher learning, but the challenge is even greater in lower-income countries that have seen already modest budgets for post-secondary education shrink further in recent decades.

IDRC supported a multi-country research initiative to explore ways to strengthen engineering ecosystems in sub-Saharan Africa, where there is a shortage of qualified engineers. The study was able to identify the main problems: a dramatic decrease in national funding for African higher learning institutions, weak links between industries, training, and research and development, and “brain drain” as engineering graduates migrate to other regions. Researchers offered recommendations to strengthen academic linkages with industries.

WOWEN IN HIGHER EDUCATION: Research to help close the gender gap in science

Progress has been made towards gender parity in higher education, but the gap is much wider in science fields. The gender gap in science begins at the primary-school level and worsens at each progressive academic stage. By the time women enter higher education and then the world of work, they face even greater barriers, with female scientists having shorter and less well-paid careers than their male counterparts.

We support women in advanced science education in several ways across the Global South. Since 2017, IDRC has partnered with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency to support more than 200 women doctoral students and early career scientists in low- and middle-income countries through the Organization for Women in Science for the Developing World. Each fellow receives up to USD 50,000 to lead research projects, establish research groups and mentor others at their home institutions to help solve the types of problems faced by developing countries and global society at large.  

Read about the latest cohort and their areas of research  

SKILLS TRAINING: Informing policy and solutions in technical education

A university degree does not necessarily lead to better economic prospects. To better equip youth for the world of work, IDRC-supported research has focused on improving technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programs. For example, in a project we support in Burkina Faso, Cameroon and Chad, researchers studied the levels of inclusion in TVET programs and how well graduates transitioned into the workforce. Recommendations to education ministries include increasing support to TVET institutions to make them more accessible and attractive to students, promoting greater private-sector involvement in curriculum development and recruiting teachers from relevant industries.

Research in Kenya focused on TVET programs that support student entrepreneurship through initiatives such as private-sector mentoring, incubation and internships. The lessons learned are helping TVET institutions refine their approaches and remove gender barriers and stereotypes to support student entrepreneurial potential.

Media
A group of students work on technical machinery
UN/Abdul Fattai

 

TEACHER TRAINING: Finding solutions to a teaching crisis

Quality teaching is key to ensuring learning opportunities for all. Education systems need plenty of qualified teachers who can access the necessary resources to update their skills and meet new challenges and contexts. The dearth of trained teachers has been increasing in some regions. According to UNESCO, 85% of primary teachers globally met local minimum training requirements in 2018, but only 72% did so in South Asia and only 64% met the requirements in sub-Saharan Africa. With class sizes swelling with rising populations, there are not enough teachers to meet demand.

Research is helping to understand the problem and test solutions and innovations to turn those numbers around. The situation is complex, but technology offers hope in some contexts. This working paper from the TPD@Scale Coalition for the Global South argues that harnessing the power of technology is essential to address the challenge of providing equitable, quality professional development to all teachers. That’s why the Coalition — led by the Foundation for Information Technology Education and Development in the Philippines and made up of ministries of education, international organizations, training institutions, research centres and other education and technology stakeholders — produced the TPD@Scale Framework with policymakers in mind. This compendium offers examples of large or potentially scalable teacher professional development programs using information and communications technology across low- and middle-income countries.

EDUCATION: A quality future for all

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world,” Nelson Mandela told high school students in 1990, shortly after his release from prison in what was then apartheid South Africa. Despite decades of work, the power of an education to change the world and the right of every person to access an education remain ambitions that have yet to be fully achieved.  

This year marks the half-way point towards the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, a collective promise by all United Nations Member States. This promise includes ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education and promoting lifelong learning opportunities for all. If the Sustainable Development Goals are to be met, we must build on existing solutions to set the foundation for progress through to 2030 and beyond. 

Contributors:

Serhiy Kovalchuk, Program Officer, KIX, IDRC; Joy Nafungo, Senior Program Officer, KIX, IDRC; Ruhiya Seward, Senior Program Officer, IDRC; David O'Brien, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Matthew Smith, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Ann Weston, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC

With

Erin Gilchrist, Knowledge Translation Officer, KIX, IDRC; Florencio Ceballos, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Flaubert Mbiekop, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC; Paul Owki, Senior Program Specialist, IDRC

Harnessing data for democratic development in South and Southeast Asia

The objective of this project is to strengthen the capacity of Asian stakeholders to generate data and digital technologies that could positively affect democratic and inclusive governance.

The policies, laws and codes of conduct that make up the current data governance system were developed at different times and often overlap coverage or conflict with one another. There are many inherent tensions in policies related to data, including personal data protection, competition law, open data policies, cybersecurity and AI and innovation policies. In developed countries, these conflicts may be resolved in the policymaking stage or through a well-functioning judiciary. However, the policymaking process in South and Southeast Asia is often opaque, non-participatory and non-consultative. The policies themselves are not necessarily evidence-based and could instead be driven by power and political agendas and/or weaponized to intimidate and discourage dissent. Institutions involved in the data governance ecosystem have low levels of capacity to bring about change.

This project brings a cyber policy centre (LIRNEAsia) and Open Data for Development’s (OD4D) regional hub in Asia together to advance a holistic approach to data for development. LIRNEAsia will lead the work to examine data governance policies and a framework in South and Southeast Asia. OD4D’s Asia hub (hosted by East West Management Institute) will coordinate the work focused on strengthening data communities and their agendas across Asia. The project will create opportunities for cross learning and collaboration between the two components and this will be reflected in project outputs. This project will be part of the Data for Development Network (D4D.net). With the support of the D4D Global Research Hub, the project will work in tandem with efforts in other regions and with global efforts to advance policy, innovation and capacity development.

Project ID
110065
Project Status
Active
Duration
36 months
IDRC Officer
Kristin Farr
Total Funding
CA$ 1,133,300.00
Location
Central Asia
South Asia
Institution Country
Sri Lanka
Project Leader
Helani Galpaya
Institution
LirneAsia
Institution Country
United States
Institution
East-West Management Institute, Inc.

Equity in research for development

There is a growing realization in international assistance that inequalities are ingrained in the assumptions that have long underpinned “development”, its associated systems and approaches, and that actors within the development ecosystem must seek to reduce ingrained inequalities and promote more locally determined equitable outcomes. Recent events and movements have highlighted a range of problems with mainstream development concepts, institutions, practices and power relations, including their coloniality and narrow notions of unidirectional progress and growth.

This questioning is being driven in large part by the acknowledgement that inequality, in all aspects of life and felt globally, is one of the greatest challenges of our times, and that reducing it is central to progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.
While there is a growing literature interrogating inequity in the international assistance space, there are related questions and dynamics that are important to explore within research and particularly in the research for development funding context. Inequalities persist in the production of research and in the availability of research funding; systemic biases in research funding processes, open access, and other aspects of publishing and research evaluation; and the limitations of “academic” knowledge that represents only a minority of perspectives and experience. There is a need for more diverse and context-specific involvement in research and research methodologies, the integration of anti-racist approaches into research and research funding practices, more equitable agenda-setting and equal partnerships in research.

This project will convene a process to co-create a research agenda and explore pathways towards research for development that are equitable. It will explore the key questions (some noted above, others yet to be determined) that will form a research and action agenda for equity in the research for development field, with implications for research and funding communities alike.

Project ID
110057
Project Status
Active
Duration
24 months
IDRC Officer
Anindya Chatterjee
Total Funding
CA$ 399,900.00
Location
South America
South Asia
South of Sahara
Institution Country
Peru
Institution
Group of Analysis for Development / Groupe d'analyse pour le développement / Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo

IDRC funding extends reach of global survey on tech-facilitated gender-based violence

 
December 8, 2022
IDRC-supported research on technology-facilitated gender-based violence in the Global South is expanding to more countries. It seeks to understand the extent of the violence and the factors contributing to it and to mobilize evidence for action.
A woman in a purple head scarf checks her mobile phone while walking in an arid, rural area in the Horn of Africa.
Petterik Wiggers/Panos Pictures

The Honourable Harjit S. Sajjan, Minister of International Development and Minister responsible for the Pacific Economic Development Agency of Canada, announced this CAD1.5-million second phase of research, led by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), at an event about technology-facilitated gender-based violence that was hosted by the United Nations Population Fund and the Grace Farms Foundation.

Around the world, the voices of women and gender-diverse people are being silenced by harassment and targeted attacks online that can take many forms, such as impersonation, surveillance, tracking, spam and sharing personal information. There is a dearth of statistically significant research on the experiences of women and queer communities online and the levels of harassment and violence they face.

CIGI’s first IDRC-supported round of surveys was conducted in 18 countries. The initial analysis found that approximately six out of 10 women and transgender, non-binary and non-heterosexual individuals have experienced online coercion and harassment, sexual harms and harms to identity, reputation, privacy and security. Nearly half of the people who had been harassed reported an impact on their mental health and struggled with stress, anxiety, or depression, while nearly four in 10 felt adverse effects on their ability to engage freely online and express their views. Full survey results from this first phase of research will be released in the coming months. 

Renewed support from IDRC will enable CIGI to extend the surveys to a further 15 to 18 countries and delve into the regional and country-level online experiences of women, girls and LGBTQI+ communities across the Global South. The project includes capacity building and the creation of a network of scholars and experts to build the field and a community of practice on this subject. Communications and mobilization will target development, private sector and government actors so they can improve the design of responses to online gender-based violence, including the regulation of online social media platforms, education programs and legal recourse.  

This announcement comes during the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, which launched on November 25, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, and ends on Human Rights Day on December 10.

Find out more about IDRC support for a safer digital public sphere

Deadline extended: global search underway for IDRC’s next president

 
December 5, 2022
IDRC is seeking a new president to build on the Centre’s success in supporting research that contributes to a more sustainable and inclusive world.
A collage of 3 photos features people at work, in a classroom, and in a garden. Next to the collage is a world map with these words written over it: We invest in researchers driving global change. A logo for the IDRC and the Canada wordmark appear at the top of the image.

For more than 50 years the Centre has supported research and innovation that builds stronger economies and societies in the Global South. The challenges of this work have increased due to the disastrous impacts of climate change, persistent inequalities and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Now, as the tenure of the Centre’s current president, Jean Lebel, comes to a close, IDRC seeks a new president to lead the organization through these challenges and to build on successes to meet the ambitious agenda set out in IDRC’s Strategy 2030.  

The role of president serves as both the chief executive officer of the Centre and as a member of the Board of Governors. The president is responsible for initiating strategies for the Centre, directing and supervising the Centre’s work and staff, and collaborating with the Government of Canada, the Board of Governors and all stakeholders. The president leads the Centre in fulfilling its mandate and reports to and is accountable to the chairperson and Board of Governors. IDRC reports to Parliament through the Minister of International Development.  

For the duration of their term, the president will be responsible for operationalizing Strategy 2030 and achieving planned results; leading a mid-term strategy review; building cohesive national and global partnerships for results; and leading the Centre’s efforts to grow funding. The president will also provide visible leadership to promote IDRC-supported research and to identify opportunities to use research to influence policy and sustainable development. 

Interested in applying?  

This opportunity is open to Canadian and international candidates. The recruitment and appointment processes are being handled independently of IDRC by the Privy Council Office. Applications will be reviewed as of December 30, 2022.  

Learn more and apply  

Promoting sustainable and inclusive growth in ASEAN

 
December 5, 2022

In recent decades, Southeast Asia has achieved high economic growth and significantly reduced poverty levels. However, a wide disparity in income and wealth within and among countries has resulted in uneven development efforts, with rural populations, ethnic minorities and other vulnerable groups being particularly affected. The region also suffers from the growing impact of climate change, gender-based inequalities and an economy increasingly based on informal employment. These and other challenges are hindering the region’s progress towards the attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.

IDRC’s strategic investments are helping local researchers find innovative solutions to regional challenges while also supporting the Plan of Action to implement the Joint Declaration on ASEAN-Canada Enhanced Partnership (2021–2025).   

Supporting development through research

IDRC-supported research helps foster technological and scientific innovations that contribute to addressing Southeast Asia’s development challenges. The findings generated by our research partners are shared with relevant decision-makers with a view to informing development policies and turning research-backed evidence into tangible action. Currently, IDRC is providing support to a large body of researchers in the region working in various areas of expertise — from climate-smart agriculture to democratic transitions, and from vaccines for freshwater fish to the legal empowerment of marginalized populations.

Promoting sustainable economic growth

The factors propelling Southeast Asia’s rapid growth — digital technology, globalization and market-oriented reform — are also fuelling inequality and marginalization. Uneven access to good jobs remains a critical cause of poverty and young people are having difficulties transitioning from school to work. IDRC-supported research in the region is building an evidence base that shows how creating better job opportunities can go hand in hand with sustainable growth. Research focuses on the most vulnerable, enhancing training opportunities for women and youth, identifying the right frameworks to protect workers and improve their conditions, and pinpointing the components of small business success.

Strengthening climate-resilient food systems

With its fast-growing population, changing consumer preferences and rapid urbanization, Southeast Asia will become increasingly vulnerable to climate change without effective adaptation and mitigation measures. Drawing on our significant experience in this field, IDRC is supporting the region’s adaptation to climate change and investing in transformative work that contributes to equitable, sustainable and diverse food systems. The aim is to build the resilience of communities most vulnerable to climate change and the emerging health threats that arise.

Total IDRC support:

1319 projects | CAD218.3 million since 1971

IDRC support is helping to:

  • Expand research efforts to influence development policies
  • Address the problem of antimicrobial resistance
  • Advance adaptation to climate change
  • Promote inclusive, gender-sensitive recovery from the COVID-19 crisis

Learn more about current IDRC-funded research in ASEAN (pdf, 3.6 MB)

A safer digital public sphere: addressing online gender-based violence

 
November 24, 2022

The acceleration of sexist hate speech directed at women politicians online, harassment of LGBTQI+ populations and technology-assisted, intimate-partner violence and surveillance reveal the contradictions and challenges of the internet in the 21st century. Although digital technologies are powerful tools for information sharing, self-expression and organization, they can also be used to deny or diminish people’s human rights.

While approximately 40% of the world’s population is unable to connect to the internet, those who are online are increasingly reporting experiences of violence and harassment, particularly women and gender non-conforming individuals. Forms of abuse include harassment, impersonation, surveillance, tracking, hacking, spamming, the non-consensual sharing of intimate images and death threats. This technology-facilitated violence silences female and queer voices, entrenches unequal access to the digital world and has chilling and detrimental impacts on people’s lives.

Despite reports of individual cases, there continues to be a dearth of statistically significant research in the Global South about the online experiences of women and queer communities and the levels of harassment and violence they face. The rapidly changing technological and social media landscape and the differences among popular social media platforms in various countries hamper efforts to design and evaluate responses that work across regions and platforms.

To help fill this knowledge gap, IDRC has supported several research projects to understand the new reality. This includes the first statistically meaningful survey in the Global South on tech-facilitated gender-based violence and foundational research on countering sexist hate speech, the possibilities for a feminist internet and cybersecurity for LGBTQI+ communities.

The findings from this rich body of research are already having an impact on the governance of the digital public sphere in international and national policy spaces.

Global data on technology-facilitated, gender-based violence and harassment

This 18-country survey found that approximately six out of 10 women and transgender, non-binary and non-heterosexual individuals have experienced online coercion and harassment, sexual harms and harms to identity, reputation, privacy and security. Led by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI), this IDRC-supported research reached representative samples of people in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Asia — regions of the world that are rarely included in public opinion polling on internet issues.

The survey results illustrate the effects of online violence. Nearly half of those who have been harassed reported an impact on their mental health and struggles with stress, anxiety, or depression. Nearly four in 10 felt adverse effects on their ability to engage freely online and express their views. More than one-third reported negative impacts from harassment on their close relationships, or that they could not focus on their everyday life. Of those surveyed, 40% of victims said they had never sought help, either from within personal circles or from support organizations.  

Using this data, development, private-sector and government actors can improve their design of responses to tech-facilitated, gender-based violence — possibly by regulating online social media platforms and other legal measures, as well as improving media literacy, digital security and other kinds of education. With renewed IDRC support, CIGI is extending the research to an additional 15 to 18 countries and will delve more into women’s and LGBTQI+ communities’ online experiences across the Global South.

 

Media
Illustration of a woman standing in front of smart phones, held by hands and with eyes, mouths and symbols in text boxes towering over her.
woocat

 

Legal and policy responses to online sexist hate speech and intimidation

Women in politics and female public figures from across the world report disturbing levels of abuse on social media platforms. Foundational IDRC-supported research in India and Brazil set out to develop a comprehensive societal and legal change strategy to address the proliferation of viral sexism and misogynistic hate speech in the digital public sphere.

IT for Change carried out an in-depth investigation of case laws in India to examine the challenges of accessing justice. The research team identified 90 cases of women seeking redress for various forms of online sexism, misogyny and gender-based violence. It concludes that despite some protection from strong right-to-privacy laws in India, the lack of a specific legal provision to address challenges, such as the non-consensual circulation of intimate images, made it very difficult for the judicial system to recognize and act on gender-related harassment online. The project established a knowledge network of leading feminist scholar-practitioners and lawyers to catalyze public debate on the specific legal reforms needed. The forthcoming legal resource guide targeting judges and lawyers, expected to be launched in 2023, will offer a holistic understanding of gendered cyberviolence and existing solutions within the law that are rights-based and survivor-focused.

IT for Change also studied the prevalence of sexist hate speech on Twitter in India, documenting  how gender-based abuse and trolling falls between the regulatory cracks of the existing content governance and automated hate-detection techniques of popular social media platforms.

With a focus on female political and public figures, IDRC research partner InternetLab analyzed social media comments related to both male and female contenders in Brazil’s 2020 municipal elections at a time when candidates had turned more extensively to online campaigning because of the COVID-19 pandemic. InternetLab found that women running for office were more exposed to online political violence, particularly on Twitter, with attacks often alluding to their bodies, intellectual caliber and morality. The violence also targeted women because of other social markers such as their race, social class, age and their expressions of sexuality and gender.

“Comparing to men, women were attacked for being what they are — women, black, elderly, transgender — while men candidates were offended mostly for their professional performance as politicians and public administrators,” InternetLab wrote, noting the exception of male candidates who were also targets of hate speech and aggressions for being elderly and LGBTQI+.

InternetLab’s findings influenced legislation passed in August 2021 that criminalizes the dissemination of false content about candidates during the election campaign period. The organization continues to develop tools to counter online gender-based violence, such as a lexicon of Portuguese hate speech, selected in a competition organized by Twitter, and training materials to help candidates and parties fight political violence based on gender.

Freedom Online Coalition

The findings and solutions emerging from IDRC-supported research on gender-based violence supports Canada’s leadership in the Freedom Online Coalition, a group of 34 governments working together to advance digital freedom. Chaired by Canada in 2022, the coalition is redoubling its commitment to advance Internet freedom and human rights online, including countering online violence against women and LGBTQI+ populations.

IDRC is partnering with the coalition’s support unit to expand the engagement of Global South experts in shaping norms and national legislation to address misinformation and gender-based-violence online.

Building a feminist digital sphere

Several more strands of IDRC-supported research are contributing knowledge to promote an equitable and feminist digital sphere. Based at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto, the Citizen Lab leads research and capacity building on threats to freedom of expression online that affect LGBTQI+ communities in the Global South, with a focus on internet censorship.

The Feminist Internet Research Network engaged leading feminist researchers from around the world to explore critical issues in our digital ecosystem, including online gender-based violence. IDRC’s support for this field-building network is helping to reveal the critical gaps in the research and policymaking needed to foster an internet that enables gender equality in low- and middle-income countries. For example, research in five African cities documents the prevalence, experiences and responses to online gender-based violence against women.

At stake with this form of violence and harassment is not only women’s full participation in the public digital sphere but also gender equality in the physical world.

“While the internet is a mirror of social dynamics, it increasingly helps to create and cement influential narratives that impact societies more broadly — in both positive and negative ways,” says Ruhiya Seward, senior program officer at IDRC.  “Opportunities and threats to women’s, girls’, and LGBTQI+ communities’ empowerment can be found in this circular dynamic between the digital and physical worlds.”

IDRC continues to support research to explore how governments, the private sector and civil society organizations can combat gender-based violence and harassment online and to strike the appropriate balance between online transparency and the privacy rights of users.

Contributor: Ruhiya Kristine Seward, senior program officer at IDRC

Research highlights

  • A global survey delves into the online experiences of gender-based violence of women and LGBTQI+ communities.
  • Research in Brazil and India explores legal and policy responses to online sexist hate speech and intimidation.
  • IDRC support for research on technology-assisted gender-based violence aims to build a feminist digital sphere that enables gender equality.
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