The risk of violence against women and girls increases during crises and the COVID-19 pandemic is no exception, according to a new study
In a big data analysis, spanning 15 months from September 2019 to November last year, the study found that online misogyny, trolling, sexual harassment, and victim-blaming against women has increased.
The results reinforce evidence of the particular dangers faced by women and girls confined to homes or face restriction in their movements, says the study that was published by UNFPA and UN Women.
The analysis covered more than 20 million unique searches, 3,500 keywords on violence against women, and 2,000 posts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube among other social media platforms with a focus on eight countries, namely, Malaysia, India, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Nepal.
While the COVID-19 lockdowns forced people to stay home, they caused a "shadow pandemic" of domestic and gender-based violence
"Lockdown measures to control the spread of COVID-19 forced people to remain at home, in some cases with abusive partners. Across all eight countries, reported domestic violence cases increased during or immediately after lockdown periods," the study said, adding that while some countries initially saw a drop, this was evidently due to the inability to seek help as the number of cases increased eventually.
The study found that domestic violence cases rose in India, Bangladesh, and Malaysia.
According to the study, online searches for keywords such as "physical abuse signs", "violent relationships", and "cover bruises on face" with specific references to "spouse abuse", "boyfriend hit me", and "controlling men" increased by 47% in Malaysia, 63% in the Philippines, and 55% in Nepal.
"Each country's search history highlighted slightly different VAWG trends," the study said, adding that searches using help-seeking keywords such as "domestic violence hotline" increased by 70% in Malaysia.
While online misogyny rose, support for survivors also increased
Social media platforms "saw more online misogyny, such as instances of trolling, using images without consent or sexual harassment," the study said, highlighting how in Thailand and Bangladesh, people took to Twitter to blame victims in cases of sexual violence and leave misogynistic comments.
In Malaysia, this was recorded when a Telegram group, dubbed 'V2K' spread women's photos without their consent. An investigation by SAYS found that the groups' members took screenshots of women's photos from their social media accounts and exposed personal information.
However, online support and financial assistance also increased for survivors through Facebook groups, carousel posts on Instagram, and campaigns by service providers.
Violence against vulnerable groups such as migrants, LGBTQI individuals, and Dalit women drew attention, it's been worryingly low
The analysis showed that people took to social media to express widespread frustration with the weakness of government responses to violence against women amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
They also preferred to settle cases outside justice institutions, which they do not trust.
"Despite the rising searches around abuse and help, only Bangladesh and Nepal have "Law" as an emerging topic cluster," the study said, which suggests that in most countries turning to the law and justice institutions for help is not seen as a viable option for women and vulnerable groups.
Furthermore, the analysis revealed that almost 80% of searches in neighbourhoods with substantial migrant populations in Malaysia, Thailand, and Singapore are related to mental health.
Some of the examples of social media posts pertaining to violence and discrimination against vulnerable groups, as compiled by UNFPA and UN Women in the study.
The study also found patterns across the eight countries, highlighting key concerns for victims and gender advocates during the pandemic
It said that conversations on social media depict widespread frustration with the weak stance that most governments took to address violence against women and girls in the context of COVID-19.
"Users of social media agreed with the idea that using informal justice/parallel settlements in cases of violence against women and girls was a better option than trying to take the legal route."
Need for safety, justice, care for women and vulnerable groups
"The so-called 'shadow pandemic' of violence against women and girls under lockdown is widely recognised by now, and this analysis proves what we have long anticipated," said Mohammad Naciri, Asia-Pacific Regional Director of UN Women.
"This analysis of big data now gives us a better picture of exactly what different women need most urgently, and how all support agencies - government, private-sector, international organisations, and civil society - can improve the ways they reach out to these groups."
Meanwhile, UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Director Bjorn Andersson said that the study clearly shows the crucial role digital platforms can play in helping address violence against women.
"It also underscores the urgent need to provide digital literacy skills to disadvantaged populations, to ensure access to potentially lifesaving online tools. Supporting women and girls impacted by the digital divide must be a priority for governments and partners as countries build back better in a post-pandemic world."