A new analysis reveals huge increases in online searches for help from intimate partner violence, as well as rising levels of digital misogyny and harassment
Shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared in March of last year, UNFPA and other advocates flagged that a “shadow pandemic” of domestic and gender-based violence was rapidly taking hold, with financial burdens increasing tensions in the home and women increasingly isolated with abusers under lockdowns and other movement restrictions. Although hotlines, shelter operators, and others reported a deluge of requests for support, clear data on the actual incidence of violence has remained elusive.
This new analysis – released by UN Women, UNFPA, and the analytics company Quilt.AI – sheds light on just how pervasively women fear for their safety and also reflects how governments and service providers have struggled to respond optimally.
Signs of desperation rising
The study looked at internet search data along with online content via social media platforms in Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand.
Searches related to violence – including keywords such as “physical abuse signs”, “violent relationship”, and “cover bruises on face” – increased 47 percent in Malaysia, 63 percent in the Philippines, and 55 percent in Nepal between October 2019, before the pandemic, and September 2020, some eight months into the crisis. Queries on “violent husband” or “violent partner” comprised the bulk of searches related to violence against women in seven of the eight countries. Sexual abuse searches have also been increasing. At the same time, online misogyny, such as trolling, sexual harassment, and victim-blaming, also rose.
While the analysis is significant, there are caveats.
“We know there is no substitute for comprehensive prevalence surveys on violence against women – like those conducted under our kNOwVAWdata initiative in Asia-Pacific – to gather robust data, with well-trained enumerators conducting interviews in a safe, respectful and confidential environment,” noted Sujata Tuladhar, Gender-Based Violence Programme Specialist, UNFPA Asia-Pacific. “But population-based surveys are next to impossible to conduct while prioritizing women’s safety amid pandemic restrictions. This is why approaches like big data analyses are so useful, particularly at this time, as the findings from the eight countries featured in the study point to the challenge millions of women are facing.”
Need for safety, justice, care
The study also looked at social media and found widespread frustration with government responses to violence against women, as well as broad distrust in justice institutions.
Better efforts are clearly needed to reach survivors and provide services across the health, justice, and social sectors. Still, many women struggle to patch together support, the study finds. Searches with help-seeking keywords, such as “domestic violence hotline”, increased in almost all of the countries analysed – including a 70 percent rise in Malaysia.
At the same time, however, online support for survivors also increased, including online support groups, the sharing of personal stories, advocacy campaigns, and calls for justice.
“The study clearly shows the crucial role digital platforms can play in helping address violence against women,” said Bjorn Andersson, UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Director. “It also underscores the urgent need to provide digital literacy skills to disadvantaged populations, to ensure access to potentially life-saving 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.”