The global COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world’s attention to gender-based violence. Branded by the UN Women as the “shadow pandemic,” gender-based violence is on the rise across all countries, regardless of their economic, political and security state.
Fortunately, there are digital services available for victims, from various apps that allow the victim to communicate with a service about the situation while shielding the victim from the perpetrator.
Innovative solutions that meet the victims’ needs are essential, however, most of the solutions, both digitally and programmatically, don’t aim to change the culture that enables and permits abusive behavior.
As groups that work with GBV are grappling with potential solutions to this crisis, Creative’s Development Lab believes the need for digital solutions is evident. With support from Creative’s Gender Specialist Rebecca Sewall, the Lab is looking at digital ways to engage potential perpetrators with messaging designed to transform the gender norms that facilitate GBV. One of the areas that we are actively pursuing is the role that the video gaming industry, or other platforms, can play in GBV prevention.
Platforms that facilitate abuse
International organizations and journalists have noted the rise in gender-based violence facilitated on social media and gaming platforms has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
One can find on TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube a whole slew of accounts dedicated to straight–forward promotion of violence against women. Indeed, one account focuses exclusively on user-generated videos of guys slapping their girlfriends – and it has more than 1 million followers. Thousands of other men post “that’s right, bro, keep at it” in the comments section.
But social media is not alone. Videogaming, which is booming during the pandemic, is another huge space for misogynists and potential perpetrators of gender-based violence. Dominated by males, many video games are well known for their often-extreme sexism and sexualization of females, plus the tendency toward violence (i.e. first–person shooter games).
In April, UN Women reported a drastic rise in GBV amid lockdowns. China is seeing domestic violence reports triple, spikes of GBV are registered in Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, the United States, the UK, Egypt, Singapore and in many other countries regardless of how developed their social welfare, rule of law and economy are.
As health experts forecast a return to quarantine and stay at home measures during the winter and possible resurgences of COVID-19 cases, GBV may only grow.
Potential solutions via digital technology
With the rising number of GBV victims, in April the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the governments to apply a gender-sensitive approach to addressing the pandemic. As resources are directed to support victims and survivors of GBV, more attention needs to be directed at the abusers themselves.
A logical response would be to organize awareness-building activities about domestic abuse and promote them in targeted spaces. These campaigns can involve knowledge about rights, legal recourse, and ways to draw people into an empathic experience of being victimized.
But looking deeper than awareness campaigns, the questions around how to meaningfully engage with possible abusers remains.
Should the development industry address people through the very platforms that platforms that reinforce gender-based violence? While earlier research suggested that violent games and first-person shooter games incite offline violence, a more recent study is inconclusive and sometimes points to no connection between the two at all. So how do we use this platforms meaningfully? What can be done to address the violent tendencies of the abuser, particularly in the game space?
One avenue that could yield insight in this discussion is the development of restorative online technologies, which foster online kindness and empathy, leading multi-channel social behavior change communication campaigns. Another way could be working with ambassadors in the gaming spaces to address potential abusers.
Some representatives in the gaming industry that we have spoken to suggest pivoting toward the so-called storyboard games, where one can be placed in the shoes of the victim and walk through the potential scenarios of their path. These kinds of games can be tailored to reflect local contexts. Similar games have been used for raising awareness around gender-based violence, refugee experiences, racial injustice and many other social causes. However, these games, even when coupled with strong social behavior change communications campaigns, have a harder time penetrating spaces where the abusers are.
This is also where we see greater potential for the development and the human rights sector should step in and offer strategy and collaboration. The cross section of technology, social media and gaming/virtual experiences could present a window of opportunity to take a preventative approach to GBV.