The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed new challenges and worsened already existing ones. Besides the more visible and evident forms of violence, there is also an increase in the number of girls suffering the brunt of online abuse, and the sharper gender digital divide in Asia, with girls facing more hurdles than boys. In celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child, leading child rights agencies in Asia are urging social media companies, governments, and inter-governmental organizations to take urgent steps to empower and protect girls online.
GENDER DIGITAL DIVIDE
Worldwide school closures have affected more than 1.5 billion students – more than half of whom are in Asia-Pacific which could mean that the time they spend online has increased exponentially, heightening their risk for online abuse. However, there are girls in the region who need to access the internet for education, employment, civic participation, social interaction, and other vital information but could not do so due to various reasons including poverty or being expected to help in household chores, more evident during the pandemic, and lower access to technology compared to boys. This gender digital divide remains largest in the world’s least developed countries at 39.2% and is most pronounced in South Asia where women are 26% less likely to own a mobile phone than men. In addition, stereotypes around technology being ‘for boys’ and fear of being discriminated against stop girls from using digital tools. 
Without equal access to technology and the internet, girls and young women will have limited opportunity to participate in our ever more digital societies. Digital literacy is also vital for better employment opportunities since most jobs worldwide have digital component.
ONLINE ABUSE AND HARASSMENT
But access should be coupled with protection. Girls should be safe online. Sadly, online abuse is silencing girls according to Plan International’s State of the World’s Girls 2020 report.
The report, which was based on a research across 31 countries including Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Myanmar, and Nepal with more than 14,000 girls and young women also revealed that more than half of girls surveyed, from around the world, have been harassed and abused online, and one in four girls abused online feels physically unsafe as a result.
Online harassment and abuse are affecting girls in various ways. Many of them have developed low self-esteem, experience mental or emotional stress, feel physically unsafe, have problems with friends or family and at school, or have trouble to finding a job.
“I didn’t understand what was happening,” says Magiting, a Filipina teenager whom neighbors coerced into sexual exploitation that was streamed online. “What they were doing was not good and not right. I was scared that somebody would tell the police and I’d be put in jail.”
Children’s Journey into the World of Commercial Sexual Exploitation, ChildFund Philippines and Psychosocial Support and Children’s Rights Resource Center (March 2019)
Magiting, whose name has been changed to protect her privacy, is not alone in her experience. Online sexual abuse and exploitation of children (OSEC) is growing exponentially every year in many Asian countries. In the Philippines, for example, the government recorded close to 280,000 cases of online sex abuse (so-called cybersex trafficking) against children from March 1 to May 24 this year – almost four times as many as in 2019. And girl children are more vulnerable due to the existing Philippine laws related to statutory rape, which define the age of consent as low as 12 years.
When girls are deprived of access or are afraid of being discriminated against and harassed due to the rising cases of gender-based violence online, they are being pushed to the margins and silenced. States should realize that losing the chance to raise a generation of empowered girls and hear their voices is detrimental to development.
CALLS TO ACTION
To bridge the gender digital divide and ensure protection of girls online, a strong multi-sectoral cooperation is necessary. In light of this and in celebration of the International Day of the Girl Child, Joining Forces calls on--
Social media and internet companies to:
- Invest in enhancing connectivity to mobile internet access, in partnership with the government, especially in geographically isolated areas and ensuring that this accessible to all especially girls.
- Create stronger, more effective and accessible reporting mechanisms specific to online gender-based violence, that hold perpetrators to account and are responsive to all girls’ needs and experiences, including intersecting identities (including race and LGBTIQ+ youth), and inform the public especially girls about these mechanisms.
- Explore how there can be stronger protective barrier that will prevent online violence.
- Intensify public campaign and education on internet safety.
National governments to:
- Invest in enhancing connectivity to mobile internet access especially in geographically isolated areas.
- Recognize that child protection workers and those who address gender-based violence provide ‘essential services.’
- Implement inclusive internet access policies especially for girls and other marginalized children.
- Reform and enact legal frameworks on online harassment against all girls and young women in consideration of specific intersectional characteristics such as race, age, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation, identity and expression.
- Work closely with internet and social media companies in instituting stricter policies and mechanisms that will prevent online abuse and exploitation.
- Strengthen child protection and women’s protection mechanisms, specifically reporting and referral pathways and gender-responsive services to address cases of violence online.
- Ensure the digital literacy of children especially of girls, whether they are in school or out of school, to help them become responsible users of technology; while also making sure that parents, caregivers, and teachers have the same digital skills so that they are able to provide appropriate support to children online
- Provide offline and online human rights education to promote equality, dignity, and respect, regardless of race, age, disability, gender, and other status.
- Recognize that the digital environment has the potential to address gender discrimination by exposing children to different cultures, beliefs, and situations and this potential must be maximized.
We also call on:
- ASEAN to sustain the gains made during the Regional Conference on Online Protection conducted in February 2020 and implement the Declaration on the Protection of Children from all forms of Online Abuse and Exploitation during the 35th ASEAN Summit; and
- SAARC to intensify its work against Online Sexual Abuse and Exploitation as it was identified by SAIEVAC in its priority agenda.
- ASEAN and SAARC to intensify efforts to strengthen gender equity in Member States so they meet their commitments under Agenda 2030.
We need to work together in providing a safe and empowering environment for girls and young women, on and offline.
Child Rights Coalition Asia
Joining Forces is an alliance of the six largest child- focused international NGOs: ChildFund Alliance, Plan International, Save the Children International, SOS Children’s Villages International, Terre des Hommes International Federation, and World Vision International.
Child Rights Coalition Asia (CRC Asia) is a network of child rights organizations working together to be a strong voice for child rights in the region by leading in strengthening child rights movements, promoting innovative programs, and advocating better policies for and with the children.
 “Time for Change: COVID 19, Connectivity and Equality” Plan International
 “Because We Matter: Addressing COVID-19 And Violence Against Girls in Asia-Pacific” a Joint Policy Brief, Save the Children and Plan International
 “Bridging the Gender Digital Divide” Plan International
 State of the World’s Girls Report 2020, Plan International
 ChildFund Policy Review of Laws Related to OSEAC (November 2019) in partnership with the Child Rights Network and funded by the Out of the Shadows Index Fund