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Preventing Violence Against Women in the Digital and Technological Age

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Speaker: Speaker: The Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja (check against delivery)

The diversity of experiences the panellists have described is a sobering reminder of the new and complex challenges we face in preventing violence against women in our age, wherever we are located.

But Cindy, Julie and Bandana have also outlined innovative responses to these challenges, giving cause for optimism that digital and technological developments can be our friends, as much as they are our foes, in our efforts to end gender based violence. I thank Cindy, Julie and Bandana for their stimulating presentations.

I wear two hats – working in the international space as Australia's Ambassador for Women and Girls, and domestically as Chair of Our Watch, Australia's Foundation to Prevent Violence Against Women and Children.

There is some overlap in my roles – both, naturally, recognise gender inequality as the starting point for all incursions on women's rights and all barriers to our equal participation in public and private life.

Both have a key focus on the appalling scourge of violence against women and girls. Both place high priority on prevention measures and programs.

And in both, I highly value innovative partnerships among individuals and organisations to address gender based violence, and creative use of the emerging tools and technologies which the digital age is offering up.


Despite the best efforts of many people, women in particular, over many decades, violence against women persists as one of the world's most heinous and prevalent human rights abuses.

Globally, more than one in three women have been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some way.

In some parts of the Pacific – Australia's neighbourhood – the rate is as high as two in three surveyed women.

The World Health Organisation has called violence against women an epidemic1. In Australia, I consider it a national emergency.

  • For some time in Australia, we have been quoting the statistic that one Australian woman is murdered every week by a current or former partner, however, in the first two months of 2015, 14 women were murdered – closer to two a week.
  • Across Australia's states and territories, domestic and family violence incidents make up 22-60% of all reported assaults.
  • Women in Australia are at least three times more likely than men to experience violence at the hands of an intimate partner.

In additional to the unquantifiable toll this takes on the physical, emotional and psychological health of those affected, violence comes at an enormous economic cost – currently estimated at $13.6 billion in Australia and projected to reach $15.6 billion by 2021-22.

There is good news, however. In Australia, as with other countries around the world, momentum to end violence is building and we know that, given sufficient attention and intervention by government and civil society agencies, gender based violence is preventable.

Our Watch is not for profit organisation, working across Australia to promote primary prevention of domestic, family and sexual violence. It identifies innovative solutions necessary to change attitudes to violence in our community and promotes early interventions to prevent violence.

The digital revolution

The evidence is clear: to prevent violence against women and their children we must address gender inequality, challenge rigid gender stereotypes, and promote social and attitudinal change so that violence is no longer justified, excused or hidden.

Technological innovation has revolutionised the scope and the reach of campaigns to change social and cultural behaviours and provided unprecedented opportunities to support those affected by domestic violence, family violence and sexual assault, despite social and geographic isolation.

As much as the double-edged sword of technology is used by perpetrators of violence as a means of additional control, it is also a vital tool for survivors of violence. It enables enhanced access to support services, to policing and justice, and to women's human right defenders. It facilitates improved access to information, provides an avenue for safe and secure banking, and underpins far reaching and successful campaigns to prevent violence and build societies characterised by gender equality.

In Australia, a recent study2 found:

  • 17 per cent of Australian women over the age of 18 have been stalked by a man, including digital stalking; and
  • 85 per cent of Australians recognise harassment by repeated emails/text messages as a form of partner violence.

Only 61 per cent of those surveyed believe that it's never acceptable to track a female partner by electronic means without their consent. The 39 per cent who responded otherwise are a cause for concern.

Statistics such as this underscore the enormous need for education campaigns to shift attitudes and behaviours.

One domestic community education campaign that has met with particular success is The Line.

Launched under the umbrella of Australia's National Plan to Reduce Violence against Women and their Children 2010 – 2022, The Line is a social marketing campaign that targets behavioural change in youth.

For five years, The Line has been promoting understanding of what constitutes healthy and respectful relationships among young people (aged 12-20).

Boys and young men are a particular focus, as are young people whose attitudes and behaviours indicate a propensity for violence in their relationships.

The Line has an active Facebook community3 of 82,000 members who are engaging in informed, constructive and respectful discussions about relationship, who are sharing content with friends; and who are 'calling out' others on attitudes that condone violence.

In the past 12 months alone, 3.2 million unique Facebook users have been reached by The Line's Facebook posts.

Complementing the work of The Line campaign is the recently launched free iMatter app.

The iMatter app is designed to help young women identify healthy relationships, to understand the warning signs of abusive and controlling behaviour, and to develop greater self-esteem.

Australia's international programs

Technology is proving to be a great equaliser. The rapid uptake of new technologies in developing countries is providing unprecedented opportunities to respond innovatively to high levels of violence against women and girls and to create safer communities.

Digital technology, including the availability of mobile phones, has enormous potential to reduce women's vulnerabilities to violence, to increase women's entrepreneurial opportunities and provide access to services such as finance, health and education.

Australia's Pacific Women Shaping Pacific Development initiative is supporting the UN Women Safe Cities Program to use technology to promote safer environments for women to conduct business and participate in their local economies. 'Mobile wallets' – cashless payment systems – at local markets are one example.

In Port Moresby, the Safe Cities program has worked with 200 women market vendors in a seven month pilot mobile money and bill payment system. Prior to the pilot, the vendors experienced high levels of violence, including sexual violence, as well as intimidation and extortion.

The use of 'mobile money' throughout the trial, and an associated public awareness campaign which advertised that vendors were no longer carrying cash with them, has seen a significant decrease in violence and robberies against these women. The total savings from the market stall holders more than doubled during the trial and market fees, rather than disappearing following collection, were transferred securely to a maintenance fund for the market to fund further improvements to infrastructure.

Mobile phone applications

Australia is also contributing to the Connected Women program, which runs global campaigns and outreach to increase women's use of mobile technology to access a variety of services.

For example, in Fiji, the Connected Women project is supporting an SMS-based counselling service, a two-way interactive service where victims and survivors of domestic violence and child and sexual abuse can seek counselling and legal advice from lawyers and trained staff.
In Madagascar, local telephone service providers have responded to high levels of domestic violence, by running public information campaigns on gender-based violence through their mobile services.

And in India, the app 'Fightback' enables users to send instant SOS alerts in an emergency to pre-selected contacts. The app has had more than 100,000 downloads and is now available in 22 Indian states and 81 countries worldwide.

The fact of violence against women and girls is unchanged. It continues unabated – in epidemic proportions. But the technological context in which this violence occurs is shifting dramatically and we must be nimble and creative in our responses to the simultaneous challenges and opportunities the digital revolution brings.

The panel has provided a snapshot of the innovation that is occurring in different corners of the globe, but we need to be more diligent about regularly sharing information and ideas.

There is no excuse not to be doing this – we have the technology.

Thank you.

1. Chan, Margaret, Director General, WHO 2013. See website: World Health Organisation, Violence against women: a 'global health problem of epidemic proportions'

2. National Community Attitudes towards Violence Against Women Survey (NCAS), VicHealth,

3. The Line's Facebook community has grown to over 82,000 members, and is a highly active and engaged community. 3.2 million unique Facebook users have been reached by The Line's Facebook posts over the last 12 months.

Last Updated: 23 July 2015
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