Ending Online Violence Against Women in India: Calling for an Inclusive, Comprehensive, and Gender-Sensitive Law and Policy Framework

Adv. Dr. Shalu Nigam

The revolution in information and communication technology has provided a digital space that is easy to access, cost-effective, and democratic; however, over the decades, cyberspace has also witnessed the increasing menace of cybercrime. On the one hand, when technology is enhancing life, enabling agency, and facilitating capabilities, at the same time, the inequalities, discrimination, hierarchies, misogyny, sexism, and patriarchy in the physical world are also being replicated, transferred, reshaped, and reconstructed in the virtual world. The available data and everyday experiences show that the digital world is alienating and doubly discriminating against women in major ways. Firstly, through the prevalence of the digital divide, where those on the margins, including women, are denied access to the technology; and secondly, violence against women in the digital world is making a devastating impact in terms of their physical, emotional, mental, and social health. 

Despite these risks, women have found different ways to negotiate online to raise their voices and reclaim their rights. However, the matrix of laws and policies lags behind the pace compared to the expansion of technology and the increasing incidences of cybercrime. The legal and policy framework that exist in India is insufficient to deal with the increasing cyberviolence against women or to end the online culture of misogyny. While reflecting on the available secondary data, this work suggests reconsidering the connection between laws, policies, and cyberspaces from a feminist perspective to prevent and eliminate all forms of online violence against women. It recommends a specific, gender-sensitive, and a comprehensive legal and policy framework to deal with online violence. Inclusive policies to curb the digital divide and steps to create a robust mechanism to prevent and end gender-based violence may go a long way towards creating a safe, digitally equal and democratic world.

The Positive Impact of Technology 

Technology has changed life in many ways. The internet is a powerful medium that has opened up a democratic space. It has interwoven cultures where technology is being used to gain information, acquire knowledge, share experiences, voice opinions, and exercise freedom of speech. The digital world has opened doors to connect, learn, and consolidate businesses, forge relationships, share information and knowledge, and advance justice. The advent of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram have revolutionized the human interactions. Digital platforms have provided a space where women, as netizens, can connect with local politics, learn from international debates, and expand their outreach to strengthen feminist activism. Online platforms are utilized by women to access technology to reclaim their rights, express solidarity, disrupt stereotypical gender norms, and strengthen feminist activism. 

However, with the increasing use of digital technology in day-to-day lives, the ease of performing various tasks as well as the risk of cyberviolence are simultaneously expanding.1 Online technology has an empowering potential for expressing opinions and asserting agency, yet there are also dangers lurking in the digital arena. The cyberspace is, in fact, reiterating, amplifying, and magnifying the unequal gender relations. The neoliberal desires that shaped internet technology favor profit and monetization and, therefore, prioritize toxic and harmful contents over values such as safety, public interests, or democratic norms.2 Old patterns of discrimination and violence have filtered through the web of a wireless, well-knitted world and have taken on a new shape, reconstructing and reshaping themselves into newer and harsher forms while highlighting the dark realities amidst the shining streaks of cyberspace. 

The double discrimination against women in cyberspace has manifested in overt and covert forms, ranging from the denial of the benefits of the technologies to the poor and marginalized to the harsh forms of violence and the culture of misogyny exhibited on the online platforms. The existing legal mechanisms and policies have failed to keep pace with the expanding technology. However, at the same time, several women have creatively used the online platforms to voice their concerns and raise significant issues, despite the fact that many face cyberviolence and are victimized in various ways. This paradox is reflected in the #MeToo movement, where social media has been used to raise voices against sexual harassment and to name and shame the perpetrators of violence3. Also, the feminist engagement during the Nirbhaya tragedy depicts the failure of the legal system to ensure safety, yet it has simultaneously deployed digital technology as a tool to develop protest strategies to reform the rape law.4 The need, therefore, is to draw a connection between technology, laws, policies, and women’s rights to imagine a robust comprehensive mechanism that could prevent and eliminate cybercrimes against women to foster a safe and inclusive digital world.  

The Great Digital Divide: Discriminating Against Women 

Data shows that 69.4 percent (5.6 billion) of the world population uses mobile phones, 66 percent (5.35 billion) connected to the internet, and 62.3 percent (5 billion) uses social media at the beginning of 2024.5 However, the transformational potential of internet access is not equally distributed. Of the remaining unconnected people (2.7 billion), the majority are women and girls.6 The digital gender gap continues to expand in developing countries, creating a specific need to support digital gender equality. Another set of data shows that globally, in 2022, 62 percent men used the Internet, compared with 57 percent women7. Only 19 percent of women in the Least Developed Countries remained connected to the internet in 2020, compared to 86 percent in the developed world8.​ 

In India, 680 million people remained offline and unconnected9. The National Family Health Survey 2019-21 (NFHS-5) shows that digital space is male-dominated. Only 33 percent of women use the internet compared to 57 percent of men10. In terms of mobile phone usage, the Mobile Gender Gap Report 2023 by GSMA11 indicates that 19 percent fewer women use mobile phones as compared to men. It stated that a total of 61 percent of women in low- and middle-income countries use mobile internet, and 81 percent own a mobile phone. In India, 40 percent of women are less likely to own a mobile phone as compared to men in 2022. Also, mobile internet awareness is particularly low in India. 

Pre-existing socio-economic inequalities in terms of access to basic resources that exist in the physical world are reiterated in the virtual world to alienate those at the margins. In fact, participation in the digital world is affected by factors such as affordability, income, gendered norms, digital literacy, and geographical location, including rural-urban differentials12. For instance, the Oxfam Report highlights that only 31 percent of the rural population could access the internet as compared to 67 percent of those residing in urban areas. 

Moreover, during the pandemic, digital divide has resulted in the denial of the fundamental right to education to children from economically weaker sections of society13. Also, the right to food is denied in many cases because of the non-linkage of their ration card to Aadhar14. In short, linking technology with basic human rights has resulted in the exclusion  of the marginalized, especially girls and women15. Or, as Foucault stated, neoliberal governmentality has ignored the experiences of subalterns to subjugate individuals and control population16. In other words, gender-based hierarchies, inequalities, discrimination, and violence manifest in various ways in digital spaces in newer, multiple, and harsher forms.

Cyberviolence Against Women 

Cyberviolence is a gendered phenomenon where continued sexism permeates the online space and reflects a larger culture of discrimination that devalues women17. Cyberviolence against women is defined as the online perpetration of gender-based harm and abuse through digital and technological means. Other terms used to describe online harms are cyber abuse, online victimization, cyber aggression, and technology-facilitated violence. On violence encompasses misogynistic speech and efforts to silence and discredit women online, including threats of offline violence. Women are subjected to hateful comments on social media for expressing their thoughts. Hostile cultures of sexism and misogyny in digital spaces are depriving women of the benefits of technology.

Cyber harassment also include trolling women for their opinions and views18, gender-based hate speeches, image-based abuse, blackmailing, threats, fraud, sharing of deep fake images, revenge pornography to shame the victim, harassment, insults, obscene messages, bullying, blackmailing, rape threats, cyberstalking, revenge porn, sextortion, cyber pornography, cybersex trafficking, spreading of hate and misogyny, morphing images, publishing sexually explicit images, publicly humiliating women, negatively portraying them, reiterating conventional stereotypes to devalue women, defamation, moral policing, slut shaming, breach of the right to privacy, identity theft and economic violence, repression by the state and the non-state actors, and other forms of violence19. Targeting women’s bodies and sexuality to control and silence them is a form of abuse that is taking place in the virtual world. The weaponization and politicization of social media are further inciting online communal tension in an organized way to target particular sections of society20. Some of these forms of violence magnified during the pandemic-induced lockdown across the world and inflicted serious damage. 

Digital violence experienced by women forms a continuum of violence that is a manifestation of patriarchy and misogyny and an extension of a larger systemic and structural violence. Experiences of online violence are not separated from the cultural and social context. The boundaries between online and offline violence are often blurred in a deeply patriarchal society. On the one hand, the misogynist society lays much emphasis on the purity and chastity of women; at the same time, the female body is objectified and commodified in media, entertainment, movies, television, and by market forces. A woman’s body becomes a battlefield among the contesting ideologies, myths, and cultural practices. Frequently, women are abused online merely because of their presence in the digital space. Just as the visibility of a woman is not tolerated in the male-dominated public space, similarly, her active existence is threatened in the virtual space and seen as an act of transgression of patriarchal boundaries. 

The Impact of Cyberviolence on Women

Digital violence violates basic human rights guaranteed under national and international provisions, including the CEDAW. Scholars maintain that various forms of cyberviolence have a negative short- and long-term impact on an individual’s psychological state, physical condition, cultural or social engagement including an individual’s economic and social life. A victim of online harassment experiences shame, exclusion, and ostracization21. Continuous cyberviolence may create a system of fear and self-censorship by which male dominance is maintained and perpetuated. Survivors of cyber abuse may withdraw from online spaces due to fear, depression, anxiety, trauma, and self-harm22. The cumulative effects of cyberviolence affect the health and wellbeing of women and girls and pose serious economic, social, and political harm. Digital violence can limit the online participation of women, thus increasing the gender divide and limiting women’s voices. More specifically, in the patriarchal societies in South Asia, with increasing vulnerabilities and lesser available legal remedies, many women are facing higher risks of victimization23.

Legal Protection Across the Globe to Protect Women and Children from Cyberviolence 

Cybercrime is different than an ordinary crime because here the perpetrator is hidden behind the screen when he commits an illegal act. Moreover, any stranger can act anonymously using a range of devices, including phones, laptops, and computers; therefore, identifying the perpetrator may involve a huge challenge. The anonymity and distance in the digital world allow the perpetrators to easily violate ethical and legal norms. Also, the technology being opaque and remote, it poses a daunting challenge to crime prevention and law enforcement. Further, cybercrime is a transnational crime; therefore, territorial jurisdiction raises concerns. The relative ease of the use of the internet, accessibility, affordability, and reach across geographical boundaries have led to an increase in online crimes24. The women are, therefore, facing newer and harsher forms of violence in the digital space. 

In its recent report, the World Bank observed that only 30 percent of countries provide legal protection against cyber harassment, which implies that only 47 percent of women receive legal protection25. Globally, 53 out of 190 economies have imposed criminal penalties for offences relating to cyber harassment, and 19 have specified a definite procedure to deal with such cases26. The laws enacted by South Africa, Nigeria, and Uganda have elaborately define cyber harassment and provide protection against cyberbullying. Also, several European countries are addressing cybercrimes through general legal provisions while others are enacting new laws and adopting specific provisions, some of which are gender-neutral27. In the USA, the law prohibits child pornography, sexual exploitation and abuse of children28. Hence, it may be said that limited efforts are made to specifically address online violence against women and children across the globe. While developing and expanding technology, no emphasis is laid on assessing its impacts on human lives or to protect the vulnerable from the harms it may cause.

The Legal Matrix Regulating Cybercrimes Against Women in India

Cybercrimes against women have surged alarmingly over the past few years. The report by the National Crime Record Bureau released in December 2023 shows that there has been an 11 percent rise in the number of incidents reported in 2022 as compared to those reported in 2021. During the pandemic, as the increase in incidences of violence against women and children in homes was reported, the nature and scope of cybercrime also expanded29. With the increasing use of mobiles, laptops, computers, smartphones, and other devices for education, leisure, online learning, financial transactions, and work purposes, the rate of cyber violence also grew. 

The legal matrix to deal with cybercrimes in India is contained in the Indian Penal Code (IPC), or the Information Technology Act, (IT Act) 2000. No specific law is enacted to address cyberviolence against women. Section 354A, IPC focuses on sexual harassment and penalizes a man for committing acts such as demanding a sexual favor from a woman, showing pornography against her will, and making sexually colored remarks. Section 354C, IPC, penalizes voyeurism, which involves capturing or disseminating images of a woman engaged in a private act without her consent. Section 354D, IPC, addresses the offense of stalking, including cyberstalking, and penalizes acts such as a person monitoring women’s activities on the internet, email, or other electronic platforms. Other provisions in the IPC, such as those dealing with criminal intimidation, criminal defamation, insulting the modesty of women, cheating, and extortion maybe evoked when required30

The IT Act addresses offenses such as hacking, tampering, breach of privacy and confidentiality, publishing false digital signatures, cyber fraud, forgery of electronic records, email spoofing, sending threatening messages by email, among others. The rules made in 2013 establish a Computer Emergency Response Team as an administrative agency responsible for collecting, analyzing, and disseminating data about security incidents. Rules made in 2022 amend the cyber security incident reporting obligations. Further, Section 66C of the IT Act penalizes identity theft. Under this section, using another person’s password or electronic signature is construed as a crime. Section 66E punishes the violation of a person’s privacy. Section 67A prohibits the publication, transmission, and causing transmission of obscene content. Section 72 describes penalties for breaches of confidentiality and privacy. The IT Act, therefore, provides a piecemeal approach and has no specific provisions to address gender-specific crimes.

Further, laws such as the Protection of Sexual Harassment Act, 2013, which recognizes the harassment of women at the workplace, the POCSO Act, 2012, which regulates the sexual offences committed against children, and the Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, which regulates the portrayal of women in advertisements, publications, and other means may be applied in cases relating to online violence. However, there are challenges in terms of the enforcement of these laws. For instance, the Indecent Representation of Women Act predominately emphasizes protecting public morality rather than upholding women’s safety. Moreover, despite the increasing cybercrimes against women, no specific provisions have been enacted to deal with the altering situation.

National Cyber Security Policy 2023 

The National Cyber Security Policy, 2013 was formulated with the vision `to build a secure and resilient cyberspace for citizens, businesses, and government’. Its aim is to protect information and infrastructure and respond to cyber threats. The new policy for 2023 safeguards establishes and strengthens the capabilities to respond to cyber threats, minimize vulnerabilities, and prevent the attacks of malware31. The key objectives of this policy are to facilitate compliance with cyber security mechanisms and monitoring of cybercrimes. However, this policy needs to be interrogated from a feminist perspective to ensure that it eliminates online violence and empowers women users of technology. 

The Cyber Crime Prevention against Women and Children (CCPWC) scheme was launched in 2018 to develop measures to handle cybercrimes against women and children in India32. The CCPWC conducts awareness programs, set up forensic labs, analyze cybercrime report and report criminal acts. However, the National Commission for Women has suggested several additional measures, such as a special online women-specific crime reporting unit, monitoring online crimes, strengthening the investigation, and capacity building. The National Cybercrime Reporting Portal33 enables a person to report crimes against women and children anonymously through an online reporting platform. Also, I4C has been established as a nodal body to curb cybercrime34. With reference to increasing cybercrime against women, the impact of these policies at the ground level is not visible as yet. 

Moreover, in 2015, the NGO Prajwala wrote a letter to the Supreme Court raising concerns about videos depicting rape, gangrape, and pornography being circulated on online platforms35. Based on this letter, notices were issued to Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Facebook, and WhatsApp. A committee was constituted on the directions of the Court in March 2017 to examine the technological solutions to protect the identity and reputation of victims and prevent the circulation of such videos in the public interest36. The Committee agreed to the need for creating a Central Reporting Mechanism, to strengthen law-enforcement. The onus is laid on companies to provide technical support and assist in capacity building of the law-enforcement agencies37. The Court directed the enforcement of the provisions of the Information Technology (Intermediary Guidelines and Digital Media Ethics Codes) Rules, 202138. These Guidelines provide a mechanism for due diligence to be observed by the social media intermediaries to protect the harm to a child and invasion of privacy39. Also, a grievance mechanism is being put in place to resolve complaints in cases a person is harassed because of her gender40. However, the measures to address the digital divide remained absent. Also, much more needs to be done in terms of policy revision from a feminist perspective to ensure that online cyberviolence against women is completely eliminated. 

Existing Gaps in the Policies and Legislation

The analysis shows that the existing law and policy framework has failed to take into account the ground realities of the situation of women facing violence online. The paternalist approach followed by law-enforcement and law-making agencies focuses on morality and has failed to consider the concerns relating to the safety of women and children online. In fact, the recent socio-legal discourse which emerged after a viral video of women playing Holi inside the metro focuses on morality versus vulgarity while ignoring the online safety aspects and depicts the insensitivity of society towards digital gender-based violence41. Also, the emphasis on gender neutrality has negated the impacts of gender-based harms. Therefore, specific provisions are required to address the unique needs of women survivors and victims of online violence. 

Another loophole exists in the narrow definition of a violation of privacy under the IT Act. It only encompasses the transmission, publication, or capture of an ‘image of a private area of the body’ when more ways to violate one’s online privacy exist. Moreover, the law is centered around the concept of consent. While dealing with cybercrimes against women, the difficulty lies in proving whether victims consent to the publication of unwanted images. The Digital Personal Data Protection Act, 2023 is riddled42 with43 controversies44. The risks emerged with the advent of deepfake and AI breaching personal data, regulations become vital to protect an individual’s rights45

Further, the online platforms commodify the personal information of users by data mining. Research on the algorithms used by digital platforms reveals how racism and misogynist stereotypes are perpetuated46. Yet, the law has not addressed this issue. The terms and conditions regarding how these companies operate are frequently opaque, and users often remain unaware of the ways their privacy is compromised. Legally, the mechanism of accountability for the state and non-state actors in cases of cybercrimes against women is not clear. Additionally, the surveillance by the state and non-state actors and similar crimes are not taken into consideration while making the law. For instance, a blatant violation of data security occurred when “Bulli Bai” and “Sulli Deals”, fake online auctions, that took place where women from a particular community were targeted and attacked47. Hence, checks and balances are important to deal with the cases of online harassment. Besides, with increasing digitalization, many apps have emerged to protect women. Most of these are based on a paternalist approach rather than ensuring the online safety of users.  

Furthermore, delay in getting justice, low conviction rates, lack of awareness of the legal procedure, absence of digital and legal literacy, difficulties in accessing justice, dwindling faith in the law, fear of engaging with the system, gender stereotypes in courtrooms48, stigma, fear of defamation, and fear of retaliation all serve as barriers to responding to online violence against women. Several studies show that the police are not trained enough to comprehend and implement the nuances of technical laws49. For instance, Section 66A of the IT Act has been stuck down in Shreya Singhal v Union of India50. However, the police continued to book the cases under this provision. Training and sensitization remain a major challenge. Law-enforcement in the field of cybercrimes needs to be strengthened. 

Women’s Agency and Empowerment in Digital Spaces 

Digital space is a powerful medium where women are sharing their experiences and concerns. It serves as a counterspace to disclose gender-based violence and provides a political platform to counter misogyny. The technology has provided an alternate space for progressive advancement to a woman where she may disclose her violent experience, seek validation, find empathy, build solidarity, voice opinions, and hold the perpetrator accountable for their wrongs. In the dark ages, when the abusers abuse the social media as a double-edged sword to assault the victims, and then posting the photos and videos online to re-victimize the victims through public shaming and humiliation while adding insults to the injury, the technology is also used innovatively by women to engage in activism. 

Also, women have adopted a combination of both legal and nonformal strategies to negotiate spaces and respond to violence in the cyberworld. The nonformal strategies include disengaging from platforms, using different online names, ignoring, blocking, or directly confronting the abuser, reporting the offensive comments, finding support and developing solidarity online, organizing collectively as happened during the Nirbhaya protests, and naming and shaming the perpetrator as depicted by the #MeToo movement. Also, several initiatives, such as Take Back the Tech, have been launched to draw a connection between online gender-based violence, technology, and to promote digital safety.

Digital space, therefore, is seen as a site to contest marginality and negotiate the dominant patriarchal culture. For instance, Breakthrough India released a feminist remix of a popular Bollywood song that interrogates everyday sexism and biases. Later, the women in the video were targeted for simply being themselves and for asserting their agency51. However, such harassment could not deter women to imagine and organize online protests creatively. This is illustrated, when in response to the demonic invocation of sexism by Sri Ram Sene in Mangalore in 2009, a conservative right-wing gang which declared that the presence of women in public places would not be tolerated, a consortium of `loose, pub-going, and forward women’ was formed on Facebook to discuss the questions relating to violence against women and safety52. This group, by building online solidarity, mobilized people across the country to initiate the Pink Chaddi (underwear) campaign to assert that women’s bodies are not objects that can be owned or controlled by men. Love Sena (or the love brigade) was formed to collect pink underwear to send it to the headquarters of Sri Ram Sene to playfully counter the misogyny53. Many such feminist campaigns have altered the digital landscape and have succeeded in initiating a debate around persisting misogyny. Moreover, despite facing backlash, SLAPP suits54, or defamation charges55, women have persisted to seek justice56. Such actions indicate tremendous possibilities in the cyberspace to advance progressive causes. The need is therefore, to ensure safe online spaces free from fear of violence. 

Calling for a Gender-Sensitive Law and Policy Framework to Deal with Cybercrimes 

Technology occupies a significant role in combating gender violence and achieving the goals of gender justice. However, at the same time, the technology is being weaponized and used as a tool to perpetrate violence against women. Therefore, the role of the law and policies becomes crucial in addressing and responding to cybercrimes against women. The Sustainable Development Goals 2030, specifically focus on preventing and eliminating all forms of violence against women and girls. The Special Rapporteur on Online Violence Against Women57 precisely suggested that the national law dealing with cybercrimes against women is essential. Enacting laws provides avenues for redressing grievances, sends a clear message that cyber harassment is unacceptable, and reduces impunity. 

The General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a resolution on countering the use of information and communications technologies for criminal purposes in 201958. This draft is being critiqued by civil society on the grounds that it threatens freedom of expression, privacy, and other human rights59. It is argued that the provisions could lead to cross-border policing, lack safeguards, and enable state surveillance to target human rights defenders, journalists, researchers, lawyers, and other professionals60. This is not yet finalized. However, the situation depicts that at the global as well as the national level, a significant gap exists in addressing and responding to cybercrimes against women. 

In short, despite the lacunae in law-making and enforcement in cases of gender-bases violence, the legal system has the potential to provide a platform to redress grievances and access justice61. Therefore, enacting a legal and policy framework to address cybercrimes against women is essential. Experiences show that the existing framework relating to cybercrimes in India has failed to address digital violence against women in a holistic manner. Neither any specific law is made to especially deal with gender-based cybercrime or to safeguard women’s rights, nor the policy measures ensure dignity and justice for women online. No measures exist to curb the increasing digital sexism. 

Consequently, to effectively end the online double discrimination against women, a proactive, inclusive, comprehensive, and a gender-sensitive law is required that could encompass not only criminalization and effective prosecution for online abusers but also which could prevent violence, end the online culture of misogyny, empowers the survivors, protect their freedom of expression, and support them62. The need is to ensure an environment where online victims could report crimes easily without fear of re-victimization and get quicker and quality justice. This is in addition to the steps to respond to the deep-rooted structural inequalities. It is important to counter the online misogyny, harmful social norms, and feudal mindsets that contribute to consolidating the culture of cyberviolence against women. A multi-pronged, victim-and survivor-centric approach can go a long way in tackling cybercrimes, ensuring gender justice, ending the online sexism, and creating a safe and digitally inclusive world. 

Adv Dr. Shalu Nigam is a feminist advocate, researcher and an activist working at the intersection of gender, law, governance, and human rights. Currently, she is a senior visiting fellow at IMPRI.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Aasthaba Jadeja, a visiting researcher at IMPRI.