Tackling online sexual exploitation and abuse of women through a call for international standards

by Emma Hunt, Legal Programme Manager, Trust Law, Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 17 June 2022 20:32 GMT

Online abuse towards women is on the rise, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. About 4.6 billion people globally now use social media, and the number is growing exponentially. Such higher use has particularly exposed women and girls to a greater risk of online sexual exploitation and abuse. Globally, 38 per cent of women have directly experienced online abuse.

However, through its advocacy and legal work, Equality Now, a global non-profit focused on using the power of the law to create enduring equality for women and girls, realised that domestic and international legal frameworks designed to prevent and prosecute such borderless cybercrimes had not kept pace with technological advancements and were severely lacking.

To help bridge this gap, Equality Now approached TrustLaw, the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s global pro bono service, for legal assistance to understand the protections in place for women who experience online sexual exploitation and abuse, and where gaps and challenges exist in prosecuting these offences. Equality Now was interested in finding out different definitions of online sexual exploitation and abuse, laws addressing the jurisdiction of these crimes and cooperation among states, and laws concerning the regulation of digital service providers and platforms.

Responding to this request, TrustLaw connected Equality Now with legal teams from Aluko & Oyebode, Baker Botts LLP, Herbert Smith Freehills, Dentons, Oduk- Ongati Advocates and Shearman & Sterling. Together, they produced detailed legal research on online sexual exploitation and abuse in the EU, India, Kenya, Nigeria, the UK and the US, as well as on international law.

This research formed the basis of Equality Now’s report, ‘Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards’. The report features expert testimony and follows a survivor-centric approach to illustrate the impact of online sexual exploitation and abuse and highlights the challenges in keeping people safe in a rapidly changing digital landscape.

The report found that a major obstacle to investigating these crimes is that there might be multiple offenders, victims and platforms used in the offence, all based in different countries governed by different laws. However, no internationally binding legal instrument exists which defines online sexual exploitation and abuse or specifies the responsibility of tech platforms in preventing and prosecuting the abuse.

Equality Now aims to change this, making prevention and prosecution of these offences more effective internationally. The organisation has been using the report to advance its advocacy efforts globally.

In the UK, Equality Now has formed coalitions with advocacy partners and drafted a joint submission to the UK Parliament on the need to address online violence against women and girls in the UK’s proposed Online Safety Bill. The non-profit has been approached by the Government of Kenya to develop proposals for law and policy reform.

Going forward, Equality Now is pursuing the establishment of international standards that can coordinate laws and responses to online abuse, regardless of where it happens. Additionally, the organisation is planning events to engage United Nations member states and stakeholders on online sexual exploitation and abuse at the 2022 High-Level Political Forum on Sustainable Development and at the 67th session of the Commission on the Status of Women in 2023.

The success of this cross-sectoral project, Equality Now says, is due in large part to the significant and diverse expertise of the law firms, TrustLaw and design and publication support from Thomson Reuters (Practical Law and Social Impact Institute), which joined forces to work on this report, setting out clear steps for governments and the international community to reform policies and laws to end online sexual exploitation and abuse everywhere.

This impact story has been prepared for information purposes only. It is neither legal nor professional advice. Neither the law firm(s) and/ or lawyers that generously contributed to pro bono research nor the Thomson Reuters Foundation, will accept responsibility or liability for losses that may result if you rely on the information contained in this impact story or the associated Report. Instead, we urge you to seek legal and other professional advice specific to you or your organisation’s circumstances.

Except where otherwise stated, the views expressed in this impact story or the associated Report should not be construed to reflect the views of the law firm(s) and/ or lawyers who contributed to the research nor the Thomson Reuters Foundation who supported our TrustLaw member Equality Now with their work on this research.