Online domestic abuse has become a growing threat for women around the world, with their partners using the Internet, smartphones and tablets to harass them and track their every move, experts said.

While technology has presented new forms of abuse, it has also yielded solutions to help battered women seek assistance, said the experts, who urged women not to allow abuse to deter them from using the Internet or social media.

“We can’t allow technology to (become) another way to silence women,” said Michaelia Cash, the minister assisting the Australian prime minister for women, at a panel during the U.N. 59th Commission on the Status of Women.

An Australian national survey found that 97 percent of domestic violence support workers said the women they assist experience technology-facilitated abuse, according to Julie Oberin of Australia’s Women’s Services Network (WESNET).

Moreover, offenders are resorting to increasingly aggressive ways to exert complete control over victims, for example through “revenge porn”, in which rapists record videos of the abuse to blackmail victims.

However, technology can and must also be part of the solution to online gender-based violence, panellists said.

In Australia, developers have created apps that help women who face or are at risk of domestic violence seek immediate help through their phones.

The Aurora app, for example, contains emergency contacts, information on domestic violence and links to support services in Australia’s New South Wales state.

Oberin said women should not be discouraged from using the Internet or social media such as Twitter and Facebook, where a lot of the abuse takes place.

Doing so would be ineffective and build another barrier to gender equality, she said.

Many women and people working in domestic violence prevention and response have only recently started to recognise online abuse as a serious threat.

“When we started asking for funding for cyberthreats and violence in the early 2000s, people thought it was ‘cute,'” said Cindy Southworth, the executive vice president of the U.S. National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV).

Nearly half of Americans under 35 have been bullied, harassed or threatened online, while women make up 57 percent of victims, according to a poll conducted last year.

The poll indicated more than two-thirds (67 percent) of those harassed online knew their harasser in real life, while in the under-35 age group, that number rose to 72 percent.

Getting tech companies to cooperate initially proved a challenge, Southworth said, as service providers assisting battered women were perceived to be hostile towards technology.

Now, Twitter and Google, among others, have turned to NNEDV when developing safety improvements for their products, she said.

Another challenge has been educating women to use technology safely and respond to abuse, while avoiding at the same time inadvertently “creating a how-to guide for offenders”, Southworth said.

This article is published in collaboration with the Thomson Reuters Foundation Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Maria Caspani is a journalist at the Thomson Reuters Foundation. 

Image: A woman uses a computer keyboard. REUTERS/Tim Wimborne.