With girls in Mongolia spending more time online and falling prey to cyber harassment, an ADB technical assistance is providing digital and crowdsourcing approaches to prevent new forms of gender-based violence, increase reporting, and hold predators accountable.
During the coronavirus disease (COVID19) pandemic in Mongolia, most girls who had internet access spent hours online for school, socialization, and coping with the lockdown.
Sodnoi, like many adolescents, missed her friends and craved for companionship outside of family. She made her social media profile public, and gave her mobile phone number and email address freely online. She knew of the risks but all she wanted was to make new friends.
It didn’t take long for Sodnoi to receive attention. Much of it was unwanted and sexual in nature. Like the majority of teenage girls experiencing gender-based violence online and via their mobile phones, she blocked various accounts, and ignored the rest.
In Mongolia, similar to many areas in Asia and the Pacific where health protocols required children and adolescents to stay at home, schools used televised and internet-based classes to ensure continuity in education. The constant online exposure combined with risky online behavior and the need to reach out socially made adolescents more vulnerable to cyber bullying and sexual harassment.
With girls in Mongolia spending more time online during the COVID-19 pandemic, new forms of gender-based violence such as cyber-bullying are becoming prevalent, ADB is supporting in the identification of approaches to address these.
Anticipating this, ADB provided technical assistance to meet the girls where they are – in cyberspace – using the same technologies and platforms to help them protect themselves, and hold predators accountable.
“It was critical for young Mongolians themselves to pinpoint the online threats they face and the behaviors that make them vulnerable, and to co-design innovative digital approaches to counter new forms of gender-based violence such as cyber-bullying” said M. Teresa Kho, Director General at ADB’s East Asia Department.
Designing apps to protect girls
Over seventy local teams registered for a hackathon to co-create solutions to prevent and address online gender-based violence. The three apps that made it to the finals – Online SOS, eProtect, and MeToo – conducted their own baseline surveys that showed the breadth of the problem, zeroing in on victim and predator behaviors.
The surveys showed that teenage girls received more cyber sexual harassment when compared to any other demographic. This ranged from receiving nude images and sexual messages, being coerced to provide their own nude pictures, or asked for sexual favors. Believing that the harassments were too common anyway, adolescents simply ignored the messages, blocked the harassers, and when continuously harassed, deleted their social media accounts or changed mobile phone numbers. All were defensive strategies but the lack of accountability from harassers fueled more and increasingly overt predatory behavior.
Accountability for predators
"Predators must be made accountable for their actions because all too often, with victims simply blocking or ignoring them, they become bolder and repeat the violence with increasing audacity,” said Veronica Mendizabal Joffre, Social Development Specialist at ADB. The eProtect app developed during the hackathon allows those who were harassed to collect and upload evidence, and provides information on how deleted texts and data can be retrieved from social media accounts.
The eProtect app walks victims through the options and steps to trigger official complaints as these send strong signals to predators that their actions are criminal. One option is through the social media platform where the violence occurred to initiate the internal processes that most platforms are obligated to follow, including acting against the accounts used by predators. eProtect also helps victims to officially submit complaints, statements, and evidence to the government-run eMongolia platform to verify if complaints are genuine. eMongolia then assists in following up the cases with harassers and specific social media platforms. eMongolia is governed by privacy provisions which protect the identities of victims.
Games and simulation
The team behind the app, MeToo, which maximized the global campaign against sexual harassment, reported that even while beta testing, the app already received 87 harassment stories within five days. This showed the growing prevalence of online sexual harassment and cyber bullying among girls, and the increasing willingness to talk and to act against online violence.
The MeToo app recognizes that because online gender based violence has become common and can take on subtle forms cloaked in friendship and unequal power relations, girls needed to be constantly made aware of the forms that sexual harassment takes. Using gaming as an education-entertainment approach, girls are led through simulations that show how to recognize online predatory behaviors and what to do in case they encounter harassers.
Mongolia has a landmark Law on Combating Domestic Violence (2017). ADB’s TA on Addressing and Preventing Domestic Violence in Mongolia During the COVID-19 Crisis, contributes to maximizing the use of technology to implement the Law. With its other components that include the use of artificial intelligence powered chatbots, the TA bridges the online efforts, and works with the Mongolian Ministry of Justice and Home Affairs (MOJHA) and CSOs to refer domestic violence survivors to more information and services such as rescue, shelter and legal advice. The TA costs $400,000 which is financed on a grant basis from ADB’s Technical Assistance Special Fund. The TA complements an ongoing grant project on Combating Domestic Violence Against Women and Children, financed by the Japan Fund for Prosperous and Resilient Asia and the Pacific with $4 million.