Cybersecurity Threats, Vulnerabilities and Resilience Among Women Human Rights Defenders and Civil Society in South-East Asia


Author(s): UN Women and UN University Institute in Macau

About this research

The Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda recognizes that women are often excluded in peace and security processes and encourages their leadership and meaningful participation in peace efforts across all spheres of public and private life.

Women human rights defenders (WHRDs) and women’s Civil Society Organisations (WCSOs) are critical for the advancement and implementation of the WPS agenda. Recognising their role in advancing inclusive and sustainable peace, and their increasing dependency on digital tools and platforms to conduct their work, this research aims to generate knowledge on the cybersecurity risks and vulnerabilities they face and the implications for peace and conflict-prevention efforts in South-East Asia.

There have been few efforts documenting the experiences of WCSOs and WHRDs with cybersecurity threats, their cyber vulnerabilities and the ways they enact cyber resilience. In conducting this research, UN Women and the UN University Institute in Macau (UNU Macau) acknowledge that women are disproportionally negatively affected by cybersecurity risks and that WHRDs and WCSOs are often specifically targeted, especially in politically volatile and conflict- and crisis-affected contexts and situations where civic space is shrinking.

Moreover, this work differs from previous research in three critical ways, by:

  • Focusing on human-centric, as compared to techno-centric, cybersecurity
  • Emphasising human factors rather than technical skills in cybersecurity
  • Centralising gender as critical to cybersecurity.

Findings and recommendations

Findings and recommendations Cybersecurity

The results of the research highlight that digital technologies have a central function for WCSOs and WHRDs in their work and are now critical tools used to engage in advocacy and activism. However, this new reliance on technology can also expose individuals and organisations to cyber threats that may disrupt their work, damage their reputation, and even create harm or injury, all of which can further marginalise women’s voices and participation in society and change-making processes. The main findings include:

  • WHRDs and WCSOs rely on digital technologies for their work — Technology has the potential to support WCSOs and WHRDs in facilitating and leveraging their work. This has given rise to increased cybersecurity risks because these devices are not always secure, and organisations often lack strong formal data protection policies and procedures.
  • The Cyber Threat Landscape for WCSOs and WHRDs differs from other actors — WCSOs and WHRDs in South-East Asia are at high risk of experiencing a range of cyber threats. They are largely aware of these risks but not necessarily able or ready to prepare for them or to actively recover from a cyber-attack. WCSOs had higher threat perceptions and threat experiences compared to non-women led CSOs - the largest differences being for online harassment, trolling, and doxing. Cyber-bombing and impersonation of organisations on social media were also found to be important, emerging threats. Furthermore, cyber threats were understood to be gendered in nature, whereby WCSOs and WHRDs were specifically targeted due to the focus of their work and were likely to be attacked with misogynistic and sexualised harassment.
  • Cyber Vulnerabilities of WCSOs and WHRDs — Participants had high levels of digital self-efficacy and engaged in good information security practices in general. However, there are important areas where individuals were less secure and confident online, such as managing their digital footprint and solving technical issues.

Three key recommendations are made on this basis of this research.

  1. Increase knowledge and awareness of gendered cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities among civil society, governments, private-sector actors and other decision makers.
  2. Foster inclusive and collaborative approaches in cybersecurity policy development and engagement.
  3. Build knowledge and strengthen capacities of civil society, government, private-sector actors and other decision makers to develop appropriate means of prevention and response to cyberattacks and their disproportionate impacts on WCSOs and WHRDs.

This research was made possible with the generous support of the Government of Australia, under the Cyber and Critical Tech Cooperation Program, and the Government of the Republic of Korea as part of the UN Women project Women, Peace and Cybersecurity: Promoting Women’s Peace and Security in the Digital World.

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Bibliographic information

Geographic coverage: Asia and the Pacific
Resource type(s): Research papers
Publication year
Number of pages
Publishing entity/ies: Agencies/entities