Report: web searches signal at real-life spike in gender-based violence during disasters and other crises


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Bangkok, Thailand — People search more frequently for terms relating to gender-based violence (GBV) during times of crisis, according to a recent study of online behaviour in four Pacific Island countries. These findings in the new report Disasters, Crises and Violence Against Women: Evidence from Big Data Analysis, Lessons from Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga, must now be used to improve how survivors of such violence are reached during precisely those periods when the need is greatest, and support may be difficult to access.

Searches for phrases such as “abuse sexually”, “beating wife” and “rape”, in the local languages, saw significant increases when people were displaced by natural disasters, or threatened by extreme weather, or confined to their homes by curfews or lockdowns. The study used big data analytics to quantify Google searches and social-media posts in Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga, from June 2020 to June 2022.

In addition to searchers for services in these countries, the analysis also found that searches returned mostly webpages of service providers in other countries such as Australia, United Kingdom and United States.

Spikes in online GBV searches were particularly high when two or more crises overlapped. In Kiribati, they rose by 164 percent in March 2021 when periods of droughts and food insecurity, brought on by La Niña weather system, overlapped with COVID-19 curfews. There were also indications that connections restored after a disruption could see a surge of demand for information: In Tonga, online searches surges 600 percent in March 2022, five weeks after the country was reconnected to the internet after a volcanic eruption, one of the biggest in recent history, and tsunami severed the undersea telecommunications cable.

The study examined 51,870 google searches for VAW terms across the four countries, as determined by a list of 1,276 keywords on the topic. Care was taken to ensure these were words used by women and girls themselves. The list was drawn from language previously used in relevant surveys and was double-checked by each UN Women country team for localization, both linguistic and cultural.

The analysis of the web searches was done using the Quilt.AI search analysis tool Sphere, a proprietary web scraping and analysis tool that uses the search volume data from Google.

“This research helps confirm that environmental crises have important gendered effects. It also shows that at times when implementing surveys face-to-face may be complicated, technology provides opportunities to understand women's needs,” said Sarah Knibbs, Regional Director a.i. for UN Women Asia and the Pacific. “As a result of this research, UN Women continues to work with service providers to expand our joint reach and support survivors of violence, including in crisis situations.”

In addition to web searches, the study looked at 500 social media posts in each country (2,000 total), on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Tik Tok posted between June 2020 and June 2021, for a more qualitative assessment of the discourse by women and men around the topic. This was not extended to June 2022 as the findings were consistent over time. There was widespread support of GBV survivors accessing the support and safety they require, but also persistent themes of misogyny and victim blaming, ranging from 5 percent of VAW posts in the Solomon Islands, to 30 percent in Kiribati.

Online VAW posts highlighted the cultural differences between the countries. In Kiribati, 30 percent of posts linked marijuana use or alcohol to VAW. In Samoa, about 14 percent of posts mentioned religion as a justification for the dominance of men over women and VAW; in Tonga, about 10 percent linked traditional gender roles to domestic violence.

The overall findings may reflect some elements of internet access and use. To distinguish any overall increase in web searches (e.g. during lockdown) from a specific increase in searches relating to GBV, the researchers mapped the trends against searches for generic information seeking, using the word “what” (or local equivalent). Several of the spikes in searches coincide with an overall rise in internet use, but not all.

The study distinguished between search terms related to sexual, emotional and physical violence. The searches for sexual violence showed a higher rate, but this could be attributed to private nature of the issue discouraging other routes for information-seeking.

This research was supported through the Building Back Better project on promoting a gender data driven response to COVID-19 in the Pacific and Southeast Asia, with the generous support of the Government of Australia.

Media inquiries:

Ashley Chia
Regional Communications Advisor, UN Women Regional Office for Asia and Pacific
Email: [ Click to reveal ]

Sarika Chand
Media and Communications Specialist, UN Women Fiji Multi-Country Office,
Email: [ Click to reveal ]

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