“Bringing 600 million more women online could boost global GDP by $18 billion,” says International Telecommunication Union, a specialised agency of UN, in a recent research. However, if women are to drive growth using the Internet, it in turn also needs to be safer for them. With “Safer Internet Day” having just gone by, it is fitting to look at Internet safety for women in India.

According to the National Crime Records Bureau, nearly 3.78 lakh cases of crime against women were reported in 2018 alone. Add to this, online rape threats, harassment, cyber stalking, blackmail — which are rampant in the virtual world — and the number could be lot larger. With women using traditional and innovative media to grab growth opportunities, creating a safer offline and online space is the need of the hour.

It is important to understand online violence as an overt expression of the gender discrimination and inequality that exists offline. The National Commission for Women (NCW) has been working to strengthen the capacity of women to use technology-based tools to defend themselves. To this effect, the NCW has partnered with Facebook and the Cyber Peace Foundation to run a Digital Literacy Programme. It aims to make young girls and women aware of their digital rights and enable them to become safe and informed users, follow healthy online practices, recognise and manage online risks.

In its first phase, 60,484 students were sensitised in Delhi-NCR, Haryana, Maharashtra, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tamil Nadu. The second phase is launching in Lucknow under the “We Think Digital” Campaign, to train one lakh women and girls across Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Assam, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Bihar.

Recently, the NCW also initiated a pilot project on gender sensitisation and legal awareness in collaboration with Kendriya Vidyalaya (Delhi Region). It aimed to inspire students of classes 11 and 12 to work together towards achieving gender equality and justice. Apart from this, NCW continues to conduct programmes such as “Each One Teach One” to spread legal awareness among rural, urban, college/university students. As more women are using the Internet in smaller cities and rural villages, there is an impending need to educate and equip them with basic digital literacy and digital citizenship skills.

Another important angle that is critical to explore is the role of the law and agencies. The NCW receives numerous cyber-crime complaints by women. They are reportedly trolled, harassed, bullied and receive threats of extortion against privacy. Compounding the problem, they are unaware of how to stop the abuse, what charges to report, who to report to, and what help they can get. Yet this is often overlooked, by both the victims and law enforcement agencies. These agencies are not equipped, technically or mentally, to deal with these crimes. To tackle this, the NCW has been conducting capacity-building and gender sensitisation programmes for law enforcement agencies, mainly police, across the country. Agencies are sensitised on gender issues and empowered to perform their duties effectively.

We as a nation cannot claim progress until our women feel safe, and continually contribute to nation building. The dream cannot be realised alone. The government, all the stakeholders, institutions and citizens must work together to create a safer environment. And while days like “Safer Internet Day” are a good reminder to bring these promises to the fore, it is equally important to live up to them every day.

The writer is chairperson, National Commission for Women