Singapore

New initiative to keep women safe from unwelcome advances online

It will tackle Web threats targeted at females, such as online grooming and sexual abuse

Women and girls could start to think it is normal to receive lewd pictures or unwelcome advances online unless more is done to protect them, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann warned yesterday.

She said social norms that uphold females' safety are increasingly being challenged by factors like the anonymity of the Web.

These factors could possibly lead to more of them being subjected to exploitative behaviour, added Ms Sim, who announced a new initiative to tackle the issue under the Singapore Together Alliance for Action banner.

While Singapore has to date seen 18 such alliances formed towards aiding the economic recovery amid the Covid-19 pandemic and work-life harmony, Ms Sim said this is likely the first which is "focused on online harms primarily targeted at women and girls".

Ms Sim's initial ideas on how to keep women safe include setting up an online repository where victims can seek help and understand tech companies' policies, and encouraging people to report inappropriate activities they see on the Internet.

THREE AREAS OF CONCERN

To help shape the agenda, the Ministry of Communications and Information held engagement sessions with concerned stakeholders, including parents, students and women's groups.

Ms Sim said three main areas of concern have been identified.

The first is the existence of websites that encourage girls or women to engage in vice. The second is non-consensual posting of images, videos and personal details.

Third is the unwelcome one-to-one interactions, ranging from sexual harassment to online grooming, especially through direct messaging on social media.

"Fundamentally, these online harms are driven by a view of women and girls which is exploitative in nature. In real life, we have laws that uphold women's safety. We have cultural norms as well that govern acceptable interactions between men and women," said Ms Sim.

But norms are being challenged on the Web, she said, perhaps because of the anonymity it offers. As a result, more females face behaviour that laws are meant to deter.

"So I feel very worried at the prospect that women and girls would start to think that it's normal to be on the receiving end of lewd pictures or unwelcome suggestive advances. Because then it's really a very short step away from women and girls having their real-life safety and security compromised."

Ms Clara Koh, Facebook's head of public policy for Singapore and Asean, who attended yesterday's dialogue, said the firm invested more than US$3.7 billion (S$5 billion) in safety and security in 2019.

This article first appeared in The Straits Times.

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