Skip to main content

Ending Online Sexual Exploitation and Abuse of Women and Girls: A Call for International Standards

Online sexual exploitation and abuse are growing at an alarming pace globally. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable as offenders take advantage of the sex, gender, and structural discrimination inherent in our patriarchal society. International and national laws have not kept pace with changing technology, and this needs to change.

Online sexual exploitation and abuse (OSEA) includes online grooming, live-streaming of sexual abuse, child sexual abuse material (CSAM), online sexual coercion and extortion, online sex trafficking, and image-based sexual abuse.

Predators are increasingly using social media and online gaming platforms to target potential victims because these platforms offer anonymity and operate under very limited regulation. Consequently, OSEA is growing and the full breadth of the problem is largely unknown because of the large number of unreported cases.

This report, which utilizes a survivor-centric approach to illustrate the impact of OSEA and highlight the challenges faced in keeping people safe in a rapidly changing digital landscape, examines the law surrounding OSEA at the international and regional level, with a focus on Europe.

We also examine the laws surrounding OSEA at the national level, focusing on five countries, namely Kenya, India, Nigeria, the United Kingdom (England and Wales), and the United States. The report explores the balance between digital privacy, freedom of expression, and protection, and online safety, and discusses the challenges posed by the multi-jurisdictional nature of online sexual harms and regulating service providers and platforms.

“We’ve been let down by the justice system and it’s left us feeling quite helpless and hopeless that there’s been no prosecution. Nothing has been done to stop that happening to someone else. That this crime is so difficult to prosecute is really frustrating and angers me. People can get away with it far too easily and perpetrators are well aware nothing is going to happen to them.”

Ruby, United Kingdom

Equality Now’s analysis of laws and policies related to OSEA, alongside in-depth discussions with survivors, activists, and lawyers actively engaging with survivors of OSEA, found that international and national laws have not kept pace with changing technology, and there is no single internationally binding instrument that specifically defines and addresses OSEA.

The report also uncovered a lack of consistent legislation and internationally-adopted laws pertaining to OSEA that makes obtaining legal recourse extremely challenging. There is an inherent tension between digital rights and freedoms and the right to protection and safety against OSEA, and regulations on digital service providers and platforms are inconsistent and often do not do enough to protect users against OSEA.

We’re calling for comprehensive action from the international community, governments, and digital service providers to holistically address OSEA.

Specifically, the international community should: 

  • Develop and adopt binding international standards
  • Review and update international and regional laws and instruments to ensure they are aligned to the reality of the digital age
  • Conduct up-to-date research and analysis on OSEA

Governments should:

  • Review and update legislation and policies to fully protect vulnerable people from OSEA
  • Strengthen national capacity to address OSEA
  • Collaborate with other key stakeholders including civil society organisations and digital service providers

Digital service providers should:

  • Apply a human rights approach in policies and practices to protect users from harm
  • Collaborate with other key stakeholders, including law enforcement agencies, civil society organisations, and governments