Productive, efficient, and safe: Legal protections to support the advancement of the Digital Economy for all


Two mobile phones


Expanding the use of digital technologies can accelerate economic growth, increase productivity, reduce inequalities, and support sustainable development.

Emerging evidence indicates the negative impact of cyber harassment and other forms of technology-facilitated gender-based violence on productive economic participation, especially for women in the workplace.

Governments and the private sector can do more to enact legislation and proactively ensure safety-by-design practices to protect and prevent against cyber harassment. 

The digital economy can offer tremendous opportunities for emerging countries to increase productivity, reduce inequalities, and support sustainable growth. However, while the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the need to be online and an estimated nine in ten future jobs will have a digital component, the gender digital divide–the gap between men and women’s adoption of digital technologies–continues to characterize digital technology use. 

According to the 2023 GSMA Mobile Gender Gap Report, the rate of adoption of mobile internet use for women has slowed for the second year in a row and a significant gender gap remains: out of 900 million women who are still not using mobile internet, almost two-thirds live in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. 

The slowdown in digital inclusion is concerning as access to online resources is crucial to ensuring women and girls are not left behind in an increasingly digital world. However, access to digital inclusion is being overshadowed by the increasing threat of technology-facilitated gender-based violence (TFGBV). TFGBV is a threat or act of violence committed, assisted, aggravated, and amplified in part or fully by using information and communication technologies or digital media that is disproportionately targeted at women, girls, and gender non-conforming individuals. 

This can include cyber harassment and abuse, non-consensual distribution of intimate digital images, cyberstalking, and other forms of violence. The United Nations estimates that 95 percent of aggressive behavior, harassment, abusive language, and denigrating images in online spaces are aimed at women (UN Women 2019).

Emerging evidence indicates that TFGBV has significant economic impacts especially for women in the workplace. A 2022 survey found that 35 percent of women in Australia experienced professional or work-related online abuse. This online abuse resulted in broad ranging negative professional effects for women: 27 percent stopped work-related online activity temporarily or permanently; eight percent gave up leadership positions and five percent left their jobs (Safety Commissioner, 2022). Australia is one of the few countries that have cyber harassment laws in place.

USAID is addressing TFGBV in its policies, programming, and through its funding for the data and analysis conducted by the World Bank’s Women Business and the Law (WBL) initiative. USAID’s 2023 Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment Policy underscores that TFGBV can discourage women, girls, and gender-diverse persons from engaging in the digital ecosystem.

The 2023 Policy highlights the importance of supporting laws and regulations to hold technology platforms and individual perpetrators accountable for TFGBV alongside other recommendations, such as working with tech platforms on safety by design approaches. Increasingly, USAID is addressing TFGBV in its programming such as the Women in the Digital Economy Fund (WiDEF). Announced by the White House in March 2023, this USG Initiative brings together a variety of public and private stakeholders to accelerate progress towards the closure of the gender digital divide. 

USAID is also contributing to the development objective of the Global Partnership for Action on Gender-Based Online Harassment and Abuse, and has launched a three-year activity to pilot responses to prevent and address TFGBV, with a focus on violence perpetrated against women in politics and public life in three pilot countries–Kenya, Georgia, and Guatemala. This Transform Digital Spaces Activity will work with local organizations to increase capacity and coordination, strengthen TFGBV response, and build the evidence base for contextualized approaches to document, prevent, mitigate, and respond to TFGBV. 

In 2022, the World Bank’s Women Business and the Law research team conducted an assessment of existing laws to protect against cyber harassment in 190 economies. In 2024, Women, Business and the Law launched its new Safety indicator and updated the pilot data set collecting data on cyber-harassment, legal prohibitions, criminal penalties, civil remedies and special procedures. The assessment results reveal extremely low levels of legal protections in countries worldwide:

  • 39 percent address and prohibit cyber harassment. Cyber harassment laws are more common in high-income economies (such as the United States) than in low- and middle-income countries, yet only 44 percent of high-income countries have such laws.
  • 37 percent have redress measures for cyber harassment.

Very few countries have criminal penalties and civil remedies to protect against cyber harassment:

  • 37 percent impose criminal penalties for offenses associated with cyber harassment (such as imprisonment, a monetary fine, or a combination of both);
  • In addition to criminal penalties, less than 3 percent provide for either damages or financial compensation (or a combination of both) for victims.
  • Only 25 countries have established special procedures for cyber harassment. 

Although data is still emerging, current research indicates the negative impact of TFGBV on productive economic participation, especially for women in all their diversity. Enacting comprehensive legislation and policies to address cyber harassment and violence is a crucial first step governments must take to ensure that the benefits of digital technology continue to promote inclusivity and safety. At the same time, governments should engage with companies and experts in the digital ecosystem that influence the creation of digital technologies to proactively ensure safety-by-design practices that protect privacy and enable reporting and response to TFGBV.


Reyhanne, N., Affoum, M., Santagostino Recavarren, I.M., Vohra, N and Q. Wodon (2023). Protecting Women and Girls from Cyber Harassment: A Global Assessment of Existing Laws, Global Indicators Briefs No. 18, World Bank.

Safety Commissioner (2022). Women in the Spotlight: Women's experiences with online abuse in their working lives. Melbourne, Australia

The Australia Institute (2019). Trolls and polls –the economic costs of online harassment and cyberhate

The Global Partnership (2022). Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence: Preliminary Landscape Analysis