It seems that hardly a day goes by without violence against women appearing in the news in some form or another. Whether it’s revelations about policing, the popularity of misogynistic influencers like Andrew Tate, or male violence against women in public spaces – it is clear that women and girls deserve better.
The popularity of misogynistic ideas like those promoted by Tate is obviously not new, but clearly shows how the online world has become a major player in the spread of toxic and dangerous ideas to young men and women alike.
As a woman in public life, I unfortunately know only too well the misogynistic abuse that women and girls face online. As a former education secretary and women and equalities minister, I also know that dealing with this issue requires a real commitment on the part of the government to tackle this abuse at its root. The Online Safety Bill presents the government with an ideal opportunity to do so.
The Online Safety Bill has the potential to be world-leading legislation, ensuring that for the first time, the tech companies that currently profit from the engagement that the likes of Tate can bring, will be held accountable if they don’t take proper steps to tackle illegality on their platforms. They face the threat of fines when they fail. I am pleased to see that this bill is getting closer to becoming law since my time as digital, culture, media and sport secretary.
On the topic of violence against women and girls (VAWG) however, it is still sorely lacking. VAWG is not named on the bill, and with the recent wholesale removal of “legal but harmful” content regarding adults in its latest iteration, women and girls have in fact lost protections committed to address misogynistic content.
But women and girls are 27 times more likely to face harassment and abuse online than men, and they face an onslaught of deeply gendered abuse – image-based sexual abuse (so-called revenge porn), rape threats and cyber-stalking to name but a few.
Among calls for the bill to protect freedom of speech, women and girls continue to be silenced by the threat of online violence, and victims are told to simply “come offline”. Not only do these suggestions sound eerily similar to the old safety advice of telling women and girls to avoid walking home alone at night, but in a world in which the online and offline are so deeply interwoven, this is simply not possible. Faced with this stark reality, failing to protect women and girls in the Online Safety Bill is unconscionable.
I spoke out during the second reading of the bill in the House of Lords to express my support for a VAWG code of practice to address this gap, and faced online abuse as a result. I know that just by writing this article, I can anticipate further abuse. But the cost of inaction is too high.
This code, developed by women’s and children’s experts, would help to ensure that tech companies are required to prove to a regulator what steps they are taking to keep women and girls safe from abuse online. It is supported by cross-party peers, along with the domestic abuse commissioner.
I urge the government to use this opportunity to show that tackling VAWG remains a priority – so that whether we’re online, in public life or in our homes, women and girls are safe.
Read more about the proposed VAWG code of practice here.