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Violence, woment and the law: an unfinished story

Olga Jurasz, wearing a yellow sweater, standing in front of background of trees

In her inaugural lecture on 9 May 2024, Olga Jurasz, Professor of Law in the OU’s Faculty of Business and Law, explored the uneasy relationship between violence, law and women’s lives.

She focused on three examples: conflict-related sexual violence, online violence against women and the impact that withdrawal of rights and laws has on violence they experience.



Watch the recording of Olga Jurasz’s inaugural lecture

Kevin: Good afternoon everybody, an absolute pleasure to see you all. I'm Kevin Shakesheff, I'm the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation at The Open University. I think you will have heard me say before, if you've come along to inaugurals, that these are the absolute highlight of my year. We get to celebrate fantastic careers of people who have reached a real landmark in their own careers. So today we're going to hear from Olga Jurasz who is Professor of Law in the OU’s Faculty of Business and Law. She's going to explore the uneasy relationship between violence, law and women's lives, looking at three examples, conflict-related sexual violence, online violence against women, and the impact that the withdrawal of rights and laws has on the violence they experience. If you are on social media we're really keen to let people know about these wonderful celebrations. So please, we’ve got a slide up there, please do use that hashtag at the bottom, #OUTalks.

So the format for today, I’m going to invite Olga in a second to give her inaugural lecture and then we'll have a discussion and we'll look for the audience to provide us with some interesting discussion points and questions towards the end of today. Then we have a celebration downstairs which I hope you can join us and we can continue the discussions.

So just to say a little bit about Olga’s fantastic work as she's a leading voice in the field of law and violence against women. She's published widely including two books, one on ‘Online Misogyny as a Hate Crime: A Challenge for Legal Regulation’ and a second book, ‘Violence Against Women, Hate and Law: Perspectives from Contemporary Scotland’ highlighting there the OU’s Four Nations aspect. She's done international works so working in partnership with Lawyers for Justice in Libya, she led on the first ever empirical project to examine the extent and impact of online violence on women in Libya, that was in 2021, analysing this phenomenon in the context of Libya's transition from conflict to peace.

In 2023 Olga led a fantastic project, again highlighting the Four Nations aspect of our University. The project ‘Online Violence Against Women: A Four Nations Study' is the biggest empirical study in the UK to gather data about societal attitudes towards online violence against women and women's experience of such violence. Her expertise is being used by governments, international organisations, and third sector organisations to influence much needed changes in law and policy in the areas of her research. Towards the end of last year Olga was awarded, along with her team, and I see many of the team members here today, an absolutely incredible award, nearly £8M coming in to establish The Centre for Protecting Women Online, and we're so excited about what that Centre will go on to achieve in the future. So that's Olga’s introduction. I’m absolutely delighted to welcome her to give her inaugural lecture. Over to you Olga.

Olga Jurasz: Thank you very much for the kind introduction Kevin. Welcome everyone and thank you for taking the time today to come to this inaugural lecture. I'm really delighted to be here and to share my work and reflections with you. The topic of violence, and violence against women in particular, has always been at the very heart of my research. It has not always been an easy journey, nor a comfortable one. As a woman, as a feminist, and as a lawyer, it is largely frustrating to witness the daily toll that violence against women takes on women across the world, and how little the law has done to actually achieve change in this area.

The topic of violence is not alien to women, and neither are their encounters with the law. However, the official story of these encounters, or rather the story that is documented within the law, is much shorter than the history of women's experiences of violence. This is largely due to the fact that for a very, very long time women were seen as outsiders to law and the legal systems worldwide. For a very long time they were not viewed as independent legal persons, their lives and their worth, within the eyes of the law of course, defined through association with men, or rather lack of that association.

Consequently, the law viewed violence against women, especially when committed by husbands or male family members, as falling outside the scope of public life and regulation and falling within the private realm. So for many, many years, this private-public divide, which was created and then reinforced by the law, has designated women's experiences of some forms of violence to the ungovernable realm, leaving its victims with no recourse to justice, support, no redress.

Now, of course, the picture is not entirely bleak. There have been some positive and notable developments within the law, both at international and at domestic levels that have changed the course of how law, its bodies, its institutions, respond to violence against women. However, these developments, especially at international level, have been largely constrained from making a full impact by the gaps in their enforcement. So in this rather busy socio-legal landscape the relationship between the law, women and violence has always carried a degree of complexity, overshadowed by law’s dominant narratives and gendered assumptions about violence against women, which frequently contribute to maintenance of cycles of violence, rather than disturbing or actually breaking them.

So in today's lecture I would like to explore this uneasy relationship between women, violence and law, using three examples which actually happen to also reflect my own research journey.

First, I turn to conflict-related sexual violence to illustrate how the law, here international law, responds to gender-based violence which often shocks the conscience, appears extraordinary, and which has gained legal visibility only in the past three decades, in spite of being perpetrated for millennia. Second, I turn to online and digital violence against women as an illustration of a modern challenge for legal regulation and example of how its hypervisibility in everyday life so far has failed to fully translate into recognition of this type of violence and harms arising from it within the law. Lastly, I turn to law first, as opposed to violence, to discuss the impact that withdrawal of certain rights and laws has on women and the violence they are subjected to, and in doing so I will draw on the US Supreme Court decision in Dobbs and Jackson Women's Health from June 2022, which ruled that there is no federal constitutional right to abortion, and the decision of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal from October 2020 establishing that abortion due to foetal impairment is unconstitutional.

It has become a cliche to say that sexual violence has been a persistent feature of conflicts throughout millennia. However, the evidence of historical and contemporary patterns of violence against women during conflict leaves actually very little to subvert or to contradict that premise. On the other hand, the last 30 years or so have been marked by an incredible shift in bringing conflict-related sexual violence to the centre of post-conflict processes, including prosecutions of international crimes. So within the realm of international law, conflict-related sexual violence has become a topic of attention amongst the international community, and in a fairly relatively short space of time international law has come a long way in not just acknowledging conflict-related sexual violence, but also taking steps, however limited they may seem to all of us, to address it. So at an institutional level the United Nations has created a dedicated post of the UN Secretary General's Special Representative on Sexual Violence In Conflict, whilst the UN Security Council resolution 1888 established the United Nations Team of Experts on the Rule of Law and Sexual Violence in Conflict. This team works closely with governments, United Nation missions, and country teams to support the investigation, prosecution and adjudication of crimes under civilian and military systems, legislative reforms and protection of victims and witnesses.

Conflict-related sexual violence is also now firmly embedded within legal documents and instruments. For example, UN Security Council resolution 1325 on Women Peace and Security, reports on UN Special Rapporteurs work of the UN Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the statutes of the International Criminal Court, and most crucially, a growing body of case law from international criminal courts and tribunals. It is for development of the latter that conflict-related sexual violence has been proven to amount to war crimes, crimes against humanity, enslavement, torture, gender-based persecution. For example, Article 7(1)(g) of the ICC statute explicitly recognises rape, sexual slavery, and forced prostitution, forced pregnancy and forced sterilisation or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity as a crime against humanity. Importantly, conflict-related sexual violence has also been recognised at an international level as a deliberate part of military strategy and an act of terrorism, a crime quite rarely known for its gender dimension. The judgment of the Special Court for Sierra Leone in the Revolutionary United Front case was instrumental in that respect. In that case, the chamber viewed conflict-related sexual violence as a tactic of war to humiliate, dominate and instil fear in victims, their families and communities during armed conflict, and that in this case specifically, acts of sexual violence were committed against the civilian population in an atmosphere in which violence, oppression and lawlessness prevailed. The court also recognised that acts of terrorism perpetrated through acts of sexual violence had an overarching goal of tearing apart communities, not only by means of inflicting physical and mental pain on the civilian population, but also by undermining the cultural values within these communities in order to subjugate these populations to the dominant control of the armed forces.

But the judgment in the Revolutionary United Front case confirmed what women's lived experiences of conflict-related sexual violence have long established, that women's bodies are battlegrounds for political objectives and strategic military goals. That harms resulting from these acts are not only targeting women, but also communities, and that international humanitarian law is a toothless tiger when it comes to protection of women from such violence. But these apparent legal victories need to be qualified. They need to be qualified by the silences which have been created within the main legal narratives of prosecuting conflict-related sexual violence, and by women's experiences and harms which have been excluded from these narratives.

Here I turn to the ICC case of Prosecutor and Bosco Ntaganda, which brought to the surface the problem of rigidity of legal categories and their impact on excluding some aspects of women's experiences of violence, especially where they don't align with the multiplicity of typologies, time and spaces where these acts of violence happen.

So this case was concerned with a number of charges against Bosco Ntaganda, former Deputy Chief of Staff and Commander of Operations of the patriotic forces for the liberation of the Congo. He was charged and convicted on 13 counts of war crimes and five counts of crimes against humanity committed between 2002 and 2003 in the Ituri district of the DRC. Specifically counts six and nine related to rape and sexual slavery against child soldiers based on the evidence that UPC and FPLC commanders and soldiers raped and sexually enslaved their soldiers without regard to age, including child soldiers under the age of 15.

UPC and FPLC commanders and soldiers referred to women and girls in the UPC/ FPLC camps as ‘gedouria’, a large cooking pot, to mean that they could be used for sex whenever the soldier wanted them for that purpose. The crimes that Ntaganda was charged with in relation to count six and nine, were directed primarily at women and young girls.

What is interesting about this case is that Ntaganda challenged the existing combatant civilian distinction with an international humanitarian law, which also resonates with an international criminal law, which essentially translates into different degrees of protection being afforded to either one of the groups depending on their combat status. So in other words, civilians do not take part in hostilities and therefore are protected in times of war. Whereas combatants do take part in hostilities and are only protected in limited circumstances, such as when they no longer participate in hostilities, for example, due to injury. However, this firm distinction within the law was immediately challenged by the testimonies and evidence of experiences of girl soldiers. First, what we see is that their combat roles were deeply intertwined with their sexual exploitation. Second, rape and sexual slavery suffered by girl soldiers were committed by the members of the same armed group. Hence the question arose in this case as to whether it is even possible to prosecute sexual violence against girl soldiers as a war crime when it is committed by their own forces.

So the ICC Pre-Trial Chamber held that individuals only lose their protection for such time as they are actively participating in hostilities, and that girls who are raped and subjected to sexual violence were clearly not participating in hostilities during that time. It found that children lose their protection when they take direct part in hostilities for the duration of their participation in those hostilities. It's on that basis that the Pre-Trial Chamber determined that sexual violence committed against child soldiers constituted war crimes under Article 8(2)(e)(vi) of the Rome Statute because the children were protected by international humanitarian law during the commission of the act of sexual violence.

However, this approach is a mediated compromise between the strive for accountability for crimes committed against girl soldiers, and interpretation of legal categories, here international humanitarian law, created shortly after World War Two. However, I would argue that by insisting on the separation and mutual exclusivity of times when girl soldiers took direct or active part in hostilities, and the very precise time when sexual violence against them was being perpetrated, the court also produced a false narrative about the lived experience of girl soldiers in relation to conflict-related sexual violence, especially related to temporality of that violence and the context in which it took place. So the interpretation advanced by the Pre-Trial Chamber of the ICC, which was further confirmed on appeal, does not represent, I would argue, the full spectrum of the experiences of girl soldiers in conflict.

Focusing on the very specific time of the rape to find that a victim could not have been taking direct or active part in hostilities, appears to presume that rape occurred infrequently and in limited circumstances. This is, in my view, a rather rigid and unrealistic assessment of the nature, frequency, and consequences of conflict-related sexual violence experienced by girl soldiers. It is also an approach that marginalises the experiences of girl soldiers, especially given that the trial record contains substantial evidence of the widespread and systematic perpetration of rape and other forms of sexual violence against girl soldiers by adult UPC and FPLC commanders. Given the prevalence and frequency of sexual violence in this case, a temporal analysis that focuses on single acts of sexual violence does not reflect the multiplicity of acts of conflict-related sexual violence experienced by girl soldiers as part of their daily lives. What's more, a narrow focus on the acts of rape precludes any considerations of the long-standing impact of rape, in particular the psychological trauma which is a defining feature of this crime and other forms of sexual violence. Here the apparent increase in accountability for and visibility of conflict-related sexual violence comes at the cost of marginalising its grave and long-lasting physical, psychological and social effects on multiple levels, but also fails to recognise the very strategic function wielded by the conflict-related sexual violence.

The second example that I turn to today is online and digital violence against women, which I think it's fair to say is no longer a niche issue. It is estimated that globally the prevalence of online violence against women reaches 85%, although it is likely to be much higher due to known underreporting. So quite alarmingly online spaces, which are in principle open to all which enable or should enable equal participation, are also spaces where online gender-based violence thrives. The UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, recognised in her 2018 thematic report that “despite the benefits and empowering potential of the internet and ICT, women and girls across the world have increasingly voiced their concern at harmful, sexist, misogynistic and violent content and behaviour online.” The scale and wide-ranging harmful effects of online violence against women have been generally acknowledged by international bodies as well as in a number of domestic jurisdictions. It's hypervisibility and omnipresence in everyday life leave little doubt as to its scale, whilst media reports often bring harrowing stories about the real life impact of online violence on women and girls who experience it, be it politicians, human rights defenders, schoolgirls, or simply women who dare to express their views online.

Online violence against women actually challenges quite strongly the traditional way in which violence against women is fought off and reflected within the law, typically, with its predominant focus falling on the physical dimensions of such violence and the physical harms that are suffered. Of course, online violence against women happens in a virtual world, leading many to incorrectly assume that its effects are somewhat separate from offline and the physical world, that what happens online stays online, or that online is simply not real. What's more, where online violence does not transfer to offline or the physical world, or where the visual element of such violence, for example, image, is not present, such form of violence is effectively rendered invisible. These positions are challenged not only by the narratives of experiences of women who are subjected to online violence, but also by mapping of a spectrum of non-traditional harms arising from text-based online violence, which you can see on this slide here, and I'm sure as many of you noticed, physical harms are only one category of harm presented here.

Resulting from these misconceptions, online harms arising from online violence against women have received fairly limited and highly selective treatment within the law. There has been a noticeable privileging of law reform in relation to forms of online violence which are image-based, image-based sexual abuse, upskirting, cyber flashing, or more recently, deepfakes, much to the exclusion of the textual forms of online violence against women. The contrast is quite stark. In the UK there has been a speedy law reform in relation to making image-based sexual abuse a criminal offence, whereas text-based forms of online violence against women have not gained equivalent recognition, nor attracted similar legislative appetite. The juxtaposition of the prompt image-based sexual abuse reforms with a rather lethargic response of the legal system to the text-based violence raises questions about the ultimate hierarchy of harms within the legal system, and the visibility of non-image-based online violence. This is particularly so given women's experiences. The recent and so far the largest survey on online violence against women in the UK, has shown that between February 2022 and February 2023, 82% of women across the UK experienced text-based online violence, in contrast with 33% of women who experienced image-based violence. Crucially, this image versus text dualism created by the contrasting approach of the legislators towards these two forms of online violence leads to perpetuation of gender inequalities within the law. The privileging of the more visually disturbing forms of online violence is symptomatic of the broader issue of stereotyping and marginalising women's experiences of violence within the law and reproducing false narratives and paradigm of a certain perfect victim.

Secondly, this unequal approach results in the creation of a hierarchy of harms within the legal system, in which more credence and more gravitas are given to forms of violence involving photographic representations of the victim, rather than textual and frequently very violent abuse. By maintaining such status quo through legislative inaction, the legal system creates a self-reinforcing but false perception that image-based forms of online violence are more harmful and serious than non-image-based ones. As such the legislative gap results in non-image-based forms of violence against women remaining invisible within the legal system and contributes to the erasure of the full and complete narrative of online violence against women from the legal system. Ultimately, this results in very limited accountability and very limited routes for redress for victims of these violent acts. In turn, text-based online violence becomes a normalised form of violence against women, and one which women, and as we learn increasingly young girls, have come to expect to happen to them. Yet, women's experiences of these forms of violence remain on the periphery of the legal and justice system. In turn this has quite severe implications on how harms arising from online violence against women, fuelled by its hypervisibility, remain positioned in the domestic legal systems. In particular, English courts have been painfully slow in recognising the full and dynamic spectrum of harms resulting from online violence against women.

To illustrate this point I briefly turn to two cases from England. First one is Nimmo and Sorley and second Viscount St Davids. Firstly, the case of Nimmo and Sorley from 2014 dealt with abusive, threatening and violent tweets sent by the defendants to the feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez, and labour politician Stella Creasy, in relation to their involvement in the campaign to bring more women on to the Bank of England banknotes, a campaign that was taking place back in 2013. The sentencing remarks of Judge Riddle, the judge in this case, have made a significant contribution in that they highlighted the issue of the transference of harms between online and offline worlds. For example, the judge commented that “the harm while serious was entirely predictable, that it was exacerbated by the manner in which the threats and harassment were communicated online at all hours, and promising physical harm too.” Judge Riddle identified these as indicators of aggravating features in sentencing considerations, especially because, and I quote, “The victims had no way of knowing how dangerous the people making these threats were.” The remarks also focused on the anonymity of the perpetrators as a factor heightening the fear of the victims for their personal safety, as well as outlining several non- traditional harms, such as economic and residential consequences of online text-based violence. In a quite powerful final statement the judge actually noted that the effects of harassment that the women received has been life changing. However, none of these remarks engaged with the highly sexualised and the violent nature of the many tweets received by Criado-Perez and Creasy, nor elaborated how the hypervisibility of such content promotes violence against women and actually normalises such forms of behaviour and violence within the society.

Similarly, the 2017 judgment and sentencing comments in Viscount St Davids, a case dealing with extreme online abuse suffered by the anti-Brexit campaigner Gina Miller lacked the gender analysis of the text-based violence received by Miller and its impact. Miller was subjected to racist, sexist and misogynistic abuse, yet the judgment focused only on the racist aspect, mostly because of the aggravation based on race resulted in a harsher sentence for the perpetrator. But by doing so, the intersectional nature of the text-based violence received by Miller was rendered invisible in the official legal documents concerning this case, providing only a partial record of the overwhelming amount of abuse that she received, but also failed to clearly frame it as a form of violence against women. For instance, Miller received messages stating that I quote, “Jo Cox killing would be good for you.”, referring to a brutally murdered British politician and using it as a symbolic point of reference for extreme acts of violence against women. So the harmful nature of such tweets and the socio-cultural harms they perpetuate, have not been thus far addressed nor condemned by law, overlooking the role in incitement to violence against women, and the role in normalisation of violence against women in everyday life. Despite a number of social campaigns against violence against women, and the ‘in principle’ commitment from the government to tackling violence against women, these everyday symbolic acts of violence continue to be inflicted upon women on social media and beyond. In this context, the law’s apparent struggle to capture and address harms resulting from online violence against women is a reflection on the hierarchical nature of the law and its conspicuous role in privileging some harms, injuries, and lives over others.

So the two previous examples used focused on violence against women and their bodies as a point of departure for the critique of deficiencies in legal responses to such violence, and the law’s implicit role in silencing and marginalising some aspects of women's experiences. Now I would like to turn this dynamic on its head and invite you to consider how the law can create circumstances, spaces, and socio-political contexts where violence against women can thrive. In particular, I would like to reflect on how the law for its institutions, the legal decision-making and withdrawal of legal guarantees creates a backlash for women and their rights. So in the past few years this reverse dynamic that I spoke of, has strongly played out in the area of women's reproductive rights, particularly the right to abortion. Here I'll be looking at two court decisions concerning abortion rights, one from Poland and one from the United States. Whilst these decisions are obviously not directly linked nor concern the same jurisdiction, they are unified by the fact that in both cases the matter was decided by the highest courts in both countries, and also considered in the constitutional context. So in October 2020, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal ruled that abortion due to foetal impairment was unconstitutional, a decision that has been described as a tragic judgment. The context of this ruling is also significant. Since 1993 abortion law in Poland has been one of the strictest in Europe, allowing abortion only in three strictly defined circumstances. Firstly, severe foetal impairment, second, a danger to mother's life or health, and third, pregnancy resulting from a criminal act, typically rape. The timing of the ruling is equally significant. It came at a time of a global pandemic and periods of lockdowns, which not only restricted access to safe abortion for many women beyond Poland, but also had a bearing on people's right to protest in a peaceful assembly. The decision of the Polish Constitutional Tribunal is also deeply rooted in the rise of right wing populism in Poland, which is closely aligned with Ultra-Catholicism and so-called traditional ‘values’ which stands in opposition to a liberal and democratic order. What's more, these dynamics have been reflected in the right to abortion litigation against Poland before the European Court of Human Rights as well as in now quite strong data from the civil society initiative Abortion Without Borders, who between October 2021 and October 2022, supported 44,000 women from Poland in accessing abortion costing over €300,000.

In June 2022 the US Supreme Court decision in Dobbs overturned the historic supreme court judgement in Roe and Wade, which back in 1973 established a constitutional right to obtain an abortion. Whilst the overturning of Roe and Wade has not automatically banned abortion across all states in the US, for 13 states which had so-called ‘trigger laws’ regarding abortion, the decision in Dobbs opened effectively a legal avenue to enforce them. Additionally, nearly 50 years of legal precedent have been overturned making it a significant backlash for women's rights and reproductive rights specifically in the US. As noted by the Center for Reproductive Rights, since the decision in Roe and Wade in 1973, the US Supreme Court repeatedly reaffirmed that the Constitution protects for abortion as an essential liberty which is tied to other liberty rights to make personal decisions about family, relationships and bodily autonomy. Importantly, the decision in Dobbs marked the first time in history that the US Supreme Court has taken away a fundamental right.

In both examples the legality of these decisions has been reinforced for the constitutional status of these decisions. The US Supreme Court with regard to Dobbs and of course, the Polish Constitutional Tribunal, suggesting the highest level of legal authority and practically unlikely reversibility of these pronouncements in the years to come. What's more, both decisions mark a significant departure from an internationally recognised human rights-based approach to women's reproductive rights, including access to safe and legal abortion which has been repeatedly pronounced by the UN human rights treaty bodies as a matter of human rights.

So what do these three examples tell us about the law’s relationship to women and the violence they experience? Well first it's difficult to stay optimistic about the global state of law’s relationship and response to violence against women and the lasting manifold impact that it has on women's lives. As the quoted examples show, violence against women is not siloed. It is deeply interconnected with geopolitical, socio- economic and cultural shifts and events. Within these circumstances law is never a neutral actor, and never detached from political contexts, be it war, political struggle, or the decisions of the highest court of the land.

Law, as we've seen, can act as a catalyst to advanced protection of women and their rights, including protection from violence, and equally very fast it can be used as a tool legitimising such violence. Women's lives and their bodies are the battlegrounds where this dichotomous nature of law and its dynamic relationship to politics plays out. As we are reminded by this quote from Concepción Arenal “Bad laws will always find and will help to form men worse than those laws in charge of executing them, or perhaps enforcing them.” Therefore it is crucial, I would argue, not to become complacent in light of small legal victories and to work towards creating better laws which are reflective and inclusive of women's experiences by design, and which effectively respond to harms; personal, societal, cultural, caused by violence against women. But most of all, it's essential not to grow indifferent to the global structures, powers and political narratives which sustain, promote and incite violence against women, be it in the DRC, in Gaza, or on our own UK doorstep. Thank you.

Kevin: Olga, thank you so much for a splendid inaugural lecture. We've got a bit of time now so we're going to go over there and have a discussion.

So anybody got any questions or comments for Olga?

David: Thank you for a fascinating lecture Olga. My name is David. I specialise in disability hate crime and the victims I research are possibly even more hidden than your own. Do you think when the Law Commission in the UK reported three years ago that there should be a new suite of hate crime legislation in the UK that the government not taking this up is a lost opportunity for women?

Olga: Good question. Thank you. I would say yes and no. Whilst I think it is important to have hate crime against women, because they are women reflected in hate crime legislation, I've been also quite sceptical about possibly limiting effects of viewing violence against women through hate crime framework only. I think not all violence that women experience is hateful, by default. So by doing so we're potentially limiting ourselves from having a much more comprehensive legal framework which I think we should have, to address multiple types and contexts in which violence against women is happening.

Arosha: Thank you Olga for that really fantastic talk, it exposed a lot of important issues and food for thought. So as a software engineer my question has a slight technological angle to it, I guess. It reflects on the idea that some of those working to address online violence, online harms, often cite that it's the affordances provided by technology like anonymity and confidentiality that are contributory factors to these online behaviours that we see. I sense that legal responses therefore try to mandate that technology is hobbled in some way in order to try and address these harms without necessarily thinking about the bigger harms that could occur because encryption is weaker and now all of us are vulnerable in many different ways to other types of harms. I was just curious about what you thought about this debate and how you feel law and technology should be interacting in a more effective way because currently it doesn't seem to be working that well.

Olga: Arosha, you and I have five years to explore all of this as part of the Centre’s research. So I feel like you're putting me on the spot here, but there we go. I agree with you. I think we can't just say all technology is bad because bad things are happening online. I think that is a very limiting approach. Even with the quote of the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women, if you go a bit further into the document it does recognise that there is of course an immense value in having women and girls equally participating in online spaces, having them represented within the technology sector. So I've been a long term advocate for not viewing the two as exclusive. I don't think we should be pitching gender equality and, for example, freedom of expression online as opposites. I think they are mutually reinforcing and I can't imagine one without the other. On the point of the intersection between law and technology, I always say that law is always reactive. So I think technology will always come first and then we will start to unpack problems of what's happening online. I do think the two need to work in sync, perhaps this doesn't come as a surprise to you given our previous conversations. But we cannot constrain ourselves from making technological progress, but equally we need to deal with essentially a pandemic of violence against women, which essentially at its heart is not a problem of technology, it's a problem of society. So I think the two need to come together with possibly other disciplines as well to tackle this problem.

Kevin: Olga I know there’s a Milton Keynes aspect to the work that you're doing as well as an international aspect. Could you maybe just say a little bit about the local and international partners that you are working with currently and looking to work with in the future.

Olga: Absolutely. So as part of the Centre’s work we've got a number of local partnerships and I'm delighted to see many of the people in this room with whom we'll be doing some amazing work to further online safety and education online safety here around Milton Keynes and Buckinghamshire, but also we've got a number of international partners, some involving big tech. So we are very much hoping to bridge that gap between the local and global in that respect. I think some of the colleagues in the room have heard me perhaps too many times say that it is a global problem that resonates very locally, and it can resonate in this very room.

Maya: Hi Olga. I'm Maya, I'm Chief Executive of a safety organisation. We specialise in early intervention and prevention. In another life early in my career I worked in international development so thank you for a very insightful session. When I worked in international development I spent some time with some child soldiers and so I saw some of the complexities around is a child soldier a victim or a perpetrator and those blurred lines. So you've made me reflect on some of that. Currently though, as you know when we met recently, we have launched a new education programme working with young people around violence against women and girls, and we also do work around online safety. These things aren’t isolated as such, there’s a real crossover. I'm very passionate about ensuring we reduce the number of young people, women, girls, that are experiencing violence online as well. I've been reflecting on some of the things that you've said, and I'm thinking here we are driving education, actually let's have some early prevention work happening. But then I'm also sat here thinking, will the law catch up with what is needed from a societal perspective. We're seeing this, you've described it as a pandemic. It's quite a fast paced, changing environment that we're seeing. We've just talked about the role of technology as well. But how as a society can we ensure law keeps up and evolves in the way that we need it to and just any thoughts you might have on that.

Olga: Get our politicians on board, that would be the starting point. Thank you for the question. I think it's a really tricky one because the law always plays catch up. It's very rarely at the forefront. It's always reactive. That's why I'm very sceptical about law’s preventative role in preventing violence against women and online violence. Now this does not mean that we should not have laws that address violence against women, that addresses online safety, and that these laws are designed well, fit for purpose and enforceable, because there is no point having laws that can't be enforced or won't be enforced. It looks pretty on paper but achieves nothing in actual life. So I hope we are moving in the right direction. I think some steps are being taken in the online safety realm after the Online Safety Act has come into force. I am sceptical about the full impact of that piece of legislation. I have long been sceptical about its design and I continue to be sceptical about the full effect that it's going to have. But it is a step forward and I think it is a step in the right direction. But we do need more research and we do need to actually listen to people who experience violence online to actually make sure that these laws don't just look pretty on paper, but they address the real challenges that people face when they are faced with online violence.

Simon: Simon Lavis, an academic in the Law School here. Thank you Olga for an interesting and important lecture. It builds on the last question and you started to answer it a little bit. I was going to ask about what you see as the ideal or perhaps possible role of law in this. You've expressed scepticism about the preventative role of law. But on the other hand, I suppose, there's a dialogue between change of law, change in society, change in law, change in society.  Law I agree is largely reactive, but it doesn't just react once, it's kind of an ongoing process. So can the law only try to punish and deter people that commit violence against women? Can it help construct safe spaces? Can it help to influence and change views and norms in society over time? Can you build a bit more on how far you see law can go in this space and what you'd see as its ideal role.

Olga: Thank you, I think all you said mostly about criminal law in terms of establishing certain accountability and a form of redress absolutely applies. But there is also a symbolic value in making sure that violence against women is prohibited and is captured within law and legal instruments. You know, law is a story, if we don't put certain things in then they are missing from that script, from that story.  I think there is a value in ensuring that violence against women, women's experiences, are not the missing part of the picture. So I think it is absolutely paramount that the law continues to develop in a way that reflects women's experiences of violence, that prohibits these acts of violence, that evolves to prohibit incitement to violence against women, which I think is a huge problem that isn't always given the weight it should be given.

Speaker: Thank you Olga, that was a very interesting talk and picking up on some themes that you mentioned in the talk and that you've had in your response as well, maybe a motif of a kind of limit to law. Towards the end you spoke about law as violence and you spoke about it in the constitution and domestic setting. Does that idea translate over to international law as in the first part of your talk? Is there an international law that purports to protect women from violence? Is the law itself there perpetuating violence?

Olga: Very good question. I have an answer that would span into other areas of international law which really would get us out of the theme of this lecture. But I will go there. I mean you have to just look at the current events, you have to look at what's happening in Gaza, and the largely lack of international response to these events. To me that is law acting as a form of violence, and that, of course, is not limited to women in that sphere. But that's on the point of law and violence. I think yes, international law can be quite constraining in terms of how it operates and how it mandates, I guess how it allows certain laws to nonetheless exist which are constraining to women and their rights. But that's the design of international law, it will be very difficult to undo it however strongly I could advocate for it. I think the point about seeing law as violence was mostly to convey, I think, certain unease within me as a lawyer, that law is not always the good guy. It can very quickly flip from being a good guy to actually achieving a very opposite purpose. A part I think of my work as a feminist is to be alert to this dynamic and to spot it quite early when it's happening because I think it can happen very quickly and very unexpectedly.

Joe: Good afternoon and thank you. My name is Joe Kidman. I lead on public protection and safeguarding for Thames Valley Police. I just want to take you to the online, particularly the textual side of online violence. Do you think that what needs to be achieved will be about primary legislation or do you think it's more about case law and procedure? So I'm thinking of, for example, in rape cases instructions to the jury which now come about rape myths from a judge. So about helping people to understand and juries maybe to understand the context of what's happened, and maybe applying existing legislation rather than simply adding another thing to the statute books that, as you say, can on occasions be simply window dressing?

Olga: Thank you, I think a little bit of both. So I'm definitely not in favour of just speeding through law reform just for the sake of having a pretty looking law and ticking the box. I'm not the right audience for this approach I'm afraid. But I do think that some of the laws that we are trying to apply to what's happening online date back to Victorian times, and I think that's a bit too long. So I do think that going forward we do need better primary legislation. We don't have to rush it, it should be designed well and it needs to really capture the full spectrum, not only of acts that are happening online, but actually the harms that these acts result in. I think to me the harm is almost the starting point for the conversation about new legislation. I think you've mentioned something really interesting in your comment. This is kind of a sense of direction and the guidance given. I couldn't agree more that I think there is still a lot of work to be done, including perhaps amongst judiciary and all parts of the legal and justice system to truly convey the impact that online violence has on women when it happens, and that harms arising from acts of online violence do not have to be physical to be taken seriously. So I think for me perhaps a mixed approach would be a way forward here.

Simon: Simon Lee, previously here at The Open University, now at Aston University. Congratulations Professor on your professorship, on this inaugural lecture and on your research centre. I'm very pleased that this is a success story, not only of you but of The Open University, and little grants here and there, onto the British Academy Rising Star, onto this. But what about another aspect of The Open University which is the Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, England dimensions and your experience of law reform and how easy or difficult it is in the different legal and political jurisdictions?

Olga: Thank you so much, I thought you might ask a kind of devolved question. This is interesting when it comes to violence against women and then when you look at online violence, and I think in the course of my research I was, as many of you know, I didn't really anticipate the growth of this research to the extent that is happening right now. It's genuinely a big surprise. I think the course of law reform or potential law reform, and the legislative appetite for law reform has had a lot to do with the course that my own research has taken. Of course being based at the OU a part of that research has gone down the route of the Nations, although I have to say I can't attribute all of that to The Open University. My journey into law did begin in Wales in Aberystwyth University. So I knew about devolution before I came to the OU, which is good. But I think to the point that you mentioned, it's been really an insightful journey to engage with law and policymakers across different jurisdictions within the UK and to see also how differently law reform is approached in these areas, how differently violence against women is viewed in these areas, and how quickly some legislative parts of the UK are willing to make a step forward in some aspects of tackling violence against women than others. Here in particular, I think Scotland has been a bit of an outlier in terms of really being quite brave I think in putting forward some ideas for law reform. For example, a while back putting forward a proposal for a new offence of misogynistic harassment, for having a Working Group on Misogyny and Criminal Justice in Scotland which has not quite happened in other parts of the UK. Of course last year's big project that I think Kevin mentioned early on, was a survey into online violence against women and girls across the UK. So of course that took us on a tour of Four Nations and again rendered quite interesting results, some commonalities, and also some differences in how women experience online violence depending on where they are actually physically based. So yes, it's been quite a journey. Thank you.

Speaker: Hi there Olga, a really thought-provoking lecture. Do you have any advice for the layperson who might see perhaps violence against women, online images or text? I mean, for example, this morning in one of my feeds there was an image of a woman in Afghanistan being beaten for just playing music. Do you have any advice for how we can report that sort of thing or what we should do?

Olga: I think definitely report it. I think there are avenues however limited, and as many of you know I am sceptical about the full effect of reporting as in it should be happening but what the platforms ultimately do with this report is a different story in different kind of forms. I think definitely report it. I think it's important that as bystanders we do not show indifference to what's happening, that it's not just scrolling down and saying,’Oh, this is bad. Well let me see what's next.’ I think these bystander interventions can be quite powerful. They can be quite reassuring to the person experiencing violence, but also I think they show that we take a stance against what's happening, against the violent act that may be happening. So I do think definitely if you feel capable of doing so and if you're happy to do so, I would definitely say do not just ignore it, it's too easy to ignore things.

Kevin: Thank you Olga. We're up on time. In a minute or so I'm going to ask you just to show our appreciation for Olga. Let me first just advertise the next inaugural lecture. So we've got Clara Mancini who does fascinating work on interactions between animals and computers and enters into areas of ethical debate around the use of animals. So I hope you can join us for that, it's on 20th June. I should also say that we like to get feedback from our inaugurals. It is not so much about Olga, but more about the general organisation of the day. So there is a survey that comes out. So do please, if you have time, just let us know how you find the experience. So we're going to go downstairs. I hope you can join us and have a drink to celebrate. But let's conclude by thanking Olga for a wonderful inaugural. Thank you.

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