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Ending online violence against women and girls

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OU researchers have launched Europe’s first research centre tackling online violence against women and girls. The Observatory on Online Violence Against Women will work with governments, regulators and social media platforms to end this societal inequality and confront digital abuse through law, policy and education.

“Online abuse against women and girls is rampant and moves fast,” says Dr Kim Barker, Senior Lecturer in Law. “Every time we think we have tackled a form of digital violence, whether it’s trolling, down blousing, up skirting, online misogyny, cyber flashing or revenge porn, a new one pops up to wreak havoc. Right now, we’re reacting, not responding, which means there’s no room for the strategic, joined-up approach we need to stop digital abuse.”

With backing from the OU’s Societal Challenge programme, in 2022, Dr Barker and fellow Senior Lecturer in Law Professor Olga Jurasz launched the Observatory on Online Violence Against Women (ObserVAW). The centre is Europe’s first to unite leading academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), policymakers, regulators, legal practitioners, educators and social media platforms to fight digital abuse.

“During the past decade, we’ve seen a lot of legislation to address specific forms of digital abuse. Still, the law can only do so much without a broader, more meaningful discussion about online violence against women and girls in society,” explains Professor Jurasz. “For that conversation to happen, we need something essential we don’t yet have - comprehensive data on the scale of online abuse in all its forms.”

Between March and May 2023, ObserVAW conducted the first and largest-ever online violence representative survey of more than 7,500 UK women and girls.

“When it’s an issue that affects women in particular, it’s hard to get traction,” says Dr Barker. It’s a societal challenge requiring solutions, so the first step is getting people talking about it. The survey highlights how endemic this issue is and how it affects everyone, not just high-profile women who bravely step forward to share their experiences.”

When published, ObserVAW will use the findings to develop toolkits and resources to prepare women and girls for the online world, with wellbeing, emotional and mental resilience tools and practical advice on reporting online violence, protecting themselves and speaking up for others experiencing digital abuse.

The research will also lay the foundation for ObserVAW’s work with partners to develop new frameworks to regulate online violence against women and girls and hold those responsible accountable.

However, Dr Barker and Professor Jurasz disagree that the responsibility for change should lie solely with social media platforms. “It’s not entirely fair to blame the platforms. They don’t instigate online violence and do what they can to confront it, but the challenge is too great for them to tackle alone,” argues Professor Jurasz. “Ultimately, we must challenge the endemic societal inequalities, gender bias and misogyny perpetuating digital abuse.” 

 “The only way to do that is through education from a young age. So, we’re also working with charities to create educational resources to help influence curriculums in schools, in the UK and worldwide,” Dr Barker adds.