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Rights groups call for Online Safety Bill to include protections for women and girls

A coalition of women’s rights groups are calling on the government to introduce an online safety law that addresses the abuse of women and girls.

In a new report, titled “Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Principles for the Online Safety Bill”, groups have set out a number of recommendations that the government should include in the new Online Safety Bill.

The report, released on 2 December, has been compiled by groups including Women’s Aid, Rape Crisis England & Wales, Refuge and End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAWC).

It comes after a YouGov survey of 1,699 adults in the UK found that 74 per cent believe the government should do more to ensure that social media companies take action against abuse of women and girls on their platforms.

Rights groups said the proposed Online Safety Bill, a draft of which was presented to parliament in May 2021, “must ensure that tech companies are being held accountable for enabling and facilitating online harms to be perpetrated on their platforms”.

The coalition has outlined a number of key recommendations they believe are necessary in order for the bill to tackle VAWG “in all forms”.

The first step is “the recognition of online VAWG as a specific harm”, the report said, adding that a “code of practice” should be developed in consultation with women’s groups.

“The definition of online VAWG in the Bill must recognise the intersecting ways abuse can affect different women and girls,” it said.

Additionally, the groups have called for all forms of image-based sexual abuse to be classed as “harmful” under the bill.

Commercial porn websites should be subjected to a higher level of scrutiny by a regulator that has the power to issue take down notices, the report said.

It added: “Criminalisation of image-based sexual abuse offences must not include a motivation requirement and anonymity must also be automatically granted to all victims.”

The report also highlighted testimony from victims who had been subjected to online abuse, including one woman who was repeatedly targeted by a former boyfriend.

“He hacked into every single social media account I had and then changed my passwords,” the testimony said.

“I reported [it] to Facebook, and they just come back with ‘you can block this person’s account’. A lot of the time you go to report things and they (online platforms) don’t really do much.”

She said she deactivated social media accounts because his behaviour, and that her mental health suffered.

“I was in a really dark place, him constantly posting stuff – I had really bad anxiety. I’d have panic attacks and it was constant worry of what he’s going to post next,” she said.

Andrea Simon, director of the EVAWC said the Online Safety Bill “will be wasted if it doesn’t take into account the realities of women and girls’ lives online”.

“It is a fact that online spaces hold much higher risks for women and girls, particularly Black and ethnic minority women and girls, who are disproportionately targeted with abuse,” she said.

“These recommendations come from experts in online abuse. The government must heed their advice or half the population will continue to face threats of abuse that restrict their freedoms online.”

The “Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Principles for the Online Safety Bill” report was compiled by #NotYourPorn, The Angelou Centre, Chayn, Dr Fiona Vera-Gray, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), Faith & VAWG Coalition, Glitch, Imkaan, Professor Clare McGlynn, Rape Crisis England & Wales, Refuge, Welsh Women’s Aid and Women’s Aid Federation of England.

The Independent has contacted the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport for comment.