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The pervasive culture of violence against women and girls

The government and campaigners need to work together to fight the endemic misogyny, abuse and harassment that exists both online and in the real world.

By Helen Burrows

It’s been nearly five years since the #metoo campaign first encouraged individuals to speak up about their experiences of sexual abuse and harassment. Since then, the discussion around how women are seen and treated by society has only deepened. In 2021, the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa triggered a further outpouring of public anger and demands for change.

As more and more women come forward to tell their stories, we can now see that these things can happen to any of us; that sexism, abuse and violence against women is both endemic and systemic.

There is a clear spectrum of attitudes and behaviours that can lead to everyday sexism and discrimination, online and real-life sexual abuse, violence and, in some cases, murder.

The first two are made up of thousands upon thousands of smaller acts, many of which might be claimed to be “jokes”, the last defence of bullies everywhere. The cumulative effect is entrenched harassment of women on the internet and in real life. It curtails our lives, as it is intended to, making us afraid to participate online, step into public life or simply walk home.

In the 1960s, feminists showed us that “the personal is political” – a powerful insight that asks us all to reflect on our day-to-day behaviours and dealings with each other and ask ourselves how some things came to be seen as “normal”.

In 2022, amid an online world that started out full of promise for freedom of speech and equality of opinion, it has become normal that women in the public eye experience torrents of abuse, while all women who choose to participate online risk this too – from “dick pics” to rape threats and being stalked by a controlling ex-partner or stranger. Women are 27 times more likely than men to be harassed online.

The Online Safety Bill creates a vital opportunity to change the way we engage with each other for the better. Its requirements for Big Tech companies to uphold their own terms and conditions, tackle illegal and harmful content, and consider the safety of their algorithms and overall platform design were a good start. More recent announcements from government, such as the intention to name additional priority illegal offences in the bill, including revenge porn, harassment and sending “genuinely threatening” messages, are also welcome. Additionally, The Times has reported that the government plans to make cyber-flashing illegal within the separate Sexual Offences Act, punishable by up to two years in prison and being placed on the sex offenders register, which we strongly support.

However, we believe the government still needs to go further, and should do two things: seriously consider calls from expert organisations such as women’s charity Refuge for the regulator Ofcom to develop a specific code of practice around online violence against women and girls; and to seriously consider calls from campaigners such as Stella Creasy MP to make misogyny a hate crime.

In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book We Should All Be Feminists, the author wrote: “Culture does not make people. People make culture. If it is true that the full humanity of women is not our culture, then we can and must make it our culture.” She is right – we must work together to dismantle the misogyny embedded in our culture, to create a society that we all want to live in.

Last year, BT launched Hope United, a digital campaign to bring together a community to tackle online hate. We created tools to fight racism on and off the football pitch, and this year we will campaign again, focusing on the treatment and safety of women. We want to play our part in creating a better culture. Join us.

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