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The government’s violence against women and girls’ strategy must tackle sexual harassment online too

3 min read

Laws are needed to tackle the sharing of intimate images online without consent - something that disproportionately effects women.

Thursday’s debate marking International Women’s Day was poignant. Held against the backdrop of an ongoing police investigation into the abduction of Sarah Everard, in the debate itself we were reminded that since Sarah was reported missing, six more women and a little girl have been killed. A tragic reflection of the increase in domestic abuse cases seen over the past 12 months, up 83%. My thoughts and prayers, along with millions of others, are with the friends and families of those involved. 

For many women and girls across the country, the news of Sarah’s plight will have brought back memories of their own bad experiences. The most common form of violence against women is sexual harassment: being sexually harassed on the streets walking home from meeting friends, anonymous threats of physical violence on social media, sexual assaults in plain sight in rush hour on public transport are all scenarios many women will understand.

This week, the APPG on UN Women published a report showing that virtually all young women in the UK have experienced threats in public spaces, with three in four women of all ages having experienced sexual harassment. 

But the report also shows that the overwhelming majority of women have never reported these attacks. Why? Many feared being ridiculed or even blamed for the sexual harassment they were subjected to and others said reporting it would not change anything.

We have a duty to make sure our laws and culture protect everyone and don’t encourage the covering up of violence against women. With so much progress in recognising and supporting victims of domestic abuse we must redouble our efforts in tackling other forms of violence against women, to stop harassment and threats in the first place.

If the actions of men are routinely making women feel unsafe then this must be tackled head on

The governments new violence against women and girls’ strategy to be published in the autumn will include specific actions to address sexual harassment. This strategy needs to tackle the problem at its roots too, including recognising that, increasingly, sexual harassment takes place online. More than one in three women have their physical safety threatened on social media, with women in politics and public life becoming especially accustomed to death and rape threats. 

So, the Home Office’s new strategy to tackle violence against women needs to ensure the forthcoming online harms legislation is more than a set of industry regulatory guidelines. 

Instead, we urgently need laws that make it clear online abuse is a crime too. The public appetite for tougher measures is clear. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics revealed that three in four people (72%) think social media companies should have a more interventionist role to wipe out abuse on their platforms.

In particular we need clearer laws to tackle the sharing of intimate images online without consent – something that disproportionately effects women. Cases have increased by 87% in the last year, devastating countless lives.

If the actions of men are routinely making women feel unsafe then this must be tackled head on. Everyone has a right to feel safe in our public places, including in the online world.


Maria Miller is the Conservative MP for Basingstoke and former minister for women and equalities.

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