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Four in five women and girls in Wales have received text-based abuse on social media

Alarming statistics from the UK’s largest-ever study into online violence against women and girls (OVAWG) has named Wales and Scotland as the nations most affected by the problem, with over 17% of women and girls in both Wales and Scotland having experienced online violence compared with 15% in England and 12% in Northern Ireland.

For women and girls in Wales that have experienced online violence, four in five (81%) received text-based abuse on social media via tweets, Facebook posts and direct messages, and almost half (48%) experienced sexually explicit abuse.

People in Wales who were surveyed highlighted several factors which they thought may motivate the perpetrators. 50% of those surveyed stated that those conducting online violence and abusers can remain anonymous and 48% saying that perpetrators know they won’t be prosecuted for these offences, so think can get away with it.

They agreed that The Crown Prosecution Service has too few resources (50%) to help those who have experienced online violence.

The study, conducted by researchers at The Open University, reported that almost a third (32%) of women have been subject to online violence for no reason other than simply being a woman.

Online abuse and violence experienced are often received from complete strangers (73%.)

Half of women and girls who have experienced online violence have received sexually explicit content, including online sexual harassment and threats (50%.)

Those affected by online violence have suffered a major blow to their mental health and wellbeing (57%), and recall feeling forced to re-evaluate their willingness to speak openly online (35%.) For many, experiences of online violence spread into their day-to-day lives and have had a negative impact on their social life (25%.)

Evaluating these shocking levels, an overwhelming number of Welsh people surveyed believe that more needs to be done both online and offline to prevent and reduce online violence against women and girls (62%.)

Owing to a lack of trust in current legislation, women and girls who experienced online violence have often opted to file a report with the platform provider via their reporting mechanism (57%) as opposed to going straight to the police (10%) but even then, they were left feeling unsatisfied with the outcome of the report (67%.)

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A quarter of those surveyed in Wales, who didn’t report directly to the platform provider or to the police confided in friends and family instead (24%).

Professor Olga Jurasz, Professor of Law at The Open University and Director of the Observatory on Online Violence Against Women, who led the project, said:

“Online violence against women and girls can take many forms such as trolling, threats, abuse, unwanted sexual remarks, non-consensual sharing of intimate photos and messages, among many other examples and it disproportionately effects women.  This can have a serious impact on women’s wellbeing and their behaviour, including a negative impact on mental and physical health, having to implement measures to protect themselves from abuse, and a change in willingness or ability to express views online.

“This new research – the first ever to be conducted into OVAWG at this scale across the four nations – shows just how widespread the issue of OVAWG really is and will provide policy makers with a foundation to help reduce instances of OVAWG and to improve outcomes for those affected.”

Andrea Simon, Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition EVAW) added:

“Our lives are increasingly lived online and technological developments are creating new ways for violence against women and girls to be perpetrated. This abuse is connected to the threat of violence women and girls face offline – it cannot be minimised or ignored.

“The laws we have in place are ineffective at tackling online violence against women and girls – we’re pleased to see that 70% of women and girls agree. We call on the government to make sure its new guidance in the Online Safety Bill is effectively enforced and as robust as the Code of Practice we developed with specialist partners and legal experts.”

The OVAWG research project forms part of the OU’s Open Societal Challenges Programme, which aims to tackle some of the most important societal challenges of our time through impact-driven research. The Programme’s focus on the themes of Tackling Inequalities, Living Well and Sustainability align closely with the OU’s mission to be open to people, places, methods and ideas.

The Programme’s aim is to apply excellent research by OU academics to some of the most pressing challenges facing people across the UK and worldwide to transform lives and drive societal change.

With backing from the OU’s Societal Challenge Programme, in 2022, Dr Kim Barker and Dr 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.