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Glitch’s written evidence on the impact of COVID-19

The following was Glitch’s evidence on the impact of COVID-19, written in 2020. Now, at the beginning of 2022, we are still grappling with it. It’s interesting reading. The use of digital spaces increased significantly in light of COVID-19, and with it came reports of an increase in abuse and harassment online.

Glitch, as part of The Centenary Action Group (CAG), has submitted written evidence to the Women and Equalities Committee Inquiry into COVID-19 and the impact on people with protected characteristics. The CAG is a cross-party campaigning coalition representing over 100 activists, politicians and women’s rights organisations working together to eradicate the barriers that prevent a diverse range of women from taking part in the decisions that affect their lives. Alongside Glitch, members include the Fawcett Society, Women for Refugee Women, Girlguiding and political party affiliated women’s groups.

The impacts of COVID-19 are likely to have disproportionate effects on women & exacerbate intersectional inequalities in both the short and long-term. Policymakers must consult with a range of women’s organisations and include women in response and recovery decision-making, centring the experiences of women with multiple protected characteristics, such race, disability and religion.

CAG’s recommendations to the government address domestic violence, healthcare, sex-disaggregated data, economic impact, the position of migrant women, women in immigration detention and Glitch’s focus; online abuse.

Online Abuse

The use of digital spaces has increased significantly in light of COVID-19, and with it has come reports of an increase in abuse and harassment online. Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, a 2017 online poll by Amnesty International found that one in five women in the UK had suffered online abuse or harassment. It is also well-established that online abuse disproportionately affects women with intersecting identities whereby female politicians and journalists of colour were found to be 34 percent more likely receive abuse on Twitter than their white counterparts. New trends of targeted online abuse and harassment have been reported as more people spend time online. For example, there has been a rise in ‘zoombombing’, whereby “uninvited attendees share hateful and graphic material, often including pornographic, racist and anti-Semitic images in Zoom video conferences”. This requires the sociotechnical vulnerabilities of new and emerging tech platforms to be urgently assessed and the collection of data for such reports of online harassment. This should be conducted by tech platforms and monitored by government.

Research by Girlguiding shows that online abuse and harassment is an issue that particularly affects girls and young women. 50% of girls aged 11–21 think sexism is worse online than it is offline (2016), and 25% of girls and young women aged 11–21 had threatening things said about them on social media (2018). Given this, in the current situation, girls and young women are at a higher risk of experiencing harassment and abuse online and could be exposed to unwanted sexual imagery and harmful content.

Glitch is calling on the government to address online abuse against women through education, enforcement of existing laws and policies and to empower civil society organisations in the upcoming Online Harms Bill. Glitch also supports Lord McNally’s private members bill and amendment to the Online Harms White Paper to include ‘hatred by sex’ as part of the definition of ‘online harm’ presented in the Online Harms white paper. Government earlier this year already made a commitment to this.

With many people now transitioning to remote working online, swift efforts must also be taken to address potential vectors for harassment and abuse online in the online workplace. Accordingly, the government should implement the International Labour Organisation Convention 190 on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. Furthermore, companies need to implement their own strategies relating to online harassment and domestic abuse.