Rt Hon. Maria Miller MP: Valuing women in public life is a sure way to a more equal society, protecting them online is the first step

Published 28 June 2021

Rt Hon. Maria Miller MP was first elected to the UK Parliament in 2005 to represent Basingstoke and she has been re-elected four times. She has held a number of Ministerial roles including Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, and Minister for Women and Equalities, as well as the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee. As an active member of CPA UK's Executive Committe, Maria Miller MP champions our work on women in parliament and addressing gender-based violence, which she writes about below in an article that originally appeared in The Parliamentarian.

It is a fact not so universally acknowledged that violence against women remains one of the most widespread, prevalent, and largely unpunished violations of human rights in the world today. This is especially true of the global community in today’s post-pandemic world. Whilst Coronavirus spread across communities around the globe, a silent pandemic raged behind closed doors; UN estimates suggest that domestic abuse and violence towards women could have risen by a devastating twenty per cent globally over the past year. Gender-based violence affects 1 in 3 women in their lifetime, and it comes in many different forms. Online violence is not a new phenomenon, but it is growing rapidly as a continuum of the violence that women and girls face offline. As the internet increasingly becomes the modern-day forum where the digitally native live their lives, this challenge in the online world is only set to rise.

The problem of online abuse is particularly acute for women in public office across the world. In the UK, for instance, research from the University College London’s Constitution Unit revealed that women MPs received an increase in online abuse twofold greater than their male colleagues, and Amnesty International UK research found that women MPs from Black, Asian and Minority ethnic backgrounds received the most abuse of all. Here in Westminster, the All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Women in Parliament held a debate to raise awareness of this abuse which targets women in a very particular way, going well beyond the usual rough and tumble of political life, beyond offensive language, or passionately expressed political views. Rather, my female colleagues and I can receive very personalised threats of rape, murder, stalking, or physical violence towards ourselves or our families, simply for participating in the democracy to which we were elected, very different to the experience of most elected men. Sometimes the abuse comes in the form of trolling, often by individuals using anonymous social media accounts. There is also ‘pile-on’ harassment, co-ordinated by mass, online groups, deliberately working together to orchestrate an online attack on an elected Member of Parliament. Above all else, what this kind of abuse seeks to do is intimidate, isolate, create fear and ultimately silence women, so that they are not able to contribute to political life freely and without constraint. The impact of this style of abuse is already affecting our democracy. Research from the Fawcett Society shows that in the UK, growing numbers of women are resigning from their existing elected positions because of the incessant hate and threats they face online. Many more are being put off standing for election in the first place. In 2019, the number of women unlikely to stand as an MP in the UK stood at 59 per cent, compared to 74 per cent in 2020; the picture is equally worrying in local authorities, where the number of women unlikely to stand as a councillor has also increased from 44 to 62 per cent. Alarmingly, 69 per cent of those surveyed said that abuse or harassment from the public or other parties stopped them from pursuing a career in politics.

For these reasons, the inspiring Commonwealth Women in Parliament (CWP) network chose to focus and discuss this important issue in a virtual debate organised by CPA UK in March, as Commonwealth Day opportunely coincided with International Women’s Day. Parliamentarians came together from Canada, Fiji, Gibraltar, Trinidad and Tobago, Kiribati, New Zealand, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, Gambia and the United Kingdom to discuss how we can best work together to challenge online harms faced by women Parliamentarians. It was clear from the contributions of each representative that women Parliamentarians face similar problems across the Commonwealth family. The session was an inspirational celebration of women’s place in politics, where reflections and pledges of action were shared across the Commonwealth.

Creating better recognition of the impact of online abuse with the support of the CPA UK has been invaluable. As an organisation, the CPA has been a long-standing advocate of Parliaments being at their best when they are diverse, and that more women in Parliament is a democratic and societal good; and we now have mounting evidence to back that up. Research like the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership shows equal representation is not only important because Parliaments then better reflect the societies they represent, but also because legislatures with more women policy makers are shown to prioritise issues that benefit the most vulnerable in society, and are associated with lower levels of corruption.

If valuing women’s voices in public life is a surer way to better democracies and a more equal society, then tackling barriers to female participation - including harmful and unlawful online abuse - has to be a priority. To tackle new and emerging threats to democracy like online violence and intimidation against elected representatives, we need to share knowledge, experience and expertise.

The CPA UK’s Report, Strengthening Democracy, Parliamentary Oversight and Sustainability in the Commonwealth, published in April 2021 and funded by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, has sought to help facilitate and enable Commonwealth Parliaments to promote the benefits of inclusive and diverse representation in truly open societies. Within the project, the CPA UK have compiled a rigorous review of the legislation protecting women from all forms of violence, including online harms, highlighting good practice, where it exists, across the Commonwealth.

As one might imagine, the report emphasises the point that despite vastly different legislative contexts and regimes across the Commonwealth, many parliamentarians are facing challenges breaking cycles of impunity when it comes to gender-based violence. It also identifies significant deficiencies in legislation keeping up with new forms of gender-based violence facilitated by ever changing technology and identifies nine key areas of action where legislation can be strengthened.

This is something that I myself am aware of in the UK. Social media is almost completely unregulated in the UK and criminal law is often inadequate in dealing with online abuse. Take the example of sharing of intimate images without consent: an abuse that increased 87 per cent over the course of the pandemic in 2020. The relevant laws predate the development of social media, and thus fall short of tackling protecting women and girls from online gender-based violence. Updating the criminal law to protect individual citizens needs to go hand in hand with the UK government’s forthcoming Online Safety Bill to ensure that any new UK regulations introducing a legal ‘duty of care’ on social media providers is correctly framed with the criminal law properly protecting individuals, with proper access to justice and a right to redress. UK legislation must also deal with the known harms associated with anonymous social media accounts, which, in the UK, generate the majority of abuse and misinformation online, including abuse towards female Parliamentarians.

I know that the CWP Chair has proposed setting up cross-CW Working Groups on issues specified in the CWP strategy. This is something I believe would be incredibly valuable, as a means to track the emerging threat of online abuse, how this disproportionately impacts women Parliamentarians, and how countries effectively legislate to prevent it and protect those affected. CPA UK is already planning workshops on digital safeguarding for women parliamentarians and it will be considering how best to ensure these valuable conversations continue at national, regional and Commonwealth level.

As elected representatives, we must firmly condemn those who use fear and intimidation to silence free and open debate, including in the online world. We must redouble our efforts to stop this type of abuse as part of safeguarding our democracies, and we must lean into valuable inter-parliamentary networks like the CWP to support one another and learn from best practice policies from different Commonwealth regions, as we look to strengthen our democracies around the world.