e-Discussion on Online Violence Against Women in Politics

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e-Discussion on Online Violence Against Women in Politics

The United Kingdom’s Health Secretary is one of many political figures that recently expressed their dismay at the number of women Members of Parliament (MPs) who renounced standing for re-election to Parliament and decided to leave politics after citing rising online harassment and abuse. Recent reports show similar trends in many other countries, such as the United States, India, Kenya, and Colombia.   

Politics is a hostile environment to women everywhere. An Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) global study published in 2016 and a 2018 study focused on European countries found that violence against women MPs is very widespread, with varying prevalence in different regions and countries of the world. According to IPU’s research, psychological violence -- which includes sexist and misogynistic remarks, humiliating images, intimidation and threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction -- is the most common form of violence women MPs face, affecting more than 80% of the global survey respondents. It also suggests that digital communication is the main tool used to deliver threats of death, rape and beatings against female MPs and that most perpetrators are anonymous users. Moreover, IPU reports that 58% of the European study respondents and 42% of those in the global study received online sexist attacks on social media, notably Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

Online violence is a phenomenon of pandemic proportion as reports suggest that almost three quarters of women Internet users worldwide have experienced some form of online violence.[1] Online presence, mainly through social media, can be described as a double-edged sword for women politicians: [2] while it is a unique and extremely useful tool to directly communicate with constituencies and to mobilize support and engagement, it provides a forum where violence can proliferate with impunity.

A forthcoming research study[3] based on social media trends analysis in seven countries (Zimbabwe, Haiti, Afghanistan, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, and Ukraine) reveals growing online incivility, hate speech, and overt violence against women in politics. It reports little regulation and widespread impunity and concludes there is a real negative effect on women’s freedom of expression and  political participation. Online and offline violence against women in politics is a violation of human rights and, by hindering women’s political participation, is also a violation of women’s political rights. As such it undermines democratic exercise and good governance, and creates a democratic deficit.[4]

Objective

This e-Discussion seeks to raise awareness on the online harassment, abuse, and violence against women in politics by encouraging a dialogue and an exchange of knowledge, experiences, and solutions to fight this phenomenon and ensure online and political spaces are safe and inclusive. Women and men in politics, civil society activists, practitioners and researchers are invited to join this e-Discussion from 9 to 30 March 2020. The submissions will contribute to the elaboration of a Consolidated Reply that will augment the knowledge base available on the topic.

Questions

  1. Why do you think online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is so widespread?
  2. What can States do to stop online harassment and violence against women while respecting freedom of expression and the prohibition of incitation to violence and hatred? What are the good practices?
  3. What can social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram do to make their spaces safe for women?
  4. Online violence against women in politics makes political careers unattractive. What message would you give to women who are considering leaving politics or discouraged from engaging in public life because of this?

To contribute

  1. Use the below comment section below.
  2. Send your contribution to connect@iknowpolitics.org so that we can post it on your behalf. 

[1] Cyber Violence against Women and Girls - A report by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development Working Group on broadband and Gender, Page 2. 2015: en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/genderreport2015final.pdf

[2] #SHEPERSISTED: Women, Politics & Power in the New media World, Page 23.  2019: she-persisted.org/

[3] Defending Democracy in Digital Spaces: Ending Violence Against Women in Politics Online. IFES, forthcoming.

[4] United Nations, “Report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences on violence against women in politics”, para 11. August 2018. See also UN Women, “Violence against women in politics: Expert Group Meeting report and recommendations”, 2018, and NDI, Not The Cost: Stopping Violence Against Women in Politics, 2016.

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Rosalee Keech's picture

If harassment is not stopped, it leads to threats. If threats are not stopped it often leads to violence. In the case of women leaders, especially in the areas of politics and journalism, it is an attempt to silence all of us. And make no mistake, hate speech is an early warning sign of this online phenomena. So, what to do about it? First, all members of civil society can educate ourselves about the difference between information and misinformation as well as real and fake news. Second, all of the electorate can educate themselves regarding candidates and issues that are of a priority. Third, civil society can support women candidates simply by helping out on the campaign. When I ran for local office, members of my community helped out by helping bringing over dinners for my family and transporting my kids to after-school programs as well as traditional campaign activities. Non governmental organizations, including the League of Women Voters of the United States, publishes information directly from candidates in vote411.org. Our organization is non partisan and organizes thousands of public meetings and forums regarding the candidates and the issues.

The social media companies, itself, has a role to play in recognizing and blocking messages coming from fake news. News organizations also have a role to play in not amplifying the message or giving it credibility by refusing to "replay" the tweet or posting.

Lastly, government has a role to play as well. Establishing and implementing laws that bar harassment, threats or violence and ending impunity for those that break those rules, is a minimum. Rules for conduct political parties, campaigns and in the workplace, including parliaments and other government bodies, should be established, requiring dismissal for those that are found to engage in harassment, threats or violence.
Simply put, to harass, threat or cause harm to anyone is not "free speech", it is a violation of human rights!

Editor's picture

Contribution posted on behalf of Ameena Al-Rasheed, iKNOW Politics Expert, Consultant, former Assistant Professor and UN Regional Advisor, UK

The cyber space is yet another site of abuse and violations of women's rights, added to the different forms of violence, prejudices and hate speeches that were directed towards women in the public sphere. Violence online and on social media goes hand in hand with violence directed against women in public places, it is a manifestation that whenever new platforms emerged, the violence against women migrate to that platform, and because social media is a space that is not easy to control or to create rules and regulations that govern the use of language on it, it becomes the most suitable place to undermine women, belittle them and drive many of them to quite the public life and to resort to the private sphere, fearing smear campaigns against them. It is a matter that needs solid and robust measures to be followed, measures that outlaw any kind of practices, talks, writing or any sources of disseminating information that belittle women, humiliate them, and in a way discourage them from acquiring places in the public or political space. 

Those who lead smear campaigns against women must be brought to justice, and their activities in the cyber space should be curtailed

Day by day we realise that women struggle, to find place in the public and political domain, made impossible, and I would like at this instance to address how our institutions collaborate in presenting bad images of women, images of the lack, the unqualified, unable women, including the organisations that advocated the most, issues of women rights and gender equality, i.e. the United Nations, as recently the UN staff union, has earlier sent a memo with regards to the organisation’s gender parity plans, and the plan to allow more women assuming top and senior positions. The UN staff union, in the memo, mentioned that the gender parity programme is in violation of one of the UN staff rules, as it brings about less competent staff, and will derail the prosperous way the organisation has developed and that is due to the lack of appropriate qualities, the gender parity plan is in violation of the rule of recruiting high quality performers and high competent personnel.

Needless to say, there was no historical specificity on the staff union claim, there is an utter lack of understanding and valuing the role played by women at different levels, and if women fall short in acquiring high positions, this has nothing to do with their capacity, but has all to do with the lack of opportunity that women face historically. 

Such memo of the UN organisation imply: either the UN staff union perceived competences to occupy senior level positions at the United Nations is only possible for men who are better equipped than women, or that the women who assumed senior positions in the organization are not well qualified to occupy these positions. In both cases, the answer is that these claims are baseless and in fact what holds water is the fact that staff union as part of the organisation that pioneered the call for women's rights and gender equality, is utterly uniformed on the history of women, and their struggle seeking equal representation or the opportunities that were given for women through history and the obstacles the deprived them from sharing the political sphere, the union instead added one more obstacle claiming that gender parity is a violation of an article in the staff regulations. 

This case and the case of the cyber space, online, and social media are just a reflection of how much work we need to do, to allow for sensible and scientific understanding of women's positions in societies that are governed by socio-cultural and political settings that target women in the public sphere. It is equally shocking how women will face campaigns that constantly highlight their incapability and their lack of quality to assume senior positions.

Women are in urgent need for solid rules and regulations, and accountability measures that spare women humiliation and smear campaigns that aim at sending them back to the private sphere, and treating them as second class citizens.

admin's picture

Contribution posted on behalf of Lucina Di Meco, Gender Expert & Women's Rights Advocate. Senior Director of Girls’Education & Gender Equality at Room to Read

1. Why do you think online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is so widespread? '

Women's political leadership is transformative: it can change nations, shift policies and priorities and disrupt the old boys' club. Like nothing else in the world, it's a challenge to patriarchal norms and limiting gender stereotypes and beliefs. With this in mind, it's not surprising that many who benefit from the status quo would go a long way - and organize politically motivated attacks and gendered disinformation campaigns - to prevent women from achieving leadership positions. 

2. What can States do to stop online harassment and violence against women while respecting freedom of expression and the prohibition of incitation to violence and hatred? What are the good practices? 

Globally, women use the internet on average 12% less than men, with the gap widening to 32% in the least developed countries, due to social norms, income and concerns around privacy and safety. Increasing internet access must be a governmental priority, and so must be promoting digital literacy to ensure that citizens become conscious consumers of information, able to understand and create media content in a positive, thoughtful and effective way, aware of existing bias and able to recognize it and call it out. In 2012, Bolivia adopted a groundbreaking law on harassment and political violence against women, including psychological threats and harassment. The following year, Mexico amended its law on violence against women to include a similar provision. Several European countries have also adopted regulations against sexist and hate speech and the Council of Europe addressed this issue through a wide set of instruments and strategies, including the 2011 Istanbul Convention and the Internet Governance Strategy 2016-2020. The European Union has also recently issued guidelines urging companies to remove content inciting to hatred and violence within one hour. However, progress is slow and accountability for the respect of these polocies is limited.  

3. What can social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram do to make their spaces safe for women?

There are crucial steps that social media companies can take that would go a long way in contributing to ensure that women can engage in online political debates on equal terms, free of harassment and hate.1. Improve diversity. 2. Use technological innovation to curb bias and harassment. Artificial intelligence can be used to curb biased, hostile and harassing content on social media. The same click-optimization algorithms that are spreading the misogyny and other biases can be used to improve fairness. 3. Reconsider internal policies on fake news, user accountability and fact-checking. Most internet activists and campaign experts agree that there is a lot more that social media companies could do to curb fake news and improve user accountability. 4. Invest in programs supporting female activists and human rights defenders. 

4. Online violence against women in politics makes political careers unattractive. What message would you give to women who are considering leaving politics or discouraged from engaging in public life because of this?

Lack of women's equal representation in politics and technology is one of the fundamental reasons why this problem hasn't been addressed swiftly and strongly enough. We need women political leaders more than ever before to enact policies and initiatives that tackle online violence and harassment against women, and because they represent crucial role models for younger women. Women need to persist, persist, persist!

admin's picture

Contribution posted on behalf of Liri Kopaçi-Di Michele, Head of Secretariat, Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe

Despite legal obligations and policies to tackle discrimination and ensure equal participation, women are still underrepresented in politics. Societal and structural barriers prevent them from contributing to the decision-taking and decision-making processes. We are witnessing an increase of violence against women in politics, both on-line and off-line fuelled by inequality, sexism, patriarchal attitudes, negative gender stereotypes (often perpetrated and/or reinforced by the media and social networks).

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) addresses this issue in several reports, resolutions and recommendations. The latest report (and its resolution and recommendation) on “Promoting parliaments free of sexism and sexual harassment” sets out concrete measures to prevent and combat violence against women in politics: http://assembly.coe.int/nw/xml/XRef/Xref-DocDetails-EN.asp?FileID=27615&lang=EN

Recommended actions for national parliaments are also summed up in the publication Parliaments free of sexism and sexual harassment: http://www.assembly.coe.int/LifeRay/EGA/WomenFFViolence/BrochureParliamentSexism-EN.pdf

For more information, see: https://pace.coe.int/en/pages/committee-29 and https://assembly.coe.int/nw/Page-EN.asp?LID=NotInMyParliament

And in reply to the questions raised by the e-discussion, my personal take will be:

  1. On-line violence against women in politics is part of the larger spectrum of violence against women which is deeply rooted in inequality, patriarchal norms, gender stereotypes, sexism, a culture of tolerance and impunity and on which treats women as inferior to men.
  2. Clear policy and legal frameworks; complaints and redress mechanisms; independent regulatory bodies; self-regulatory mechanisms; education; awareness raising; words matter: clear terminology and non-sexist language; codes of conduct; monitoring and accountability to mention a few. Check also work by Council of Europe Gender Equality Commission on balanced participation of women and men in decision making and gender stereotypes and sexism. https://www.coe.int/en/web/genderequality/home
  3. Self-control/regulation; accountability; complaints and redress mechanisms; promote women and their contribution to society; take a stand on violence against women – present the facts as they are without bias and prejudice; put in place guidelines that spell out clearly that harassment, abuse, and threats are unacceptable  - take action when they are not respected;
  4. Persist! Participating and contribution to political life is a fundamental human right of every woman. Their voices are needed to ensure a healthy and representative democracy.
Terry I.'s picture

1. Why do you think online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is so widespread?
- Online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is widespread primarily because it is condoned. It is a shame that persons become keyboard thugs and say vile things and make outright threats with impunity. But let us not pretend that this same behavior is not happening life. What we are seeing online is merely a manifestation on how persons feel. Many of us have access to our Parliaments or Local Government representatives while they are in session, and observe the disrespect live. It must start at the personal level. Whether it is live (in Parliament) or online. People should not applaud their colleagues who are being vile, simply because you are in the same political party. Likewise, online comments should not be supported. One can disagree without being disagreeable.

Editor's picture

Posted on behalf of Silvia López Prieto, Intern in the Gender Quotas Database at International IDEA

Why do you think online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is so widespread?

Despite decades of progress closing the equality gap between women and men, close to 90 percent women and men hold some sort of bias against women, about half of the world’s men and women feel that men make better political leaders (Gender Social Norms Index (GSNI).[1]

Consequently, the underrepresentation of women in politics caused by discrimination, stereotypes and gender-based violence is a driver of the growing phenomena on online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is so widespread.

The growth of the internet and social media has transformed how people interact with each other, generating new alternatives for women and politicians to spread their ideas and be closer to people. However, social media are a double-edged sword, creating also new possibilities for those who want to inflict harm against women.[2] Besides offending, mobbing or stalking, it is common also the sharing and manipulation of images, videos, audios and sexualized material.

Women are subordinated to patriarchy systems, which increases the difficulty of reaching important positions (only 7.2 percent of heads of state and 5.7 percent of heads of government are women [3]) but, additionally, creates societies in which attacking women is accepted. An IPU study found that 81.8 percent of women have experienced some form of psychological violence from members of the political parties and fellow parliamentarians.[4] Additionally, in a study developed by the Uganda Bureau of Statistics in 2017, 90 percent of the respondents considered that women’s low political representation is related to the obligation of husband’s permissions before standing for elections. Also, 52.5 percent of women and 47.5 percent of men considered that the reason was also related to the fact that women’s responsibilities in the home do not leave time for politics.[5]

Consequently, this situation influences the use of the social media which has become one major place to share discrimination, stereotypes and gender-based violence.[6] In 2017, the British politician Diane Abbott received 11.559 abusive tweets in the run-up to the elections,[7] most of them racist messages.

Social media provide perpetrators with the possibility of spreading perdurable messages without any effort or consequences. Nearly 73 percent of women have already been exposed to online violence, creating obstacles for women to contribute to political life [8] and making many of them leave their political careers.

The fact that people can attack from any place, without any need of physical contact, only needing internet connection and rapidly finding support from other attackers increase the number of attacks connected to this type of violence. Besides, the possibility of creating anonymous profiles helps perpetrators to feel safe. As an IPU study developed in 2018 reported, 75.5 percent of the cases of violence against women in politics in Europe were perpetrated by anonymous citizen. [9]

Additionally, the absence of a law enforcement that clearly distinguishes between freedom of expression and online violence (only 26 percent of law enforcement agencies are taking enough action regarding online violence against women [10]) encourages perpetrators to continue attacking with the assurance that none consequence will happen and, also, makes institutions not take into consideration many of the reports victims do.

The last big reason I consider important to point is the underreporting of online violence. Women in politics are usually afraid of being pointed because of reporting their experiences, not being supported, or being accused of degrading the image of their parties. A study developed by Amnesty International found that 2/3 of women who experience harassment on social media feel powerlessness and embarrassment after it. [11]

This feeling increases, even more, when the threat consists of spreading sexual or intimate photographs or videos without women's consent [12] because, despite being victims, women are judged and humiliated. An IPU study developed in 2018 showed that 58.2% of the women in Parliaments in Europe have suffered online violence but only the 20% of those women reported. [13] This fact helps the perpetrators to feel empowered to continue provoking harassment.

What can social media outlets such as Facebook, twitter, and Instagram do to make their spaces safe for women?

Social media must guarantee safe spaces for women. Thus, it is first fundamental that social media, software developers, apps or ICT technologies take online violence against women as real and discriminatory violence, not excused by freedom of expression. A study conducted by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs in 2019 revealed a significant difference between self-reported and Twitter's observed levels of violence against women. By way of illustration, while Twitter perceived 3.6% of women experiencing online violence in Kenya, 22.7% of women self-reported it to the study. In Colombia, the disparity was even more significant, with 8.3% observed by Twitter but 50.2% of self-report. [14]

Although in 2015, Twitter included a filter to allow users to block threatening messages, violence against women on social media continues. Just in India, a study by Amnesty International India reported that 95 women politicians received around 1 million hateful mentions only on Twitter in between March and May 2019, which means 10.000 per day. [15] Besides, other social media (as Messenger or WhatsApp) put on the users the burden of safe practices, allowing them to report any case of violence suffered.[16] Consequently, victims can only report online harassment after it has occurred, without preventing it in advance.

Naturally, the difficulties of verifying all the messages the 500 million users WhatsApp [17] have sent every minute are huge. However, creating stronger controls, safety measures, filters, regulations, tools for detecting aggressive or disrespectful language and protocols is completely necessary to protect women, especially those women who are more exposed because of having a public life. To push these companies to consider the security of their users as one main task is fundamental.

Online violence is one more form of violence, which implies that it should be treated as other types of violence and discrimination. The Gender Activist Marian Mwaokolo pointed this by stressing that “the real misogyny is outside social media”. [18] In Nigeria, women are not reaching political position because cultural believes consider women only for specific roles in society and, those do not include public neither political positions. Of course, these believes are also stressed through social media [19] which implies that deeper changes are needed not only in social medias but also in societies.

One of the most spread violence are racist attacks. In the UK elections in 2017, black and Asian women MPs received 35% more attacks than white women MPs. [20] Also in the UK, the politician Seyi Akiwowo suffered an immense number of online attacks linked to hate and racism after her speech in the European Youth Event in 2016. [21]

Online violence against women in politics makes political careers unattractive. What message would you give to women who are considering leaving politics or discouraged from engaging in public life because of this?

In 2018, authorities reported in Mexico online violence against 62 candidates to different elections in the country. Most of the attacks were perpetrated by applying to discriminatory expressions (41%) and threats (20%) in social media. [22] Likewise, in Zimbabwe women running for positions in Parliament suffered a huge number of attacks through social media. A number that men candidates did not suffered it. [23]

Not considering leaving politics after those experiences is challenging and 28% of women who had suffered online violence intentionally reduce their presence online to avoid other attacks. [24] However, the help women in politics can provide to fight against these attacks is essential.

As pointed before, one of the reasons for the big number of attacks women experience in social media is directly joined to the existence of patriarchal societies where discriminating women is accepted. Keeping this in mind, it is completely fundamental that women keep their political positions to fight, not only with online against online violence, but also against discrimination and inequality. Consequently, although the situation is extremely hard, women need to stay in their positions to fight for a better and more equal future.

Besides, it is important to encourage women in politics to report all the online violence they experience, visualizing attacks as much as possible and supporting them as victims. Likewise, the support of other women is essential to avoid making the victims feel alone or judged, making people inside and outside politics conscious about what online violence means. An IPU study reported that 85.2% of women MPs in Europe had suffered psychological violence in the course of their term of office. Thus, it is important to develop stronger regulations and work for the creation of stronger networks and law enforcement agencies that share experiences, ideas and practices to stop the continuous increase of women who decide to change their life to live in peace.

To conclude, it is important also to encourage women to report violence they suffer also from fellow parliamentarians, inside their political parties etc. showing that violence against women is a real problem.


[1] UNDP 2020 Human Development Perspectives. “Tackling Social Norms: A game changer for gender inequalities” http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hd_perspectives_gsni.pdf

[2]  Cyber Violence against Women and Girls - A report by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development Working Group on broadband and Gender, Page 2. 2015: en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/genderreport2015final.pdf

[3]  UN General Assembly, “Violence against women in politics”, 2018: 5. https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/73/301

[4]  Ibid.

[5]  Uganda Baseline Survureau of Statistics, “Survey of Perceptions on Violence Against Women, Women’s Economic Empowerment and Women’s Political Participation and Leadership”. (2018) https://www.ubos.org/wp-content/uploads/publications/05_2019Gender_Module_Baseline_Perceptions_of_the_NGPSS_2017_Nov_15_2018.pdf

[6]  UN General Assembly, “Violence against women in politics”, 2018: 5. https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/73/301

[7] NewStatements, “We tracked 25,688 abusive tweets sent to women MPs – half were directed at Diane Abbott”

https://www.newstatesman.com/2017/09/we-tracked-25688-abusive-tweets-sent-women-mps-half-were-directed-diane-abbott

[8]  Ms. Purna Sen, UN Women in UN Women, “Violence against women in politics: Expert Group Meeting report and recommendations”, 2018: 4.

[9]  IPU, “Sexism, harassment and violence against women in parliaments in Europe”. (2018).

[10]  UN Broadband Commission: “Urgent action needed to combat online violence against

women & girls”. 12th October 2015: http://www.itu.int/net/pressoffice/press_releases/2015/36.aspx#.XlPSKGhKiUk

[11]  Amnesty International, “Toxic Twitter – The Psychological Harms of Violence and Abuse Against Women Online” https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/03/online-violence-against-women-chapter-6/#topanchor

[12] Amnesty International: “Violence against women online in 2018”: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/research/2018/12/rights-today-2018-violence-against-women-online/

[13]  IPU, “Sexism, harassment and violence against women in parliaments in Europe”. (2018).

[14]  National Democratic Institute, “Tweets That Chill: Analyzing Online Violence Against Women in Politics”. (2019). https://www.ndi.org/sites/default/files/NDI%20Tweets%20That%20Chill%20Report.pdf

[15]  Amnesty Internationa, “New Study shows shocking Scale of Abuse on Twitter Against Women Politicians in India” (23.01.2020) https://www.amnestyusa.org/press-releases/shocking-scale-of-abuse-on-twitter-against-women-politicians-in-india/

[16]  Cyber Violence against Women and Girls - A report by the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development Working Group on broadband and Gender, Page 34. 2015: en.unesco.org/sites/default/files/genderreport2015final.pdf

[17] Ibid.

[18]  Heinrich Böll Stiftng, “Women in Nigerian Politics – Are female candidates facing cyber bullying?” (30.01.2019) https://ng.boell.org/en/2019/01/30/women-nigerian-politics-%E2%80%93-are-female-candidates-facing-cyber-bullying

[19]  Ibid.

[20]  European Parliament, “Cyber violence and hate speech online against women” (2018: 31) https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/STUD/2018/604979/IPOL_STU(2018)604979_EN.pdf

[21]  Ibid.

[22]  Luchadoras Mx, "Violencia Política a Través de las Tecnologías contra las Mujeres en México" (México: 2018).

[23]  Gender Links for Equality and Justice, “Cyber Bullying; an emerging threat to female leadership” (03.09.2018) https://genderlinks.org.za/news/cyber-bullying-an-emerging-threat-to-female-leadership/

[24]  UN General Assembly, “Violence against women in politics”, 2018: 5. https://www.un.org/en/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/73/301

Abir Chebaro's picture

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, considered the most comprehensive roadmap on women’s rights. This year is also the fifth after the adoption of the sustainable development agenda in 2015, which has dedicated a specific goal for gender equality that targets “ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life” as well as “eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres” to reach a broader goal of discrimination free world. Overall change has been too slow worldwide in politics. Progress is now under threat from rampant inequality, violent extremism and the rise of exclusionary politics although women are strongly struggling to confirm their presence and claim their rights.

For long, politics has been considered as “men’s only land” or “no women’s land” due to historic inheritance of power. Historically and traditionally, men hold and give power not women, as such a King’s wife will hold the title of Queen but a Queen’s husband might not hold the title of King.

Consequently, those traditional patriarchal attitudes, structural barriers, unequal relationships between women and men, in addition to gender stereotypes perpetuated the idea that politics is a male sphere where women are not welcome.
Impunity, tolerance or acceptance of some types of violence in private and public life, fear to speak up as victims might be blamed and stigmatized, and having multiple identities (race, age, disability, physical appearance, religion, being from the opposition) are factors that exacerbate VAWP as a weapon to confine women to their traditional “role” and to exclude them from the political arena.

In facts, a 2011 IFES/Bardall study on violence against women in elections found that women and men experience electoral violence differently, with women experiencing more than twice as much psychological abuse/violence than men.Undeniably, when such behaviour is being normalized at the very top of the political system, it becomes acceptable to replicate it in the lower spheres of society. This initiates a vicious cycle.

Lack of awareness on the importance of inclusivity and diversity for democracy, the low representation of women in politics, the shortage of imposing role models in some countries sometimes due to the extended effects of war and prevalent reign of warlords, as well as the rare women political networks to stand, support and advocate for other women in politics might convey a sign of “easy prey” and expose women to higher rates of violence especially with the easy access to social media and the possibility to hide behind parody accounts and escape punishment in the absence of strict legal frameworks.

Governments should impose punishment on perpetrators of all types of VAWP and OVAW while respecting freedom of expression and the prohibition of incitement to violence and hatred. This might be possible through a patchwork of inter-related laws such as penal code, laws penalizing VAW and other laws criminalizing hate speech or through the promulgation of specific law to combat VAWP such as in Bolivia.

Social media, mainly Twitter and Facebook need to invest more resources to enforce adequate and transparent reporting mechanisms that users have confidence in utilizing, to respect human rights, which means ensuring that women using the platform are able to express themselves freely and without fear. Those companies should be pressured by governments and women’s groups to implement a code of conduct to which users have to agree to enforce safety and respect and avoid misogynic speech under terms of sanctions from using the platform. Companies have to respond to complaints and reporting of OVAW and take necessary measures to remove the hideous material and the necessary actions against the abuser. They bare also a responsibility in raising awareness and in protecting all users and should not allow their virtual space to become a threatening place.

Clearly, attacks against women politicians result in the silencing of those targeted. They have the effect of intimidating these women into self-censorship, ultimately blocking their effective communication with their constituencies and the general public.
The absence of women’s voices and perspectives on major issues comes with serious implications for gender equality as well as for free, pluralistic, and overall democracy.

Women in politics should build more resilience through networks to support and empower each other as VAWP is also across parties and intersectional. Democracy is inclusive. Women should not accept to be sidelined. Speak up and convey the message of strong role models.

For long time women fought for political rights, we shouldn't surrender to OVAW or VAWP nor step back. Women in politics, especially legislators and policy makers need to challenge abusive behaviour and tackle the issue at its broader perspective, pass and enforce the implementation of laws for prevention and protection from all types of violence in order to stop impunity. Act now!

Editor's picture

Posted on behalf of Jossif Ezekilov, Program Officer Gender, Women and Democracy, National Democratic Institute of International Affairs

1. Why do you think online harassment and abuse of women in politics occurs and is so widespread?

Harassment and abuse of women in politics online is a reflection of the gender discrimination and inequality that women in politics have always faced offline. It is used by bad-faith actors to silence women, discourage women from participating in politics, sway popular support away from politically-active women, and influence how men and women view particular issues for political ends. The expansive reach of social media platforms have made the effects of violence against women in politics (VAW-P) more widespread by making those effects seem anonymous, borderless, and sustained, thereby undermining women’s sense of personal security in ways not experienced by men.

As we stated in NDI’s submission to the  Review of the UK Parliamentary Committee on Standards in Public Life into the Intimidation of Parliamentary Candidates , online VAW-P is an old problem that has been given a new and more toxic life. Traditional forms of VAW-P- including hate speech, propaganda, and disinformation/misinformation campaigns- have in particular been magnified online, and have now become a ubiquitous part of political discourse globally. Meanwhile, new forms of violence created in the digital era- including cyber-bullying, deep fakes, doxxing, and revenge porn, among others- are disproportionately used against women in politics.

NDI’s report on online harassment, Tweets That Chill: Analyzing Online Violence Against Women in Politics, documents how online VAW-P acts as a direct barrier to both women’s free speech and their ambitions to be politically active. Using quantitative Twitter analysis, surveys, as well as qualitative analysis of workshop discussions in three case study countries- Kenya, Colombia, and Tanzania- NDI developed a typology of online VAW-P and tracked its impact on women in politics’ online engagement. In both Kenya and Colombia, instances of online violence during political discourse were followed by a measurable decrease in female users’ Twitter engagement. This demonstrates both the nature of VAW-P and also underscores its success in achieving its aim of silencing politically-active women.

2. What can States do to stop online harassment and violence against women while respecting freedom of expression and the prohibition of incitation to violence and hatred? What are the good practices?

All sexual and gender-based violence - in person and online - is a clear abuse of human rights, and should be treated as such. Crafting appropriate policies and measures for online harassment and violence entails an understanding that such online violence has offline impacts on victims’ physical, emotional, psychological, and economic well-being. In short, it is a crime just like any other, and should be treated as such. This was confirmed by the UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women in her 2018 report on online violence to the UN Human Rights Council. The Rapporteur recommended that “human rights and women’s rights protected offline must also be protected online” and that States should develop legal frameworks to support victims of VAW-P.

Protecting freedom of expression is important, and effective laws governing this right inherently understand that one’s freedom to express oneself stops when it impacts the human rights of another. Online expression is no different, especially given how crucial the use of information technology is for individuals in the present day. For women in politics, there is no alternative to using online platforms; there is no other way for politicians to so easily and cost-effectively connect with their constituents, find a voice, and build necessary political networks. As such, online VAW-P represents a suppression of one’s democratic rights. Policies addressing online harassment and violence must therefore also treat VAW-P as the barrier to a free and inclusive democratic process that it is.

States also need to collect more and better data on the roots and causes of violence against politically active women. In 2016, NDI, in consultation with the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, launched an Incident Report Form to collect the testimonies of political women affected by violence - wherever it occurs. Such efforts can and need to be expanded and maintained by States, and should be tracked for the same reasons, and with the same importance, as reports of other crimes.

Proper tracking and identification of online VAW-P must take into account the constantly shifting nature of online spaces and, in particular, the ever-changing use of language online. In our Tweets that Chill report, NDI worked with in-country partners to develop localized lexicons (Bahasa for Indonesia, Colombian Spanish, and a mix of Swahili and English in Kenya) of both gender-based harassing language and the political language of the moment, in order to properly examine the online violence experienced by politically-active women. States, in partnership with civil society organizations and information technology companies, should expand such efforts. Particular attention should be paid to changing lexicons during major political events - an election, referendum, political scandal, crisis, etc. - in each country.

3. What can social media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram do to make their spaces safe for women?

Greater accountability on the part of social media outlets is essential for ensuring the protection of digital rights in general and addressing VAW-P in particular. For too long, Facebook, Twitter, and other social media companies have been allowed to cast themselves as neutral providers of online messaging platforms, with no stake in how their product is used by bad faith actors. This, of course, is not in line with today’s reality, as these social media giants have become gatekeepers to the largest sources of news, communications, and other information in human history.

Social media outlets have a wide capacity to make their spaces safe for women, and should do so for their own good. Paradoxically, the misuse -- by states, organizations and individuals -- of the very freedoms that social media platforms are supposed to enable, has become the greatest threat to their integrity. Cyber-bullying, propaganda and unaccountable intermediaries have become well-known facets of platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, for example. The biases of the coders who control and regulate online platforms have also become pertinent political topics. Addressing online VAW-P is therefore a way for these platforms to regain legitimacy and restore the integrity of the platforms they have created.

There are numerous actions social media outlets can and should take. Lobbying for norms for a free and open internet and correcting systemic biases and inequalities out of algorithms and codes are two actions that will have major implications on making online spaces more equitable and inclusive. The latter, in particular, would entail such outlets to pursue changes internally. This includes: introducing Do No Harm practices within their operating procedures; meaningfully promoting more diversity and inclusivity within their governance, workforce, and partnerships; as well as working to address patriarchal norms within their own internal organizational cultures.

More specifically to online VAW-P, social media outlets must create networks of international and local partners to properly identify how it is perpetrated in different contexts. Particular attention should be paid to conflict settings, as well as how authoritarian regimes and non-state actors perpetrate online violence transnationally. There should also be more human-centered approaches to monitoring to put more friction into the way online content is disseminated and spread. Lastly, investing counter-spreading technologies and establishing mechanisms to support victims of online abuse would go a long way to addressing both online VAW-P and also to improve the products social media outlets provide.

4. Online violence against women in politics makes political careers unattractive. What message would you give to women who are considering leaving politics or discouraged from engaging in public life because of this?

For NDI, the chilling impact that online abuse and harassment have on the ambitions of women, and particularly young women, to enter politics is of particular concern. We cannot understate the global prevalence of the problem; Lucina di Meco’s report #ShePersisted: Women, Politics & Power in the New Media World demonstrates that female politicians from Ukraine to India are disproportionately targeted by harassment, threats, and fake news campaigns. 

Our message to women discouraged from engaging in politics would be this: it’s not VAW-P that will stop women in politics, but rather that women in politics will stop VAW-P.  As such, we should strive to provide women in politics with every tool to engage in politics safely. For our part, we have designed think10, an innovative safety planning tool that can provide women in politics guidance on how to enhance their personal security.

We are encouraged by this e-discussion, as well as last week’s Twitter chat; these are important for sharing best practices and serve as important learning opportunities for this issue. They are also part of a growing recognition that VAW-P is a global problem demanding global solutions. Even Tim Berners Lee, the inventor of the Internet, recently highlighted online harassment of women as a prime threat in his global action plan to save the web from political manipulation. Such increased global attention, combined with action from States, civil society and information technology companies, can prompt the needed changes necessary to combat VAW-P and, in doing so, promote democratic integrity globally.