Violence against women is not a new phenomenon. Women of all ages, races, ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, genders and abilities have always faced discrimination. However, women have fought tirelessly to have their voices be heard in all aspects of life. In particular, the global suffrage movement is one that has pushed societies worldwide towards a more positive progressive change. Nonetheless, with years of struggle, rejection, physical attacks, and ridicule, these trailblazers paved the way for future generations to take their rightful seats at the political table. Unfortunately, this fight is far from over. Although the right to participate in politics may have occurred decades ago, negative gender-based attitudes and violence still surround women in the 21st century.
In an age where technological advances are rising and where society is held to a higher standard of sophistication, violence against women is a pressing issue in need of attention. In 2017, only 20 countries had women as their Head of State and just 23% of women comprised of the total number of national parliamentarians globally. In fact, Canada’s House of Commons consists of only 26% of female MPs and there is currently only 1 out of 13 provincial/territorial premiers that are women. This clearly indicates the very apparent underrepresentation of women in policymaking.
As more women are taking up leadership positions, they continue to face multiple challenges in the political and public realm. One of the main challenges is the backlash against equal participation through the online world. Women are facing online trolls on all social media platforms that attack, belittle, shame, silence and undermine their work and engagement in politics. These trolls spew insults based on appearance, weight, race or gendered stereotypes as well as threaten violence and make sexual advances. This type of abuse creates an intense barrier for women wanting to access their right to fully participate in the political sphere, whether it be as voters, candidates, activists or members of government.
Society seems to only focus on physical forms of violence and turns a blind eye any other form of abuse. However, violence manifests itself in psychological, emotional and sexual ways. Online violence is just an extension of offline violence as it is a form of bullying focused on shame, intimidation, degradation, and humiliation. Once a woman enters public life, it is as if her personal dignity becomes fair game. The online world undermines the worth of women to a point where they might question their own ability, competence, and morality. Not all forms of online violence may be considered to be crimes, however, they all infringe upon their human rights.
In 2017, Amnesty International polled women across 8 countries, in which 23% of the women surveyed experienced online abuse or harassment. In fact, about 26% of women said that they had been threatened both directly and indirectly with physical or sexual violence. Furthermore, the report indicated that 17% of women have had their personal details revealed online via doxxing. Doxxing is a manifestation of online violence, in which individuals reveal personal or identifying documents or details without consent. This information can be home addresses, places of work, children’s names, phone numbers, email addresses, etc. This causes distress as it is a violation of a person’s privacy. Another way women are harassed online is through the release of personal content, such as pictures, which may have initially been consented to, but not for public sharing. Approximately 10% of women in the US have experienced this kind of abuse from an ex-partner.
Although online violence seems detached from the offline world, unfortunately, there are instances where online threats become real offline dangers. In June of 2016, UK MP for the British Labour Party, Jo Cox, was murdered outside a library in her constituency. Another example showcasing the seriousness of online violence was during the April 2017 Kenyan primaries, when Ann Kanyi, an aspiring Tetu MP, was attacked on the campaign trail. She was dragged from her car, brutally assaulted and told to quit politics. She suffered back, knee, leg and neck injuries after the incident. During the election, it was also reported that other female candidates were robbed by armed men with machetes, beaten, threatened and had their supporters killed.
Online violence against women stems from issues of sexism. The way women are presented in the media and the way women are treated in the workplace both enforce negative sexist beliefs held against women and online abuse. For example, when journalists cover female politicians, they describe them quite differently than their male counterparts. Journalists spend a lot of their time examining outfits, scrutinizing looks and even calling them names, such as “climate Barbie” as Rebel Media coined for Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. The Daily Mail also came under fire when they used a double-page spread to examine the appearances of the new women in the UK cabinet on the “Downing Street catwalk“. This spread was not only demeaning and insulting to their work as members of government, but also just as women in general. The media helps to shape civic society and form popular opinions, thus this form of gendered journalism opens the door for the public to chime into the level of sexism that is presented.
However, the media is not only to blame. Although governments have started to place legislative quotas and parity laws in order to ensure women’s political representation, there are limitations to the benefits. Female members of the government are subjected to objectification based on appearance and sexual currency. Women also are unsafe and confronted with resistance in places that should be accessible to all, such as political assemblies, party meetings, and their offices. However, with the rise of the #MeToo movement causing a storm of accountability, we can see that these physical spaces are where women are rather belittled and abused. From stories about Patrick Brown, Jamie Baillie, Kent Hehr, Donald Trump, Blake Farenthold, and Patrick Meehan, the list can go on and on.
An Inter-Parliamentary Union study reports that about 20% of women have been victims of sexual harassment during their term, with 65.5% of women being subjected to continuous humiliating comments. Female members of government now consider these repeated inappropriate offences in the political workplace as “common practices“. Furthermore, about 20% of women have claimed that they have been slapped, pushed, struck or targeted by an object that could have injured them, and 12.7% reported that someone had threatened to use or actually used a firearm, knife or other weapons against them. This type of violence against women in government not only deters women from participation but also allows a green light for online trolls to harass women. Thus, as even governments do not have their houses in order, the political environment is too toxic and risky for women, especially young women, interested in becoming politically engaged.
It’s also important to mention that women in politics are held to a higher and exacting standard compared to men. There is no room for mistakes for women. When men make a mistake, it is their mistake to own, however when a woman makes a mistake, it is held against all women and their competency. Furthermore, women are also judged harshly based on their family lifestyle. If she is married or has children, talks about balancing her time and level of commitment become an issue and a target of attack. However, on the other hand, if a woman is single, questions about her being morality and trust arise as well.
Focusing on Canada, it is important to note that Ottawa is no stranger to inappropriate behaviour against women. The Canadian Press surveyed current female MPs and reported that 58% have been targeted in some form of sexual misconduct while in office. The study further reveals that three MPs have been victims of sexual assault, four of sexual harassment and many more to unwanted sexual advances. Lastly, the study also reports that 47% of the respondents were subjected to inappropriate comments on social media.
When our governments are not in order and our media is gendered, the most common excuse to justify this abuse is “well, that’s just the cost of doing politics”. This dismissive and normalizing behaviour of abuse is detrimental to the individuals themselves, but also to our democracy. Misogyny and sexism in the political world must be called out, rather than ignored as “politics as usual”. Fortunately, there is some work being done to counteract this violence against women by the #NotTheCost campaign created by the National Democratic Institute.
In general, social media has revolutionized the way we connect with one another. The political paradigm has completed shifted in which politicians can now easily interact with their constituents and the public. Twitter and Facebook have become home to political debate, information and propaganda. The online world has brought us closer together, but also has brought us a new form of abuse. The distance, as well as the option of anonymity, has given rise to online trolls that are emboldened to send spiteful messages to people in the public sector. This results in a chilling effect for women online, as they may not choose to participate in leadership or political debates, reevaluate their engagement, deactivate or delete their online accounts, or even leave their profession entirely. Women now censor themselves online for fear of attack, discrimination, and abuse as a form of protection.
Due to the lack of infrastructure within our political parties, governments, and social media platforms, online violence continues to grow. In order to combat the problem of violence online, we need strategies to better understand the issue and effectively create policy and legislation to protect women in public life, particularly women in politics. If we continue to remain ignorant of online violence, it will hinder the progress towards gender equality and women’s empowerment, challenge the integrity of our physical spaces and pose a threat to our democracy.
It is up to politicians, political parties, institutions, the media and civil society as a whole to challenge abusive behaviour and tackle this issue at its root. We not only need legislation, but also a cultural shift. Women have been objectified for too long as a form of sexual currency, so we must condemn all forms of violence used to silence women in this digital age, as well as acts of aggression. Governments, especially, need to start leading by example to create effective change and move towards equality.
Women in leadership are essential to our democratic systems, but also to public life. We need equal representation for our societies so we have new skills and ideas added to the table. By putting aside half of our population and harassing those that push boundaries, democracy no longer exists.
We need to change our societal thinking and make equality a reality. We need to crush power imbalances, call out bad behaviour, and speak out against empty promises and begin being the change we want to see because online violence against women must end.