Effective Protection From Online Violence Against Women in Politics


Dr. Gabrielle Bardall, Dr. Dhanaraj Thakur, Dr. Kimberley Barker, Dr. Olga Jurasz and Avery Davis-Roberts (left to right)

by Otito Greg-Obi*

On March 14, 2019, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) and the Carter Center co-hosted a parallel event on “Effective Protection from Online Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWP)” at the 63rd United Nations (UN) Commission on the Status of Women (CSW). The event took place during the NGO CSW Forum in New York and was moderated by Avery Davis-Roberts, associate director for the Democracy Program at the Carter Center. Panelists included Dr. Gabrielle Bardall, IFES gender advisor; Dr. Dhanaraj Thakur, research director for the World Wide Web Foundation; Dr. Olga Jurasz, senior lecturer in law at the Open University Law School; and Dr. Kimberley Barker, lecturer in law at the University of Stirling.

In her opening remarks, Davis-Roberts gave an overview of women’s political participation and VAWP online. She noted that as of 2018, 27 percent of seats in national parliaments worldwide are filled by women. Davis-Roberts recounted the UN General Assembly Resolution 148, “Intensification of Efforts to Prevent and Eliminate all Forms on Violence Against Women and Girls: Sexual Harassment,” and highlighted the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women’s 2018 report on online violence against women and girls. She also highlighted the significant gap between international standards and the practices of states that are responding and not responding to online VAWP.

Bardall defined VAWP as a distinct form of violence existing at the crossroads of political or electoral violence and gender-based violence. She explained that victims include not only women running as candidates but also voters, journalists, civil society leaders and electoral staff. The perpetrators of VAWP are just as varied and include not only political actors but also family members. Cyberspace is particularly dangerous when it comes to socio-psychological violence because the internet can spread character defamation and morality-based attacks with intense speed. Online anonymity is also a major issue, as it is difficult to redress online violence when the perpetrators often cannot be identified, allowing them to troll and attack women with impunity. Drawing on a new tool developed through a Consortium for Elections and Political Process Strengthening technical leadership award, in coordination with the National Democratic Institute, IFES has conducted in-depth social media sentiment analysis research on violence against women in elections in Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka and Ukraine in recent months, with forthcoming work in Bangladesh and Afghanistan. IFES’ research has found that women are encountering online abuse at up to three times the level of their male counterparts. This vitriolic abuse is riddled with direct threats of physical harm and manipulated images and videos. IFES works to document to these cases, respond to victims and advocate for an end to impunity for these crimes.

"Violence against women in politics is primarily psycho-social and the internet is a major battleground where this form of violence is taking place." – Dr. Gabrielle Bardall

Thakur discussed his research and experience with violence against women online through the Web Foundation’s “Women Rights Online” program. Thakur emphasized that women’s lack of access to the internet is both a consequence and a cause of VAWP online. He pointed out that women are less likely to use the internet due to offline barriers such as physical violence. The effect is that men are more likely than women to use social media and online tools to promote themselves as political leaders and participate in civic and political life. Findings from the Web Foundation’s survey research in Uganda show that up to 45 percent of women in Uganda face online harassment. In his work with the Women of Uganda Network, Thakur has found that lack of legal enforcement and continued impunity for online abuse are obstacles to grassroots movements holding perpetrators accountable. The Web Foundation’s partnership with Internet Sans Frontières in Cameroon has underscored the importance of ensuring proper data protection for online users given loopholes in cybercrime laws that often allow governments to surveil citizens, presenting an additional barrier to women’s political participation online.

Jurasz and Barker discussed their extensive research on legal responses to gender-based violence online internationally and within the United Kingdom (UK). Jurasz emphasized the importance of a holistic approach to tackling this issue and using all instruments available, including not just civil and criminal law but also international human rights laws, communications laws, and building awareness through education. She pointed out the misconception that rights to freedom of expression prevent protection against online harassment and argued that these rights should be seen as mutually reinforcing rather than in competition with each other. She also highlighted that although there is a wide range of victims who experience online violence, there is one unifying factor: the “silencing effect.” Typically, women who face online attacks become so overwhelmed by onslaughts of violent content that they leave online spaces altogether.

"Although all types of victims of VAWP online are different, there is one unifying factor: the silencing effect. Women ultimately leave online spaces altogether when they are harassed." – Dr. Olga Jurasz

Barker underscored the need to specifically define gender-based violence online within cybercrime law. Barker cited the high profile social media attacks against Member of Parliament (MP) Diane Abbott as a particularly troubling example of VAWP online in the UK. She also cited the harassment of MP Stella Creasy and pointed out that the police did not take tweets threatening her rape and murder seriously until she handed them a physical copy of a death threat that had been cut by hand. Barker emphasized the urgent need to address cybercrime and violence against women within the communications provisions of the UK’s legal framework. She mentioned that there have been efforts to create an online safety charter for UK platforms but, because of legal liability shields, social media platforms are not well-regulated.

Watch a recording of the discussion, including Q&A with the audience, below.

*Otito Greg-Obi is a gender program coordinator at IFES.

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