Dar es Salaam. A high-level regional parliamentarians consultation on addressing online violence occurred here on Monday, where women politicians from across Africa shared their experiences of facing online violence, which they described as a “scourge” that needs to be eradicated.
Happening in the context of the International Day of Democracy, the consultation is a product of the collaboration between UNESCO and the African Parliamentary Network on Internet Governance (APNIG), where participants explored the similarities in experiences between online violence against women journalists and women politicians and suggested ways to curb the problem.
During the session, Graça Sanches, a representative from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organisation of national parliaments, shared findings from the study it conducted in 2021, which showed that 80 per cent of the respondents reported having experienced psychological violence, with 46 per cent reporting to have been the target of sexist attacks online.
The study, conducted jointly with the African Parliamentary Union (APU), was based on confidential interviews with 224 women from 50 African countries. One hundred thirty-seven of them were parliamentarians, with 87 others being parliamentary staff members.
Another study whose findings were shared during the session is The Chilling: A Global Study On Online Violence Against Women Journalists, where Mr Guilherme Canela, Chief of Section, Freedom of Expression and Safety of Journalists from UNESCO, took participants through the study’s findings.
The study, the first of its kind in scope and methodology, revealed that nearly three in four women respondents, equivalent to 73 per cent, said they had experienced online violence.
Conducted by the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ) with support from UNESCO, the study is based on a global survey of 901 journalists from 125 countries and long-form interviews with 173 journalists and experts.
Researchers also assessed over 2.5 million social media posts directed at prominent journalists Maria Ressa from The Philippines and Carole Cadwalladr from the UK. The study also involved 15 detailed country case studies and a literature review covering hundreds of scholarly and civil society research publications.
In his presentation, Mr Canela said that the study offers consistent, comprehensive and in-depth quantitative and qualitative evidence that can help develop policies not only for the protection of women journalists online but also of other public figures, such as parliamentarians.
“We have just signed an agreement with IPU to develop capacity building for parliamentarians based on these findings,” he revealed. “We do hope that the discussion we are having here today will further inform these processes we are developing with IPU.”
While contributing their views on the findings presented, women journalists and women parliamentarians from across Africa were unanimous in their assessment of the unfriendly nature of social media, noting that there is no other reason why they’re not welcome online other than that of being women.
Ms Lydia Akanvariba Lamisi, a Ghanian MP, remarked that in many parts of the continent, people think that journalism, parliament, civil society, or any other work that has to do with civic engagement is a reserve for men, a belief she thinks is problematic.
“When a woman comes to such an organisation, the stereotyping is so high that if you’re not psychologically positioned, you’re likely to be distracted by the online and physical attacks,” Ms Lamisi commented.
“For example, you can be working, and your fellow male parliamentarian will tell you, ‘Oh, you look beautiful. Can you visit my office?’ And all of a sudden, you know what is inside his mind, and it has been very difficult for some of us,” she added.
Ms Esther Passaris is a Nairobi City County Woman Representative in Kenya who shared that she has been facing violence online for some time now, a situation she says takes a heavy toll on her mental health.
She said that based on her experience, most violence online is labelled, noting that the famous label that people ascribe to women politicians online is that of prostitutes.
“But there is also another element of mental health,” she explained. “Because, as a leader, if I can feel compromised emotionally with some of the comments, can you imagine the consequences for people being attacked daily and not having a platform to defend themselves?”
One of the most prominent effects of online gender-based violence against women politicians identified by the IPU study is undermining women’s participation, visibility and influence in politics.
The practice also discourages young women from going into politics, which might result in the loss of talented and dedicated women parliamentarians and employees who have no choice but to leave their jobs.
In the long run, the practice also undermines the idea of representative and inclusive parliaments, IPU stated in its study.
One of the proposals put forward to eradicate the practice is for governments to enact a specific law that addresses online violence against women politicians and journalists.
Others have pointed out that the laws exist, but they’re not being implemented as they should.
But according to Ms Salome Makamba, a Special Seats MP from Shinyanga, Tanzania, the problem is much bigger and more complex than that, warning that if efforts are not directed to end the patriarchal norms that are deeply rooted in the communities, laws and regulations will fall short of solving the problem.
“We might have various laws and regulations in place, we might have very aggressive women who want to be involved in politics, but at the end of the day, we have a lot of myths, taboos, traditions and culture that keep pulling women back [from] this involvement in leadership,” Ms Makamba said.
Having strong and enforced laws to address online violence against women has been mentioned in the study by IPU as one of the ways to eradicate the practice. But it also emphasises the need for solidarity among women in addressing the issue.
Ms Neema Lugangira, a Special Seats MP representing NGOs, whose Omuka Hub also participated in organising the session on Monday, agrees on the importance of solidarity and inter-sectorial collaboration, saying the two are vital in ending the malaise of online violence against women journalists and parliamentarians.
“[Here,] we can see the links between online violence on women journalists and online violence on women in politics, and then maybe it can help, instead of media to work on their own, women in media to work on their own, and women in politics to work on our own, we can actually work together because our issues are related,” she said on why the session invited both women journalists and women parliamentarians.