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The Epidemic of Abuse Against Female Politicians

November 04, 2019

Women in politics. While men hold an overwhelming majority of political positions, we’ve seen a shift especially in the past decade. Worldwide, more and more women worldwide are in places of power in the political spheres. However, with this shift, we’ve also seen major increases in harassment and violence.

The issue of women facing barriers and threats in politics is definitely not new. In Canadian politics we can look back almost one hundred years, to 1921 when Agnes Macphail, one of the Famous Five, faced sexism and ridicule and was even physically blocked from entering the Canadian House of Commons when she went to take her seat for the first time. Former Canadian politician Sheila Copps was also a victim of sexual assault and constant harassment during her political career during the 1980s-1990s.

What’s new is the extent of the abuse, which has transformed in large part due to the Internet. In recent years, the barrage of attacks on female politicians and journalists has intensified in the online world. Coming even from high-profile people and those in power, the abuse is unchecked and seemingly limitless. The distinguishing feature of much of this abuse is that it is directed at women and it overwhelmingly comes from men, including those in high-profile positions of power. Most of us know about President Trump’s constant verbal attacks on fellow female politicians. He has targeted everyone from US politicians Hilary Clinton and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. What you may not realize is also how prominent this type of abuse is in our own country. Only recently have the intensifying attacks begun to make headlines in the media for what they truly are: attempts to undermine and silence female voices.

During her term as the Premier of Ontario, Kathleen Wynne was constantly harassed, both and online through social media. It’s highly unlikely she would have been targeted with such hate and vulgarity had she been a man. When she spoke to a group of females interested in politics during her time in office, she addressed this point, advising the women that if they planned to go into politics or public life, they’d need to have a thick skin, yet remain porous so that they can continue to feel. Being active on social media enables you to reach your constituents but sadly, there is a price to pay.

And it wasn’t just Wynne. Nepean MPP Lisa MacLeod faced death threats, and Alberta MP Michelle Rempel also dealt with rape and death threats on Twitter. As Rempel said, “it doesn’t matter if somebody is making a threat to someone or proposing violence to someone to their face or in a different medium, it’s still unacceptable.”

We also recently witnessed the latest in an onslaught of hate-filled messages and abuse directed at Canadian Environment Minister Catherine McKenna. For years she has faced harassment and abuse, in person and online, to a much greater extent than any of her male counterparts. S some opponents have labelled her with sexist nicknames she has even had to take the precaution of hiring security to accompany her on certain outings. None of these actions should be accepted as a normal part of being a politician, especially a female politician. Tolerance is not the solution.

If we don’t begin to stand up to these attacks, we are perpetuating the culture of tolerance and keeping the doors open for the abuse to continue. This can be an extremely dangerous time for females in power. With ready accessibility to information and social media spaces, it has become easier for abusers to threaten harm and create fear in their targets.

 hands typing in dark room

Twitter appears to be the platform that abusers use most often to target politicians. A 2017 Amnesty International study, the largest ever of its kind, found that female politicians and journalists were abused on the social media platform every 30 seconds with hate speech. So, while Twitter can be a powerful platform for women to express themselves and engage with others, it’s also where violence and abuse flourishes, and with no accountability. Many critics have discussed Twitter’s failure to respect and protect women’s rights online by neglecting to investigate or respond to violence and abuse on its platform.

Canadian women in politics have long encountered barriers and hurdles that prevent them from entering or staying in politics or make it more difficult to do so. Family responsibilities, lack of childcare, and lack of financial support are just a few examples of barriers. When we add in the effects and dangers of harassment and abuse, we’re seriously limiting the opportunities women have in this area.

“Abuse of this kind really limits women’s freedom of expression online. It makes them withdraw, limit conversations and even remove themselves altogether,”

  • Milena Marin, senior adviser for Tactical Research at Amnesty International

What does this all mean for women, in particular females in high-profile positions of power or in politics? The violence aimed at women in politics has a primary goal: to prevent women from accessing political power. Whether it’s physical, psychological, or economic violence, or threats, the goal is the same. A 2016 international study found that 81.8 per cent of women politicians globally had been psychologically abused and 44.4 per cent had received death, rape, beating or abduction threats. This harassment and abuse threatens to undermine the important work women are in doing in a field that has been traditionally almost solely the domain of men. In order to create a more equal communities and ultimately, a more equal world, we need equal representation from women on all fronts including politics – where important decisions are made.

We must do more to stand up against this type of abusive behaviour. Digital threats and violence are considered violence and should be treated as such. We can call on the social platforms we use, such as Twitter, to do more. We can respond appropriately to acts of hatred, whether they occur in person or online. With the recent act against Catherine McKenna, we saw many politicians, including opponents, call out the vial act and condemn it. This is a good start. We need to continue to recognize all of these actions as the abuse they are and respond accordingly. We can also talk to the abusers themselves. Education is a key component in helping create awareness about abuse as well as ending violence against women. Whether we’re talking about counseling and support for those who engage in acts of domestic violence or education for people who sit behind a screen and verbally attack women online, the educational component is vital. Finally, we can call on governments and legislatures to play their necessary role in ending violence against women.

When we stop accepting and tolerating acts of hatred and verbal social media attacks, we can begin to work toward a safer, more equal society for women, and one where female politicians don’t need to work within fear or hire security personnel. Together, we can all do better.

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