“Stress, anxiety, panic attacks and a sapping of our self-esteem. A real concern that threats online will actually be put into practice. This is what women experience in terms of online abuse.”
These were the words of Polish Greens/EFA deputy Sylwia Spurek during a recent plenary debate looking at cyberviolence directed towards female politicians. In personal testimonies of what they endure online as public figures, female policymakers gave chilling accounts of the online threats they face on a daily basis.
Kicking off the debate, EU Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli told MEPs, “While in this house, women’s representation has a better record, at 40 percent, compared to the EU average, men still outnumber women in positions of political power. On average, women account for just one in three of the seats in the EU’s national parliaments, and only 21 percent of leaders of major political parties are women.”
“When I announced my candidacy in the European elections, the initial reactions on social media were quite striking. I realised as a young politician of colour that the future was going to be difficult for me”
Samira Rafaela MEP
While acknowledging that the increased use of social media and online tools in politics have provided great opportunities in terms of inclusion, participation and public debates and access to information, Dalli pointed out that the downside to this development is the exposure to online violence, threats and harassment.
“Hateful online targeting makes it even more difficult to allow women to participate in public life. It can dissuade women from running as candidates in elections or to participate in public online debates and can also lead to women ending their political careers prematurely. Online attacks and disinformation are used to undermine women’s political credibility and question their decision-making capability.”
Dalli cited a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe showing that 85.2 percent of the interviewed female parliamentarians had experienced psychological violence and almost half of the respondents reported having received death threats or threats of rape and beatings, directed at themselves or family members.
Dalli said, “Barring women from participating in public life and spreading gender misinformation, these attacks are attacks on our fundamental values. Democracy and freedom of expression are the main pillars of the pluralist societies the EU stands for. When women are not fully represented in positions of power, we are faced with a serious democratic deficit.”
Irish EPP deputy Frances Fitzgerald echoed this sentiment, saying that while women are heavily involved in community groups and NGOs, making a substantial difference and a sizeable contribution at grassroots level, they are often hesitant about entering politics.
She explained, “They don’t like what sometimes passes for politics – aggressive, adversarial and populist. Also, women in politics experience physical intimidation and sexual harassment – online and offline. Like so many other female politicians, I have had a range of experiences in my political career that were deeply unpleasant and unacceptable.”
“An attack on a car I was traveling in, physical intimidation and a stream of untruths about my political work that have only increased as the online world has emerged and further developed. Every female politician has similar stories.”
A male voice in the debate, Polish S&D MEP Robert Biedroń said it was important to acknowledge that most acts of violence towards women in politics are committed by men, adding, “I personally am ashamed of this, and I would like to apologise on behalf of men and launch an appeal for solidarity from all of the male colleagues who are involved in politics.”
He went on, “The statistics are clear – 80 percent of women in politics have experienced online harassment, many of them receive death threats, and it’s a short distance to travel between hostility online and violence in the real world. In modern times, the European Union does not have any legislation that can protect women in politics.”
Dutch Renew Europe deputy Samira Rafaela agreed, calling online hate against women “an enormous problem, especially if we want to see women contribute to politics and the decisions of the future.”
“We are tired of testosterone and of leaders obsessed with power and control. We will manage to feminise politics and we will put an end to this phallocentric politics that fuels misogyny”
Eugenia Rodríguez Palop MEP
She said, “When I announced my candidacy in the European elections, the initial reactions on social media were quite striking. I realised as a young politician of colour that the future was going to be difficult for me” but added, “We need women in politics to grow in numbers and strength – we cannot allow ourselves to be censored or muted anymore.”
Belgian ECR deputy Assita Kanko said that death threats, threats of kidnapping and rape, though shocking, reflect the reality of women in politics. She added, “While these types of cyber intimidations continue, there’s a strong possibility that other women will simply not go into politics. The European Commission needs to take an initiative to tackle these online abuses for women in politics. We have the right to live in dignity.”
Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, Spanish MEP for The Left, said that 60 percent of female members of parliament in the EU had been subjected to sexist attacks online, including misogynistic insults, incitement to hatred, death threats, harassment, deep fakes and even pornographic videos.
She concluded, “Some would have us believe that politics is a man’s world, and they would have us stay at home. Nonetheless, we persist, and we stay. We are fighting for feminist politics; we are tired of testosterone and of leaders obsessed with power and control. We will manage to feminise politics and we will put an end to this phallocentric politics that fuels misogyny.”