An overview of policy responses and solutions to violence against women in politics

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Gabrielle BardallUniversity of Ottawa, Canada

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‘Violence against women in politics’ (VAWP) is an umbrella term for a spectrum of possible harms, ranging from everyday sexism, to rape, assassination and online abuse. While some policy responses approach the issue as an aggregate whole, others focus on targeting specific components only. Demarcation in policy responses is commonly made between online and offline violence, criminal and non-criminal acts, and/or acts of physical harm (bodily or sexual harm) and non-physical acts (psychosocial harm, sexism and structural misogyny).

Despite the widespread attention that the issue has received, comparative data on the incidence and prevalence of VAWP are unavailable, and international standards, indicators and data-collection methods are lacking. UN Women is spearheading efforts to fill the data gap. Offline and online forms of VAWP each pose distinct challenges for data collection and reporting. In particular, while many actors are now proposing software solutions and diverse methodologies to quantify online VAWP (including gendered disinformation), measurement is hampered by technological limitations and by the very nature of online attacks, which may take place over extended periods of time and involve many different perpetrators acting on multiple platforms simultaneously around the world. Reliable data are essential for most other responses.

Second, legal responses to VAWP are significant not only for ensuring justice for victims, but also for shifting attitudes and behaviours. While some Latin American countries have enacted or debated targeted legislation or policy on VAWP, most legal reform on the topic is currently focused on tightening existing related legislation to better cover VAWP. This includes both civil and criminal codes on violence, harassment and gender-based harm, as well as rules governing elections and political processes. There are also an increasing number of linkages being made between VAWP and existing international priority agendas, especially the Sustainable Development Goals and the Women, Peace and Security Agenda.

While still a major challenge, the implementation of laws protecting against VAWP is progressing. Various initiatives during elections in the Global South have seen partnerships arise between women’s legal advocates, victim protection services and local police and security forces to identify and prosecute VAWP cases, bringing public visibility to the issue and justice for victims. The international normative framework is also evolving to increasingly recognise VAWP and call on states to respond to end it. Notably, the UN General Assembly Resolution on the Intensification of Efforts to Prevent and Eliminate All Forms of Violence Against Women and Girls (A/res/73/148) calls upon national legislative authorities and political parties to adopt codes of conduct and reporting mechanisms, or revise existing ones, stating zero tolerance by these legislative authorities and political parties for sexual harassment, intimidation and any other form of violence against women in politics (para 7).

Applied responses are often clustered around election campaigns, when the threat of VAWP is especially high. Responses regarding election periods include training electoral security providers to recognise and respond appropriately to the issue, assigning specific security details to high-profile women candidates, and educating candidates about potential risks and available recourse. Electoral management bodies (EMBs), civil society organisations (CSOs) and/or political parties may advocate awareness of and zero tolerance for VAWP in their public outreach. Political parties and EMBs include VAWP among prohibited behaviours in electoral codes of conduct. CSOs may organise ‘women’s situation rooms’ to ensure women’s leadership in electoral monitoring and rapid response. Electoral observation missions increasingly include VAWP as a component of their monitoring and a number of gender-specific or VAWP-specific electoral observation programmes exist.

While the approaches described earlier largely emphasise offline VAWP, a number of policy responses specific to online violence have also been emerging in recent years. These responses reflect the complexity of online harms compared to offline incidents. Online VAWP may involve dozens, hundreds or even thousands of diverse perpetrators from around the world, generating vast amounts of wide-ranging online vitriol across a multitude of platforms and forums, sometimes spilling into the real world. Harms range from incivility and information disorder, to hate speech and criminal harassment.

Responses to online VAWP fall into one of three categories: institutional/legal; solutions that engage social media platforms; and community-based responses. Community-based responses allow for rapid reaction to incidents, which can contribute to stemming the negative impacts before they ‘go viral’. Bystander intervention tactics, digital literacy programmes, pro bono ‘take down’ services and crowdsourced fact-checking are among the tactics being employed today as part of community responses to online VAWP. Second, social media platforms bear responsibility for the harmful behaviours that occur on their sites, and they can be influential in limiting their spread if they so choose. Solutions for social media platforms include: the inclusion of the distinct forms of VAWP into user agreements/terms of service and the enforcement of these provisions; the use of artificial intelligence to rapidly identify and stem hateful and misogynistic posts and comments; and the employment of sufficient content moderators trained in detecting online misogyny. Finally, although legal and institutional responses are the longest to implement, they can be the most powerful in stopping online VAWP. Emerging international conventions and national legal frameworks on Internet freedoms should promote rights-based approaches that protect against harm, as well as protect free speech. They must also incorporate common forms of online VAWP into civil and criminal codes. Consistent definitions of common online harms (both text-based and visual) will need to be introduced to support coherent frameworks. New roles may be introduced to oversee online abuse, including online VAWP, such as commissioners for e-safety, or these roles may be integrated into existing offices, such as ombudsman offices.

Gabrielle BardallUniversity of Ottawa, Canada

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