Technology-facilitated Violence Against Women in Politics (VAWP) is harmful, widespread, and fast-growing.
Like ‘real world’ violence, online violence occurs with different intensities and can be shared infinitely across social media platforms with little recourse for its victims.
Women in politics are increasingly harassed online by politically motivated ‘trolls’ and ‘bots’ that spread deceptive or inaccurate information and images against women political leaders and public figures, often using misogynistic storylines – a phenomenon known as “gender disinformation.”
Discriminatory gendered practices are shaped by social, economic, cultural and political structures and are similarly reproduced online across digital platforms.
In Zimbabwe, there have been rising rates of online harassment targeting both high profile women as well as everyday users.
Furthermore, there are noticeable forms of online violence being experienced by women politicians, and these include body shaming, gendered disinformation, sexual harassment, trolling, and gendered and sexualized insults among others.
According to the Zimbabwe Election Support Network (ZESN) Programmes Director Ellen Dingani, Zimbabweans have made online spaces toxic and cyberbullying, especially, Twitter is another form of violence that is now a major threat to women’s participation in politics.
“Body shaming and exposing one’s private life is rampant on Twitter to intimidate women who want to contest as new candidates, making it difficult for them to participate in politics and decision-making processes,” she said.
Online violence targeted at women is largely rooted in misogynistic beliefs and is based on their ability to uphold gender norms while attacks towards men are based on their ability to perform their leadership roles.
Online harassment of women seeking political power can be understood as a form of gender role enforcement, facilitated by anonymity.
However, online abuse and sexist narratives targeting politically active women are not just the product of everyday misogyny: they are reinforced by political actors and deployed as a political strategy.
Illiberal political actors often encourage online abuse against female political leaders and activists as a deliberate tactic to silence oppositional voices and push feminist politicians out of the political arena.
Unbeknown to them is that women’s participation in the political process of development is of crucial importance from the consideration of both equity and development.
Their demands, hopes, and opinions must be reflected in social and national development.
President of the Labour Economists and African Democrats (Lead) party, Linda Masarira who has received the most abuse online in Zimbabwe among women in politics is of the view that social media companies have to do a lot to protect women abuse online
“Twitter regulations are clear that anyone who violates its rules will be suspended and Twitter has suspended a lot of accounts, but the challenge some people bully people in Shona or Ndebele and other vernacular languages which Twitter cannot deal with,” Masarira said.
“I am a victim of political violence on Twitter where I have been body-shamed by people. I think it is now up to Twitter to come up with a system that captures abuse of people in all languages because Twitter is for everyone,” Masarira added.
Attacks targeting male politicians mostly relate to their professional duties, whereas online harassment directed at female politicians is more likely to focus on their physical appearance and sexuality and include threats of sexual violence and humiliating or sexualized imagery.
In general, it is observed that both in developed and developing countries, women’s participation in politics at local and national levels is comparatively lower than that of men due to the various forms of abuse they face.
In addition, political parties have consistently failed to support and/or nominate women for critical positions, despite a focus on being gender-inclusive within their party manifests and in the event that women raise their hands for public office, it opens them to public ridicule and scorn, especially online.
Women are also faced with cases of verbal and physical assault during elections, including the most recent 2018 harmonized and the just ended 2022 by-elections.
Online and offline violence against women in politics is a violation of human rights and, by hindering women’s political participation, is also a violation of women’s political rights.
As such it undermines democratic exercise and good governance and creates a democratic deficit.
However, all is not bad when it comes to social media and WPP. According to the Women’s Academy for Political Leadership and Excellence (WALPE), the emergence of social media has generally provided women, particularly aspiring women leaders with an alternative space to have their voice heard in real-time.
“As WALPE we feel the advent of social media, Facebook and Twitter has done more good than bad to women leaders in Zimbabwe. In as much as they are challenges of cyberbullying, revenge pornography and online violence are also being recorded which discourages other women from utilizing the space.
“We feel more needs to be done by both Government and citizens to guarantee the safety of women on online spaces,” WALPE noted.
It further stated that the cyber law must be explicit on penalties for those who harass women online including clear protection provisions for women in politics like what was done in South Africa.
Citizens themselves, WALPE further states, must be responsible and desist from attacking and discrediting women online
On December 3, 2021, Zimbabwe enacted the Data Protection Act, to curb cybercrimes.
Institute of Young Women’s Development (IYWD) Knowledge Management and, Documentation and Advocacy Coordinator, Tinotenda Chihera said the new law is a welcome development as it protects young women and women in politics if there are stiffer penalties for perpetrators.
“The Zimbabwe Republic Police, Judicial Service Commission and National Prosecution Authority need capacity building to effectively implement this law. Cyberbullying has devastating effects on women such as but not limited trauma and putting their person into disrepute,” she said.
Worryingly, women comprise an embarrassingly low 14% of councillors in Zimbabwe. This lack of representation can lead to apathy, as women fail to see themselves represented.
In Zimbabwe, women remain under-represented in party politics, in parliament and in the cabinet, largely due to the vile and retribution they receive both online and physically.
Women make up less than 50% of parliamentarians, yet gender parity is a constitutional requirement.
The Constitution of Zimbabwe (Section 17) aspires to: “full gender balance in Zimbabwean society particularly with regard to promoting the full participation of women in all spheres of Zimbabwean society on the basis of equality with men and to take legislative and other measures to ensure that both women and men are equally represented in all institutions and agencies of government at every level.”
Masarira said: “The decline in women participation in electoral processes continues as only 15% of the duly nominated candidates for the 26 March by-elections are women. In Zimbabwe, women continue to be marginalised by structural deformities in our cultural, social, religious and political stereotypes. Women are still viewed as second class citizens which have stifled the full realisation of women’s rights in our country.
Masarira, who was vying for a parliamentary seat in the 2022 by-elections, said the positive impact of the presence of women in parliaments, such as prioritisation of issues and policies, gender sensitivity in all aspects of governing — including budgeting — and the introduction of new legislation and changes to existing laws cannot be overemphasised.
“We must therefore collectively fight for women’s effective representations in politics and decision-making positions,” she continued
Since independence in 1980, there has not been a female president. The highest office any woman in Zimbabwe has held is the Vice President as Joice Mujuru became closer to holding the top post. However, internal politics saw her being chucked out as male dominance reigned supreme with the ZanuPF party.
Even the government is aware of this. Recently, local Government minister July Moyo decried the low participation of women in politics, saying of the 6 800 candidates that contested for council seats in the 2018 elections, only 1 156 were women.
Moyo said it is alarming that only 14% of women were in leading positions.
“There is less participation of women in politics, the majority of them are in the council, but the challenge is that most of them were recalled last year, and so now we do not know if they are coming back. The challenge they face is that most of the seats are male-dominated,” Moyo said.
The United Nations Women Country Representative to Zimbabwe, Delphine Serumaga, asserts that women’s participation in politics makes a difference.
“Women bring different views, talents, and perspectives in politics which help shape the political and democratic agenda,” said Serumaga.
Civil society organizations that support women running for office are also spearheading new strategies to respond to gendered online abuse.
Some are offering specialized training and toolkits to help women political leaders protect themselves and counter sexualized and racialized disinformation.
The IYWD’s Vote Run Lead campaign is one such campaign that aims to empower women and help them defend themselves.
“The #VoteRunLeadReloaded campaign builds upon our ongoing #WhatWomenWant campaign which calls for an end to structural violence against women in private and public life; articulates young women’s demands as candidates and voters in the upcoming by-elections, in 2023 harmonised elections and beyond, demands state accountability and an end to a culture of impunity and sets out conditions for young women’s full realisation of bodily autonomy and their freedom of expression including in the arts and sporting sectors,” Chihera said.
According to the UN Women, lack of data and awareness of VAWP impedes efforts to design and implement effective policies and legislation for the prevention and elimination of violence.
Too rarely are perpetrators held to account and survivors provided with access to timely and appropriate remedies and services.
Institutions meant to provide access to justice and service delivery for women experiencing and reporting violence are not equipped to produce reliable data on the phenomenon’s magnitude.
Additionally, quantitative studies, which should guarantee women’s confidentiality when disclosing sensitive information, are largely missing; where they do take place, they do not generate global, comparative data.