r Ministry of Defence - Sri Lanka

Human Security Implications of Online Hate Speech against Women:
The Barrier to Women’s Political Participation

March 14, 2023

By Charani Patabendige

Madam Sirimavo Bandaranaike, a Sri Lankan was the first female Prime minister in the world. Her beloved daughter, a Sri Lankan politician Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga served as the fifth executive President of Sri Lanka. Thereafter, there were no female presidents and female prime ministers elected. Even though the female population in Sri Lanka is high, female politicians are very less and this is a grave lacuna in leadership. For example, in Sri Lanka’s parliament out of 225 members, there are only 12 lady members at present. Even though, female participation is voiced and backed by policies, females struggle to come into positions of power due to various reasons and hate speech against women is one such obstacle. In addition, it is also pivotal to identify and understand the lack of political participation of women, as a human security issue as pronounced by United Nations.
International Foundation for Electoral Systems, in the report titled “Women’s Political Representation in Sri Lanka: Electoral System Analysis and Recommendations”, mentions the barriers women face which hinder their political participation. Accordingly, challenges are electoral system structure, lack of transparency in the political party framework, weak political finance regulations, Violence Against Women in Elections (VAWE), and Discrimination in the media.  Even though the said barriers are crucial, social status, religion, level of education, and economic status are a few other examples.

One of the existing and undeniable threats, which hinder female political participation, is incitement and online hate speech against women. “Online violence against women in Politics” (2020) has stated that, “almost three-quarters of women Internet users worldwide have experienced some form of online violence”. Accordingly, online presence, mainly through social media, can be described as a double-edged sword for women politicians. “While it is a unique and extremely useful tool to directly communicate with constituencies and to mobilize support and engagement, it provides a forum where violence can proliferate with impunity”. Most of the time women are objectified, criticized, insulted, ridiculed, and taken lightly by both men and other women counterparts.

According to an Action brief on UN women titled “Eliminating Online Hate Speech To Secure Women’s Political Participation”, “Thai opposition member Pannika Wanich has experienced “all kinds of harassment”, from online attacks to body shaming and hate speech and in the Philippines, opposition Senator Leila de Lima has been vilified and harassed on social media platforms, and thirty-year-old Sarah Elago, one of the youngest lawmakers in the Philippines, became subject of a fake sex video that circulated on several websites. The Action brief has further stated, that research conducted by Amnesty International found that “women politicians in India receive on average 113 hostile or abusive tweets per day, which equals 1 in every 7 tweets about women politicians, with a fifth being sexist or misogynistic. In total, this amounted to 1 million problematic or abusive mentions of 95 women politicians between March and May 2019, or over 10,000 hostile or abusive tweets every day”.

When looking at Sri Lankan context it is the same. As per Hashtag Generation’s team of Social Media Analysts, they have “identified that 25% of all harmful speech on social media platforms in Sri Lanka in 2021, targeted women. Furthermore, discriminatory expressions (with a focus on misogyny) was the second-highest category documented in 2021, with a record of 64.85%”. The analysts have further stated, “Female politicians such as Rohini Wijeratne, Hirunika Premachandra, Diana Gamage, Harini Amarasuriya, Pavithra Wanniarachchi, Sitha Arambepola, and Geetha Kumarasinghe were targets of Harassment.  In most instances, statements that they made were met with contempt and derogatory reactions from social media users.

Undoubtedly, men and women are different biologically, and due to those biological reasons, decision-making is affected. Politics in the eyes of a man will be different from politics in the eyes of a woman. Even though they may have the same point, the way they perceive things are different. Parliamentarians are public representatives, they are obliged to raise concerns, clarify doubts, propose essential matters, and oppose detrimental matters. When there is a gender-sensitive matter or concern about women, the decision should be weighed, debated, and perceived by women. However, unfortunately, as parliament and the majority of decision-making bodies consist of male counterparts and therefore, the interests and grievances of the females are unheard of, unreported, and seldom discussed.

Major drawbacks in the system are, irrespective of the high number of hate speeches against female politicians, there is no sufficient conviction on such wrongdoers, they are not pronounced guilty of bullying or defamation. Seldom do we see key figures apologizing and that too is done for the sake of escapism. There are no separate investigation and monitoring mechanisms dedicated to social media platforms. This underrepresentation leads to the erosion of faith in government, marginalization of women in power, and women who are intending to climb the ladder of power. Rather than labelling women as better off as “eye candy” or as “pleasers”, it is high time for the government as well as other institutions to take the matter seriously. Due to those reasons, there is a need to eradicate the existing hatred and anger online.

As mentioned in the introduction, the lack of female political participation is a human security issue. As stated by the Office of the Special Adviser on Gender Issues and Advancement of Women Department of Economic and Social Affairs in 1999 (www.un.org) “One missing element, however, in human security discussions has been an understanding of the fundamental differences and inequalities between women’s and men’s security. Due to that, to address gender equality goals and objectives effectively, five specific and interrelated issues need to be incorporated into the discussion of human security. The report has stated them as, “violence against women and girls, gender inequalities in control over resources, gender inequalities in power and decision-making, women’s human rights, women (and men) as actors, not victims”. Therefore, it is crystalline that to achieve the above voice rights it is crucial to have female representation; the breach of it is a breach of human security.

The government must first and foremost, view and understand the need for the political participation of women as a human security concern. Therefore, to secure female political participation the barrier of hate speech must be mitigated as well as eradicated. If not, women in power, as well as women who wish to enter into power feel belittled and victimized. Government as well as other institutions must maintain a zero-tolerance policy for hate speech and criminalize them and such action will set an example. There should be a body of investigation and monitoring dedicated to online platforms to lodge complaints and answer promptly. The wrongdoers must be penalized and a public apology should be given to the aggrieved party. Eventually, this will lead to the restoration of faith in women and encourage them to participate in politics and make sound decisions.

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