Stay informed with free updates

The writer is vice-president of the European Commission for values and transparency

“Advance warning: the following lines may provoke some strong emotional reactions!” This was the beginning of a social media post by a president of an EU country when she decided to reveal the kind of comments and communications she regularly receives. “You sellout whore, you better get out of Slovakia,” ran one message addressed to Zuzana Čaputová. Some of the taunts were even delivered in public. An official from one party let the crowd at a rally shout that the president was an “American bitch”.

What can be done to prevent hate and violence against women in public life?

Here is a terrible statistic: one in six women leave politics globally during their first term. Those who stay have to show remarkable resilience. Threats against women in public life are on the rise and, for many female politicians, the only solution is to leave public life. There is a clear disproportion between the volume of threats and online violence aimed at women and girls and those directed towards men. Much of it happens backstage — it is quiet and hidden, taking place in private mailboxes, and no one talks about it. But we cannot treat this as normal; we have to act.

In April, the European parliament voted overwhelmingly for a historic directive on combating violence against women and domestic violence. And it was finally approved by all member states in May. It criminalises online violence for the first time and holds its perpetrators accountable. 

In March, as part of the celebrations to mark International Women’s Day, I organised an event in Brussels to highlight the fact that women are leaving public life because of this kind of abuse.

We had a frank discussion. And rather than feeling sorry for ourselves, we drew up a six-point plan — a “six pack”, you might say, designed to help women stay strong in the face of violence and abuse.

First, we need to de-normalise violence against women as an ordinary part of public life. Addressing these threats starts with strongly condemning them as unacceptable and punishable.

Second, EU member states need to make a much greater effort when it comes to implementing the relevant legislation. There are laws in place to investigate and prosecute many such offences, but more can be done to punish perpetrators.

Third, political parties and media organisations have a role to play here. Parties not only need to encourage women to enter politics and to promote them on their lists of candidates, but they also need to defend them in the face of attacks. Sometimes it seems that women are put on lists as little more than a marketing exercise.

Fourth, a large chunk of the responsibility for dealing with this problem falls on social media. As the journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa has said: “There is nothing virtual about online violence.” It can have palpable real-world consequences.

In the EU we already have legislation like the Digital Services Act, the AI Act and the aforementioned directive on violence against women. We just need to ensure that these judicial instruments have real teeth.

The tech industry needs to do more and ensure adequate social media moderation. The platforms need to be able to work in all 24 official languages of the EU. And platforms need to share their data with researchers. If solidarity and awareness raising are being done offline, they should be done twice as much online.

This brings us to the fifth point: we need better education to foster decency and tolerance online. We still have not found a way of living in a space where everything can be posted, yet anybody can be anonymously humiliated. The technology for dealing with this is not yet quite up to speed, so in the meantime raising awareness around this issue is crucial.

Sixth and finally, better data collection is essential. We still have big knowledge gaps, and it is crucial that we are able to see the problem of online abuse in all its complexity. 

If we don’t get stuck into this work now, things will only get worse. But I believe the event in March has put us on the right track and offers a route map to tackling online violence against women. Building up the impetus required will take time, but succeeding will have a huge impact.

Not only does gender equality foster productivity, as Beeban Kidron, the filmmaker and member of the UK House of Lords, has said; no democracy can thrive without the participation of women.

Source link