The Specific Challenge of Violence Against Women in Elections

Substantial gains have been made worldwide in enhancing women’s participation in public life in the past two decades. In 1995, women comprised at least 30 per cent of parliamentarians in only five countries (2 per cent of the total), while today thirty-one states have reached that threshold.1 Constitutional revisions and electoral reform have enfranchised women and facilitated their political participation by entrenching their rights, offering incentives and/or imposing sanctions on political parties and other public bodies to protect against gender-specific threats. Nonetheless, women generally remain acutely under-represented in parliaments (only 21.2 per cent of parliamentarians worldwide are women) and face deep-rooted obstacles to participation as voters and in other civil and public roles. Barriers range from inadequate or nonexistent legal protections, traditional cultural stereotypes and gender roles, lack of access to resources and civic education and generally lower levels of self-confidence in pursuing public office. Of all of these barriers, gender-specific election violence is perhaps the most insidious, affecting and compounding other obstacles.

Women’s experience of election violence is fundamentally different from that of men (Bardall 2010a). Firstly, women are far more likely to be victims of election violence (defined as ‘any harm, or threat of harm, to any persons or property involved in the election process, or the election process itself, during the election period’ (Kammerud 2011) than perpetrators (Bardall 2010a). Violence against women in elections (VAWE) refers to any random or conspiratorial act to discourage, suppress, or prevent women from exercising their electoral rights. This includes women’s participation as voters, candidates, party supporters, election workers, observers, journalists, or public officials (UNDP forthcoming). VAWE may take place in both public and private spheres. Like other common forms of election violence, VAWE is commonly perpetrated by political opponents and party militants; however it may also be perpetrated by family members, domestic partners, religious leaders and the media.

Incidents of VAWE can be distinguished by their various forms and frequencies. Although VAWE may comprise physical, sexual or economic acts of aggression, psychological attacks are by far the most pervasive form of VAWE. Indeed, research has found that women experience only one-third as many direct physical attacks as men but are three times as likely to experience psychological violence (Bardall 2010a). Psychological violence is an ‘informal means of control [and] includes systematic ridicule, ostracism, shame, sarcasm, criticism, disapproval, exclusion and discrimination’ (Bardall 2010a). Coupled with threats of physical and sexual violence, these forms of violence degrade, demoralize and shame their victims. These psychological forms of election violence are the most devastating to women. And, increasingly, they are orchestrated through the instruments of social media.

Social Media as Implements of Violence Against Women in Elections

The UN estimates that 95 per cent of aggressive behavior, harassment, abusive language and denigrating images in online spaces are aimed at women, most often by a current or former partner (UNGA 2006). As women’s participation in politics grows despite ongoing legal barriers and cultural resistance, their vulnerability to election violence increases proportionately, including in online spaces and via ICTs. Karen Banks noted over ten years ago that ‘[t]he internet is not creating new forms of crimes against women […], but it is creating new ways and means for crimes to be perpetrated’ (Banks 2001: 147–173) However, the implications of these new ways and means on women’s political participation is rarely discussed. In particular, the Internet and other social media and ICTs have proven to be uniquely dangerous instruments in perpetrating election violence against women because of the relative importance of psychological violence in women’s political experience.

ICTs may be used directly as a tool of intimidation by threatening or inciting physical violence against women candidates, voters or representatives. Such cyber-harassment or intimidation may include sending abusive, threatening or obscene emails from one person to another with explicit threats of physical and/or sexual violence. It may involve electronic sabotage in the form of extensive spam and damaging viruses, impersonating the victim online and sending abusive emails or fraudulent spams, blog-posts, Tweets and other online communications in the victim’s name or subscribing victims to unwanted email lists resulting in hundreds of unwanted messages daily (Ellison and Akdeniz 1998). Cyber-harassment can result in serious harm to the victim, as in the 1996 case of Cynthia Armistead, an American woman who received thousands of offensive messages and threats after her stalker published false online advertisements offering her services as a prostitute and providing her home address and personal telephone number (Bocij 2004). More innovative and sophisticated forms of ICT-based attacks on women have been documented and include the use of ‘spy software’ (spyware enables abusers to have access to all keystrokes made on the computer, including all email correspondence, web surfing and internet communication); the use of wireless technology to monitor private conversations; hacking; saved ‘cookies’ and browser histories; email tampering and interception; visual surveillance and geographic tracking via Global Positioning System (GPS) software (Southworth et al. 2007). These ICT-based attacks have an overwhelming impact on women’s private and professional lives. Indeed, some surveys estimate that over 80 per cent of victims in cyber-stalking2 incidents are women.3

The use of these and other forms of ICT-based violence has been documented in cases of VAWE. During the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008–09, tribal-based political partisans sent SMS messages to women in opposing tribal-based political groups, threatening bodily harm, rape and even death (Muthoni; Wanyeki). In an American web-based video game promoted by The Hillary Project, players score points when they slap former US secretary of state and potential presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, each time she speaks.4 Graphically violent Tweets were used to make rape and murder threats against British Member of Parliament Stella Creasy and other prominent British women at a rate of up to 50 threats per hour, over the course of 12 hours following their support of a feminist issue (Döing 2013). During the 2008 US presidential campaign, computer hackers broke into the private email account of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin and posted some of her messages and many of her contacts online (Falcone 2008).

Beyond these evident misuses of the medium, a number of the specific qualities of social media make them peculiarly suited to inflicting psychological violence on women in public life. Their disproportionate impact on women stems in large part from women’s unique vulnerability to attacks on the basis of morality. By breaking into a traditionally masculine field that is frequently associated with rough behavior and corruption, women are exposed to sexualized and/or morally degrading criticism. Derogatory accusations of being a prostitute, a lesbian or otherwise sinful and/or sexually deviant are commonly leveled against women running for office in many countries. These moral attacks often carry much greater social costs for women than for men because of the implications they may have on the victim’s children or because of the existence of double standards as far as what constitutes ‘moral behavior’ for male and female politicians (i.e., branding mommy ‘a whore’ may imply she is unfit for office while calling daddy ‘a philanderer’ may not be considered as serious an offence, or may even infer virility and strength). The specific nature of social media plays to these imbalances and exacerbates attacks on women in public life in several ways.

Firstly, the nature of messaging in social media facilitates ridicule, shaming and other psychological forms of VAWE. The most effective social media messages are generally short (in the case of Twitter, limited to 140 characters), written in simple language and often humorous.5 A study of media coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s 2008 political campaigns in the US found that the crudest attacks were found online, including over 500 YouTube videos under the search ‘Hillary’ and ‘bitch’ and multiple Facebook groups with obscene or sexist names, including the most popular (41,025 followers in March 2008) ‘Hillary Clinton: Stop running for president and make me a sandwich’ (Jamieson and Dunn 2008). Crude and sensational messages circulate widely without the legal or professional ethical requirements of traditional media to ensure accuracy, check sources and rectify errors. With extremely low barriers to entry, social media users may engage in character assassination at virtually no cost and with little personal consequence.

Social media also facilitates attacks on women’s ethics and morality through the ubiquitous presence of images. The use of stereotypical or demeaning images and photos to sexualize, emotionalize and trivialize women poses a strong disincentive for women considering running for office, and may even pose a direct threat to their personal safety (Blackman-Woods 2013). Women MPs in many countries report feeling compelled to be hyper-conscious about their appearance and physical posture in public, due to the ubiquity of cell phone cameras.6 Candid shots taken at unguarded moments and immediately posted and disseminated online have a degrading and intimidating impact on women candidates and MPs. Exacerbating the issue, the ease of programs such as Photoshop allows perpetrators to modify snapshots or create entirely new images designed to denigrate, compromise or shame their victim. In the case of female politicians, this is commonly manifested through sexually suggestive or demeaning images. With YouTube, videography is often matched with music and can be used to promote violence towards women in politics, for example in a YouTube music video during the 2008 US campaign that flashed photos of Hillary Clinton during debates as the lyric ‘I’ll beat that bitch with a hit’ was repeated (Jamieson and Dunn 2008). This form of violence, known as malicious distribution, uses technology as a tool to manipulate and distribute defamatory and/or illegal material related to the victim (Baker et al. 2013).

The speed with which information travels through social media networks and the scope of its diffusion magnify the impact of acts of VAWE (Kee 2005). Re-Tweets, shares and ‘Likes’ spread degrading, humiliating or threatening attacks on women in politics with almost uncontrollable rapidity. The scope of online stalking and harassment are likewise amplified (Arya 2013). Available redress for this type of attack, including community censure, website moderating and legal intervention, frequently take effect only after the damage to the victim has been done. Self-policing functions of websites such as Facebook and Twitter are often weak and/or vulnerable to gender bias.7 Interventions may interrupt or halt a behavior but less frequently correct false accusations or degrading projections. Indeed, given tight electoral deadlines, harm to a victim’s public image may be difficult or impossible to correct before ballots are cast. The reach of any given message on social media is dependent on the voluntary diffusion of the message by social media users. Therefore efforts to rectify degrading depictions cannot be consistently broadcast to consumers of the original message. Finally, the speed and scope of social media attacks have a chilling effect on political aspirants, especially women entering politics for the first time. Women frequently cite the threat of widespread, rapid public attacks on personal dignity as a factor deterring women from entering politics.8

In contrast to many forms of ICT-based VAWE that target a woman’s public image, ICTs may also cause harm by their ability to silence and bury women who otherwise seek to build a public presence for political aims. Some recent cases demonstrate explicit attacks on women’s access to and visibility via ICTs. Between 2010 and 2013, Indian villages in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh states and the Priyadarshni Indira Gandhi Government College for Women in Haryana banned single (or undergraduate) women from using cell phones (single/undergraduate men were not affected). In 2004, the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Education banned women from carrying camera phones. Polls in Nigeria have registered support for banning women’s use of mobile phones (APC 2013). Control over women’s access to ICTs is also reported extensively as a tool of domestic violence including privacy invasion through SMS stalking, monitoring use and/or withholding permission from female family members who want to use cell phones (Madanda et al. 2009).

Media bias in coverage of female candidates tends to bury women’s platforms behind excessive coverage of their appearance, personality and family, in comparison to male candidates (Bystrom 2004). Private and public media overtly limit or tolerate biased media coverage of female candidates, for example during the 2011–12 Egyptian elections when media conceded to demands from conservative parties to prohibit unveiled women candidates and broadcasters from participating in mixed-group debates. Reports of political parties limiting women candidates access to party media resources also contribute to burying their public visibility.

Finally, violence perpetrated through social media benefits from a significant degree of legal and moral impunity. The perpetrator may feel a certain moral impunity as a result of being distanced from the victim. In social media, the perpetrator may never meet his/her victim in person and never see the impact of his/her acts, thereby dehumanizing the victim. Should he/she fear censure, the perpetrator may choose to remain anonymous, either to his/her immediate community or to general society. A cyber-stalker or other online perpetrators can conceal his/her identity to a degree otherwise impossible in traditional violence, by using different ISPs and/or by adopting different screen names. More sophisticated perpetrators can use anonymous remailers to virtually erase their association as the source of an email or other online communication (Munyua et al. 2010).

The sense of impunity related to social media-based harassment and aggression may also be amplified because these acts lack identifiable leadership. An ‘incident’ of VAWE on social media is different in nature from a traditional act where the perpetrator is clearly identifiable. Instead, an incident of online violence is a collective phenomenon and may involve dozens or even thousands of ‘perpetrators’. Terrifying for the victim, this is also empowering for the authors of violence. Perpetrators may gain confidence and feel social approbation when their messages are shared, re-Tweeted or ‘Liked’ on the Internet. Without a clear sense of direction or identification, social media users may feel diminished accountability when they promote hurtful messages through their networks.

A final reason social media-based violence can be so treacherous for women in politics is the difficulty of regulating and punishing attacks. The realm of social media is one of relative legal impunity for the authors of electoral violence against women. Legal protections defining gender-based violence and sexual crimes are lacking or entirely absent in many countries. This gap is compounded by the even greater gap existing in the realm of cybercrime in many states (Madanda et al. 2013). Common protections against ICT-based violence against women may be limited to defending against stalking and harassment through telephone calls and electronic mail (Essof 2009). Only two countries, Mexico and Bolivia, have specific legislation addressing violence against women in elections.9 Access to justice for women is similarly challenging and, for women who do successfully bring their cases to court, favorable rulings and enforcement of criminal sentences or penalties may prove elusive. Electoral violence perpetrated through social media channels is thus virtually impossible to limit or prosecute.

Fighting VAWE Through Information and Communication Technologies

Information and communication technologies are also tools of empowerment for women entering politics and combatting all forms of VAWE, especially social media-based acts of VAWE. Indeed, some of the same attributes that make social media an effective implement of violence make it an effective remedy. In 1995, at the Fourth World Conference on Women, the Beijing Plan of Action called on states as well as media systems and associations and NGOs to increase the participation and access of women to expression and decision-making in and through the media and new technologies of communication. Almost twenty years after Beijing, social media is being used to combat VAWE through three main areas: 1) monitoring and documenting VAWE, 2) educating and awareness-raising and 3) empowerment and advocacy initiatives.

Monitoring and documenting gender-based violence (GBV) is notoriously challenging due to the intimate and often humiliating nature of the violence and fear of retribution. In the case of election-related GBV, these factors are compounded by the lack of awareness of the link between election violence and GBV and the perceived need of women candidates to publically ‘save face’ by hiding their experience of violence. Yet baseline data on the presence of VAWE is vital to raising the profile of the problem, aiding its victims and identifying appropriate solutions to mitigate and prevent it in the future. ICTs are making major contributions toward overcoming some of these challenges and establishing critical documentation of the problem. Traditional sources of documentation for election monitoring and observation missions (EOMs) have expanded and are now able to more effectively monitor social media traffic thanks to the introduction of low-cost or public-domain software services such as Hootsuite, TweetReach, Klout, Social Mention and many others. As the issue of VAWE becomes more widely recognized and mainstreamed in election observation, these tools will enable EOMs to document incidents of social media-based violence and analyze their trends.

ICTs also facilitate the collection of data on acts of VAWE perpetrated ‘offline’ (i.e., traditional acts of physical, psychological and sexual election violence). Incidents of VAWE can be easily mapped and monitored for patterns and frequencies thanks to open source software mash-ups such as Ushahidi. Ushahidi draws on crowd-sources data collected from the public at large via SMS, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, phone calls and email. The data is transmitted to a web platform and mapped visually using publically-accessible maps such a GoogleMaps. Most critical of all, victims of violence are increasingly able to report acts of VAWE without fear of physical retribution or public shame, thanks to the anonymity of ICTs (Chaio 2011). As demonstrated in Ushahidi deployments in Egypt and in Syria, where the Ushahidi platform has been used to specifically document GBV (Harassmap), women feel empowered to speak out safely about their experience of violence when they are able to do so quickly (through their cell phones) and anonymously. Users have testified to the sense of empowerment provided by being able to securely yet publically denounce assaults on their dignity (Harassmap).

Rapid response to mitigate VAWE and early warning to prevent it are both enabled through individual ICTs and powerful mash-ups such as Ushahidi. Social media monitoring software permits rapid identification of abusive posts and Twitter ‘trends,’ enabling actors to respond quickly to limit the damage. The use of SMS messaging for documenting GBV has the added benefit of enabling instant and discreet referral services to victims via text message. In some countries, Ushahidi has been used to establish an early warning system for election violence. In 2010 in Burundi, an IFES-led coalition, Amatora Mu Mahoro, analyzed election violence trends reported via Ushahidi for early warning purposes (Bardall 2010b). Likewise, the Women’s Situation Room initiative deployed in several sub-Saharan African states in recent years (UN Women 2012) has used incident reports collected via SMS, cell phones and other ICTs to provide rapid response to victims (Bardall 2010a). The use of ICTs in the Situation Rooms empower women to act as stewards of the peace. Through mobilization, mediation and multi-sector coordination, these programs reinforce this key civic role performed by women in many countries.

A final component of research and documentation is the development of online platforms to store and share knowledge on the issue of ICTs and gender violence. has been the leader in this area and provides an information resource and knowledge-sharing site for gender and ICT advocates, civil society organizations and policy makers, focused on Africa, Asia-Pacific, Central Eastern Europe and Latin America. Associated with the Association for Progressive Communications (Women’s Networking Support Programme), the website promotes issues paper and research exploring the intersection between the internet and violence against women, women’s rights, sexuality and sexual rights.10

ICTs also promote the prevention and mitigation of VAWE in a second area: awareness-raising. The connection between election violence and gender-based violence is poorly understood. Trainings for women candidates and aspirants help identify the links and empower women to protect and prepare themselves from attacks by using social media tools to respond effectively. Training programs offered by non-profit organizations like the National Democratic Institute (Borovsky et al. 2010) as well as public resources to orient women aspirants11 help women to use social media to their advantage, fight against attacks, establish a credible online image to decrease their vulnerability to attacks and enable them to quickly respond and defend themselves in case of attack.

ICTs are being used to educate women about other ICT-based risks. Specific online courses exist to promote victim safety from ICT-related violence against women. For example, Safety Net Canada (SNC) is a national initiative that addresses how technology impacts safety, privacy, accessibility, self-determination, justice and human rights for survivors of domestic and sexual violence, stalking, harassment and abuse. Online courses are also offered for service providers, anti-violence workers, law enforcement, and members of civil and criminal justice systems to educate and inform about the use of technology to stalk and harass victims.12

Awareness-raising also extends to the media itself, where much of the violence is perpetrated. Awareness-raising and professional standards trainings for journalists and media professionals are offered by international aid providers, such as in 2011 in Tunisia where the United Nations Development Program and the Center of Arab Woman for Training and Research organized multiple seminars, cascade trainings and debates on gender-sensitive media coverage (CAWTAR).

Digital-storytelling is another ICT-based tool being developed to respond to the challenge of VAW and which holds great promise for awareness-raising around VAWE. Bearing witness to experiences of violence promotes awareness and action, as well as providing a voice to the victims. Digital Storytelling spans a variety of digital narrative forms (web-based stories, interactive stories, hypertexts, and narrative computer games) and may use digital cameras, digital voice recorders, iMovie, Movie Maker and Final Cut Express to create 2 to 3 minute multimedia movies that combine photographs, video, animation, sound, music, text, and often a narrative voice and are published online on YouTube, Vimeo, CD/DVD and via podcast (Craig 2006). Digital storytelling has been used to support victims of gender-based violence and to promote awareness worldwide in the past decade, through the work of initiatives such as Silence Speaks, the Saartjie Baartman Centre for Women and Children (South Africa), Sonke Gender Justice Network (South Africa) and others (Roland 2006).

Finally, ICTs have made inroads in preventing and mitigating VAWE by serving as tools of advocacy, empowerment and activism. Although the anonymity provided by social media can be a benefit in addressing VAWE in some circumstances, social media’s high visibility facilitates networking, mediatizing and mobilization around an otherwise private issue.

Advocacy can be targeted to respond to specific events or in support of individual candidates. For example, in response to the online game to slap Hillary Clinton, EMILY’s List (an American political network that supports progressive women candidates to be elected to political office), successfully mobilized its online network to collect 20,000 signatures in 24 hours to demand political groups suspend funding to the Hillary Project and any other group advocating violence against women. While impressive in scope, the effectiveness of this type of response may rely on the woman candidate’s existing support network and public profile, which, for some newcomers, may not be well established.

Beyond individual initiatives, ICT advocacy campaigns are especially effective in addressing the cross-cutting issue of VAWE. In particular, non-governmental organizations have been shown to effectively use ICTs to further initiatives, raise awareness, forge networks and exchange information on broad issues of VAW (HAMM 2001). Similar applications of ICTs in promoting women in politics have also emerged in recent years. Responses to addressing VAWE through ICTs may be identified at the intersection of these two areas.

Rutgers University’s 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign is an international campaign that mobilizes ICT to prevent violence against women. Over 5,167 organizations in approximately 187 countries have participated in the 16 Days Campaign since its inception in 1991. Working in the context of the 16 Days, the ‘Take Back the Tech’ campaign seeks to train ICT users in employing activism against violence against women. The stated goals of the campaign are to ‘raise awareness about the way ICTs are connected to violence against women; provide simple strategies on how incidences of violence against women (VAW) can be minimised online; generate discussion around the connections between ICTs and VAW in online and offline spaces, and build a community that will continue to strategise around eliminating VAW through, and in, ICT spaces’ (Take Back the Tech). The campaign draws on an extensive array of ICT and social media tools to empower women at both the personal and broader public levels. These tools include using internet platforms for advocacy, mapping attacks (hacking, blocking, deletion) of the websites of women’s rights organizations, sexual rights advocates, feminist activists and bloggers, and user-friendly games to promote safety in social networks. The campaign is active in over 25 countries worldwide. Although the political dimension of VAW is not fully integrated into the campaign, Take Back the Tech is a model for ICT-based advocacy against VAW.

Perhaps the most significant embodiment of ICTs as a tool of political empowerment is through the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (iKNOW Politics). Women’s access to global communication networks and their potential for public policy were brought to center stage during the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (UN 1995). One of the outcomes of this consensus in Beijing was the creation of an online workspace designed to serve the needs of elected officials, candidates, political party leaders, researchers and other practitioners interested in advancing women in politics. Through the use of a technology-based forum, the iKnow Politics partners, UNDP, UN Women, NDI, the IPU and International IDEA, offer an interactive and multi-lingual tool that allows members and users to access resources, share expertise and create knowledge through mediated discussion forums and consolidated expert responses to queries. Today, iKnow Politics offers the most publically accessible and extensive collection of resources on the issue of VAWE, including country case studies, news, interviews, academic articles and policy papers.

ICTs, Gender and Election Violence

Information and communication technologies have had a profound impact on the reach and shape of violence against women in elections, creating new threats and obstacles to achieving gender equality in political life. The use of ICTs in combatting election- and political-related violence against women is only emerging today, largely because the issue of VAWE is poorly understood and recognized. One of the greatest advantages to date has been the use of ICTs to collect and document incidents of VAWE, thereby recognizing the existence of the problem and establishing baselines for progress. These innovations must come a long way yet to catch up to the threats posed by social media-based violence against women in elections. To do so, it is necessary to address the underlying dangers presented by social media – specifically, psychological forms of violence designed to attack women’s dignity, morality and self-worth. Both gender and elections-rights advocates and practitioners seeking to prevent and mitigate this unique form of violence will gain by integrating the best practices from their mutual fields.