Why we must work with parliaments to tackle online hate speech and gender-based violence

June 29, 2022
International Parliamentarism Day Photo

The Women Resource Center in Azerbaijan delivers free training courses on a range of hard and soft skills.

UNDP Azerbaijan / Elmar Mustafayev

Recent evidence of violence against women in politics shows that online hate speech and harassment represent both serious and increasing obstacles to the ability of female political leaders to fulfil their mandates.

On 30 June,  International Day of Parliamentarism,  UNDP recognizes the deluge of online hate speech and abuse disproportionately and often strategically targets women leaders, driving many of them out of public and political life. Gendered online violence and parallel attacks on members of other groups at risk of being left behind, undermine inclusive, representative governance, weaken the quality and effectiveness of parliamentary democracies, and threaten the foundations of the peaceful and just societies we need for sustainable human development.

Although the number of women elected to political office has risen over the last two decades, progress has stalled or slowed in recent times.

On average, women's political representation globally has increased from 25.6 percent in 2020 to 26.2 percent in 2021. Eastern Europe and Central Asia have fared marginally better, with the average share of women in parliament rising from 25.2 percent in 2020 to 27.1 percent in 2021.

It is vital to understand the fundamentally different journey and challenges that politically active women face. Many are by now well-known; limited access to campaign financing; misogyny at both the individual and institutional levels; gender stereotypes; and threats to physical safety.

Technological advances have brought with them new and less recognized threats. Gendered abuse and hate speech online, amplified by the algorithms used by for-profit social media platforms and compounded by the general move online of discourse during the pandemic, represent a potentially major new method of disenfranchisement. The normalization of violence against women and girls is frequently accompanied by that of LGBTQIA+ people and members of migrant groups.  

In Kyrgyzstan, a study by the School of Peacebuilding and Media Technologies in Central Asia revealed that 13 percent of gender intolerance in the form of hate speech took place in pre-election discussions before the parliamentary elections in 2020, and 10.5 percent during the campaign for the 2021 presidential election.

Elvira Surabaldieva, Member of Parliament, who proposed a bill on countering harassment and hate speech more than three years ago, says it is yet to be endorsed, “because the word ‘harassment’ itself scares men deputies, as we break traditions of flirting between a woman and a man, and women also like this type of socializing”.

Now more than ever, diverse and inclusive participation, representation, and leadership are key to leaving no one behind as countries look to build forward from the historic reversal of human development caused by the pandemic. Online violence is not only repugnant: it undermines the collective effort that is required of us all time to rebuild peace, prosperity, and inclusion. 

Online violence is not simply the work of a small number of isolated extremists. Its proliferation is both an early warning sign and a symptom of the rise of the influence of political demagogues, authoritarian state actors, misogynistic and xenophobic groups, and for-profit social media platform operators that all play a role as enablers and amplifiers. And because of the multi-actor, cross-border nature of the problem, no single government can effectively tackle the issue on its own, neither can any individual civil society alliance.

This is an issue that needs a whole-of-society response, including a good governance regulatory environment, responsible business conduct, and educational and societal efforts to address the challenge by supporting change at the level of individual and institutional action. Only through such innovation can we transform public discourse into a more respectful and evidence-based one. 

This is not a new insight. The need for partnerships, including governments and embracing civil society, individuals, and private sector action to address online hate speech, abuse and disinformation - is widely recognized. But too often attention of this recognition is focused on the potential of the executive branch alone. 

Parliaments and parliamentarians, increasingly required to embrace social media and other digital platforms to interact effectively with their constituents, are a vital part of the solution. Their roles, responsibilities, and influence as to the use and content of the digital space are multidimensional and include legislative, regulatory and budgetary oversight.

The championing of individual women parliamentarians and their male allies are key as well to addressing and confronting the impact of online violence. 

“First thing is to admit that you have a problem, and this can be difficult. We assume a level of understanding of the nature and magnitude of gender-based violence and hate speech online, but the truth is that we as parliaments and parliamentarians need to be reminded of the basics. Verbal violence is still violence, and it leads to serious consequences,” said Kasthuriraani Patto, Member of Parliament from Malaysia.

UNDP supports parliamentarians in their peacebuilding and dialogue capacities. Under its newly established project on Digital Peacebuilding through Parliaments, supported by the Governments of Norway and New Zealand, UNDP empowers parliament-led partnership-based responses to gendered online violence.

The internet has become an indispensable part of our everyday lives. With it have come innovations that have changed our world forever, but it also has a dark side. Online gendered violence and hate speech are part of that dark side. They cannot be allowed to victimize and revictimize candidates for office, much less to weaken representative governance, peace, inclusion, and development.

On this International Day of Parliamentarism, we call not only on individual parliaments and parliamentarians to counter and eliminate online violence and hate speech in all its forms, but on all partners and supporters to join us in finding and implementing effective ways to do so.