Call for action to end online abuse of women candidates

Social media ordeal ‘threatens to silence women as political actors’, says Council

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor said gender based targeting of women politicians and election candidates is a critical issue for women’s participation in politics and women’s equality. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

National Women’s Council of Ireland director Orla O’Connor said gender based targeting of women politicians and election candidates is a critical issue for women’s participation in politics and women’s equality. File photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Political parties have a crucial role to play in helping to stamp out social media abuse of women seeking to run for local and national office, the National Women’s Council has said.

Such abuse “threatens to silence women as political actors and has become a key barrier to women’s political participation”, NWC Women in Leadership Co-ordinator Emma DeSouza said.

Hosting the first in a three-part series of webinars looking at social media abuse of women politicians, the NWC said social media companies must tackle abuse more effectively and political parties have a crucial role in ensuring women parliamentarians feel safe conducting their public roles.

NWC Director Orla O’Connor, who chaired the webinar on Thursday, said gender based targeting of women politicians and election candidates is a critical issue for women’s participation in politics and women’s equality.

The webinar was held just days after Green Party deputy leader Catherine Martin expressed disappointment about her party’s failure to sanction Brian Leddin TD over offensive remarks made by him during a WhatsApp group discussion.

Mr Leddin has apologised for the comments made by him about independent Limerick councillor Elisa O’Donovan, in which he described her as “unhinged” and said she “craved fame”. He also accepted he should have objected to further derogatory comments made by others in the group.

After he appeared before a meeting of the Green Party’s executive committee, it accepted his apology and decided against sanction.

Deputy Martin said she was “disappointed there seems to be, in my opinion, a lack of understanding of the hurt caused to women who are the target of this”

The NWC webinar follows publication of the NWC’s ‘Women Beyond the Dáil: More Women in Local Government’ 2019 report by Dr Pauline Cullen and Claire McGing which reported cases of stalking, as well as racist and sexist abuse of women who ran in the 2019 local elections.

Social media was identified as an area where women were subjected to high levels of abuse.

Sexual harassment

Further NWC research by Ms McGing this year found 35 per cent of women councillors experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in their political role.

The webinars will feed into forthcoming research by the NWC aimed at developing a toolkit for political parties to ensure women parliamentarians feel safe in performing their public duties.

Ms McGing, a Gender and Politics researcher, said women candidates and politicians, in Ireland and globally, “are being increasingly targeted with misogyny and sexism on social media” with black and minority ethnic women particularly at risk of sexist and racist abuse.

The impact on women’s representation is two-fold with studies showing that victims may decide to retire early from public life, while other women may be reluctant to go forward as candidates when they see what elected women are experiencing, she said.

The recent establishment of the Irish Electoral Commission was a key opportunity to collect and publish high-level data on violence against women in Irish politics, make further recommendations to Government and political parties, and to educate political actors and the public on the problem, she said.

Caitriona Gleeson, CEO Women for Election, told the webinar it was “very disappointing”, despite “very explicit misogyny” from an elected representative, he “continues to operate with no sanction”.

“Unless we start to see and hear from male leaders about their understanding of their entitlement and misogyny, we won’t make significant progress.”

Other speakers were Michelle Maher, See Her Elected (SHE), which encourages women to run for local government, and Bukky Adebowale, Vice-president, Equality and Citizenship with the Union of Students in Ireland, the first black student to be elected a national officer of the union.

A view of women as inferior is “very ingrained” in our educational systems and our institutions generally, Ms Adebowale said. “We need to start dismantling that.”