Day Sixteen |When the law against violence becomes violent

Rachana Johri, Bindu K.C. and Krishna Menon

Resisting Violence

Image of WISCOMP’s Resisting Violence annotated bibliography, reproduced with permission. Original art work by Linda Carmel

 

A critical question for feminists to ask when women turn to the law is whether a legal victory is always a triumph of the feminist worldview. Violence against women is ubiquitous in patriarchy. It pervades virtually all spheres of lives, happening most often in relational spaces. Without questioning the necessity of the law, it seems that the work of feminism must include a detailed analysis of the many moments in which women experience violence such as sexual harassment at the workplace and at educational institutions. 

Every violent act – whether it is a comment on the looks of a classmate, persistent messages from one student to another, or rape – constitute violence. Must all these be treated within a legal framework? And is ‘punishment’ the only imagination of justice? Perhaps more pertinently, does ‘punishment’ belong in a feminist approach to justice?

Feminists have had a rather contentious relationship with the law, and thereby with the state. In India, for instance, feminist campaigns have reposed great faith in the ability of law to initiate and establish equality and freedom on the one hand; on the hand, feminists have doubted and been skeptical of the very foundations on which modern legal systems are based. Consider the two moments where feminists in India have engaged with law – the Mathura custodial rape case and the infamous Delhi bus gang rape case. 

The Mathura rape case (1972) was undoubtedly a watershed moment in India; it signalled a radical shift in the focus of the women’s movement and feminist politics in India, and its engagement with the law. In 1974, the Committee on the Status of Women in India published its landmark report – ‘Towards Equality’ – and demonstrated an abiding faith in the ability of legislation to act as the major instrument for ushering in changes in the social order. 

The Supreme Court of India belied this faith when it pronounced its judgment in the Mathura rape case. Mathura was a sixteen year old girl who was raped by two policemen who were on duty.  She fought a courageous battle in the courts only to find that the Supreme Court of India cited the absence of injury marks on her body and her failure to have raised an alarm as evidence of consent for sexual encounters.  Following the judgement, sustained feminist campaigns resulted in many substantive changes in Indian criminal laws as passed in 1983.

In response the Mathura case, an Open Letter to the Chief Justice was authored by teachers of law at the University of Delhi Upendra Baxi, Lotika Sarkar, Raghunath Kelkar and Vasudha Dhagamwar. The letter represented a thrilling moment in the history of women’s movement and its long battle on the question of violence.

Thirty two years later came the Delhi bus gang rape case. This was a brutal and aggravated sexual attack perpetrated against  a 23 year student traveling home on a bus after an evening out with her friend. It horrified people across India and, indeed, the world.  She and her friend fought back only to be beaten mercilessly with iron rods, resulting in grave injuries that finally resulted in her death.  This incident resulted in  angry protests in the city of Delhi and elsewhere, compelling the government to review the existing legal framework – a process that resulted in further changes in the law.

Just months later, the Justice Verma Committee Report was released in response to protests across the country. This report laid the foundations of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 2013, and became an occasion for feminists in India to engage deeply with the nature of law and the crime and punishment matrix. 

Law is not static; it is best understood as a process that unfolds rather messily and haltingly. While the legal dispensation might nudge along progressive change, its ability to render justice remains limited. While the law might nurse implicit emancipatory potential, it harbours within it the seeds of what might be called a ‘carceral’ and aggressive feminism that is hostile to conversation, dialogue, mediation and conflict resolution. The power of the legal statute combined with a rigid and unimaginative invocation of identity politics, can result in nasty and bitter and – dare we say – violent use of the law.  What do we do when groups of feminists argue with each other, and use the power of law to settle disputes? Can the law, as Pratiksha Baxi asks, translate sexual agency and desire into juridical categories?

Feminists in India have reflected upon other conceptions of justice and indeed the impossibility of justice within what is essentially a masculinist legal paradigm (see also Menon’s Recovering Subversion and Sethi’s commentary ‘Why the Mahmood Farooqui Judgment is Deeply Flawed’).  It is this kind of questioning that has led feminists in India and elsewhere to value emotions and account for the specificity in each instance, rather than be guided solely by universalising frames and principles based on ‘reason’ and empirical evidence. Such an orientation towards questions of legality and justice  would be concerned with setting limits to the use of law. It would value friendship, compassion and relationality as frames within which to examine the question of justice. 

Do these two approaches have to be pitted against each other? As feminists we would caution against the setting up of yet another unfruitful binary. It is only through the difficult task of feminist engagement with the law, legal processes, legal institutions, legal education and the legal profession that the distance between these two approaches will be creatively negotiated. We see the sixteen days of activism against gender-based violence as yet another significant initiative in this direction.

Krishna Menon is Professor of Gender Studies, is and currently Dean of the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Some of her recent publications include Social Movements in Contemporary India (SAGE Texts 2019), ‘The “Right” Music: Caste and “classical” music in south India’ in Discourse on Rights in India: Debates and Dilemmas (Routledge 2018). 

Bindu K.C. is Assistant Professor in gender studies at Ambedkar University Delhi. Her teaching and research expertise are at the intersection of gender studies and English literature.  

Rachana Johri is a Professor at the School of Human Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, where she teaches psychology, psychosocial studies and gender studies. 

 

Day Fifteen |Understanding dowry and dowry abuse in Australia

Manjula O’Connor, Jan Breckenridge, Sara Singh and Mailin Suchting

dowry abuse

Reproduced from Shutterstock via The Conversation

 

The practice of dowry usually involves the giving of money, property, goods or other gifts by one family to another before, during or any time after marriage. It is a universal practice. For example, Bombay Island – now called Mumbai – was a former Portuguese outpost which was gifted to England as dowry in the marriage of Catherine of Braganza to Charles II (and was later leased to the East India Company in 1668). 

In its modern day avatar, dowry as a practice has different customary characteristics across different communities. Dowry exchange in South Asian communities is characterised by the woman’s family providing goods (including but not limited to money, jewellery, furniture and appliances) to the man and his family. In North African and Middle Eastern communities, dowry is characterised by the man’s family providing goods (predominantly in the form of money or cattle) to the female and her family.

Dowry is an ancient practice most frequently associated with India, but in reality, it is a cultural practice globally. This blog mostly addresses dowry in the South Asian context. Dowry in ancient times originated as a form of ante mortem inheritance, meant only for the bride. In modern times dowry gifts are expected by the family of the receiver as well and has become a practice that is a product of patriarchy reinforcing gender inequality. Women activists have campaigned against dowry practices in India since 1961, recognising the toxic impact of patriarchy combined with greed, and growing evidence of serious violence, murders and suicides associated with dowry in India. 

The Australasian Centre of Human Rights and Health (ACHRH) has refined the definition of dowry as ‘substantial gifts’ in the context of a marriage, where the value of gifts is out of proportion to the income of either family and causes financial distress to the giver.

Dowry abuse 

The United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women has defined dowry-related violence as ‘any act of violence or harassment associated with the giving or receiving of dowry at any time before, during or after the marriage’.

Money is power and like any power is open to abuse in an unequal situation. Dowry is one such practice. Where there is gender inequality and unequal power between the bride and the groom, the path to violence against women, dowry related death-murder and suicide becomes possible. In the Australian context, the unequal power relations are in some ways magnified because the bride is usually a new immigrant to Australia and often on a temporary visa such as a partner visa or dependent visa of the groom (the sponsor). The groom commands a higher dowry value in lieu of Australian residency. To this extent, the immigration process can allow the groom to gain additional power over the bride. In addition, the sponsor holds the power to withdraw sponsorship, leaving the new migrant bride vulnerable to abandonment and threats of deportation. 

These issues are often compounded by lack of family and social protective mechanisms in their home country and the social isolation that many brides experience as new immigrants. There is emerging evidence that some perpetrators collect dowry in India and leave the brides behind in India, never sponsoring them. The exact figures of abandoned brides in India is not known. Similarly, there is no good data available on the numbers of women abandoned within Australia, including those who are tricked into returning back home.

The dowry gifts are often particularly ‘excessive’ when compared to the income and assets of the family giving them. Although the demands are often unstated there is expectation that oversized gifts will be given. ‘Insufficient’ dowry can be accompanied by acts of violence towards the woman and her family, or other acts of abuse including emotional and economic abuse, harassment or stalking to exact compliance with demands or to punish the victim for non-payment. In this way, dowry abuse differs from other acts of family violence in that a number of individuals can be involved in perpetrating acts of violence, including in-laws, former spouses and fiancés, and other family members. To this extent, dowry abuse is a cultural manifestation of domestic and family violence, and also a form of financial abuse. 

Perpetrators can conduct sham and fraudulent marriages, extort dowry and abandon the brides. These perpetrators escape accountability by hiding in developed economies such as Australia, the UK, USA, Europe, the Middle East and Singapore. However, the abandoned brides themselves go through severe trauma, are stigmatised, may experience a sense of failure. They are sometimes rejected by their own family, cheated of their dowry saved over many years, left pregnant and must manage resulting mental health issues. Sometimes they are duped into returning back to their country after migration. They have no rights to residency of the developed country their perpetrator/ husband lives in and no laws to protect them in this transnational space. 

Two of these women travelled from India to attend the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit and spoke about their painful, harrowing experiences. The Summit was hosted by the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health and UNSW Sydney and co-hosted by Harmony Alliance, InTouch, Australian Women Against Violence Alliance (AWAVA), Good Shepherd, White Ribbon and South West Sydney Local Health District and held in Sydney Australia on 22 February 2019. The women – who felt voiceless and powerless before – both have been accorded residency in Australia as special cases. Their experiences highlight, the need for and value of, systematic support for women impacted by dowry abuse. 

Dowry abuse in Australia

Dowry abuse is perceived as a growing problem in some communities in Australia. The Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence recently found that it was a particular concern in Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and, increasingly, in Middle Eastern communities; it is, however, important to note that it is not confined to any one ethnic, cultural or religious group. Care is needed in public discourse so as not to stereotype or vilify one particular group. Migrant diaspora communities continue to engage in the practice of dowry as a central marriage custom. Migration status can be used to demand higher dowries which when not fulfilled result in abuse and violence.

The Commission noted that the extent of the practice is considerable in Victoria. The growing concern of the impacts of dowry abuse gave rise to a grass roots campaign against dowry and dowry abuse, with a petition raised by the ACHRH that demanded dowry abuse be included in the Family Violence Protection Act of Victoria as an example of economical abuse. In addition, community participatory theatre projects and a video titled have increased the community’s understanding of the issues. 

However, it appears that there is very limited understanding amongst the police, social workers and the legal profession in Australia as to what dowry is, how it is practiced, and how it may be linked to family violence. For example, in the case of one Indian woman who was ultimately killed by her husband, her complaints to police about dowry appear to have been misunderstood and the seriousness of the issue may have been downplayed due to lack of cultural awareness. This highlights the need for increased cultural awareness and greater education about dowry abuse for service providers in Australia 

Responses to dowry abuse in Australia

On 26 June 2018, the Australian Senate referred the practice of dowry and the incidence of dowry abuse in Australia to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee for inquiry. The Final Report of the Senate Inquiry into the Practice of Dowry and the Incidence of Dowry Abuse in Australia was handed down on 14 February 2019. It uncovered the practice was nationwide and recommended to include dowry abuse in Federal Family Law Act.

This Inquiry was preceded by a number of achievements, including the petition which was tabled in the Victorian Parliament on 13 May 2014 by Former Premier Ted Baillieu; the 2016 Victorian Royal Commission into Family Violence Report, which made a recommendation to include dowry abuse as a statutory example of family violence; and extensive media coverage on dowry abuse. The Dowry Abuse Amendment Bill was tabled in the Victorian Parliament in 7 August 2018. Seven MPs from Lower and Upper house spoke in favour, and it became law on 29 March 2019 (see Family Violence Protection Act 2008).

Next year marks the 25-year anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Australian government’s progress Report to UN Women for the Commission in the Status of Women meeting in 2020 includes dowry abuse as a matter for action – it is worth noting that Australia is the first developed country to do so. 

There has also been an increasing level of awareness and sensitisation to the issue of dowry abuse in domestic violence service providers nationwide. The Second National Dowry Abuse Summit adopted a Dowry Abuse Resolution. A national group hosted by Harmony Alliance the peak Migrant Women’s Network was also formed to further the national awareness and education program around dowry abuse. Most recently, on 8 August 2019 the COAG endorsed the Fourth National Plan to reduce violence against women and their children. In it, dowry abuse is noted as a complex form of abuse in culturally and linguistically diverse communities (CALD) communities.

Next steps

The current domestic and family violence and family law systems are ineffective in responding to the legal issues reported to arise from the practice of dowry, including financial abuse, exploitation of the family, and divorce, custody and property settlement proceedings. In addition, nationwide education programs are lacking for front line workers, the police, judiciary, domestic and family violence service providers, and medical and health workers. 

There is a need for more systematic structural support for people impacted by dowry abuse. Services and supports (including legal, health, financial, housing, employment services) for dowry abuse victims need to be improved so that they are more accessible and better address the complex issues faced by victims of dowry abuse, and in particular, victims who are on temporary or dependent visas. 

The Migration Regulations 1994 (Cth) contain provisions that allow for individuals on certain temporary visas to apply for permanent residency if they have experienced family violence by their sponsor. However, not all temporary visa holders (such as individuals on a tourist visa, a dependent of a student, or a dependent of certain skilled migrant groups) are eligible to access these provisions. This limits the ability of many dowry abuse victims to access residency and means that women in the above categories have no access to support services such as Medicare, Centrelink, housing rights and sometimes work rights. 

Compounding this, many immigrant women who have experienced dowry abuse feel unable to return to their country of origin due to shame and stigma. They may also feel compelled to not return to their families who have paid huge amounts for their weddings and dowries. Many women are also told by their families not to return, which puts the women at high risk of mental illness and further abuse. 

Evidence put before the Senate Inquiry also highlighted the intersections between dowry abuse and modern slavery (for example, sexual and domestic servitude). Service providers need to have greater awareness of these intersections in order to develop more holistic and appropriate services for people impacted by dowry abuse. 

As this shows, there is currently limited legislation and service provision to protect victims of dowry abuse in Australia. Whilst there is action, more work still needs to be done to ensure the safety, financial security and wellbeing of victims of dowry abuse. 

 

Manjula O’Connor is a Psychiatrist with four decades of experience. She is also an applied researcher and a published author. Her primary area of interest for past 10 years has been family violence and mental health in immigrant communities. She chairs the Royal Australian NZ College of Psychiatrists Family Violence Psychiatry Network and is Honorary Senior Fellow at the Department of Psychiatry , University of Melbourne. Manjula co-founded the Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health in 2012 and advocates against family violence in immigrant communities. Manjula led the public dowry abuse campaign in Australia that led to the inclusion of laws against dowry abuse in the Victorian Family Violence Protection Act and triggered the Federal Senate Enquiry into dowry abuse. She is a member of South Asian Community Ministerial Advisory Council Manjula is a White Ribbon Advocate. Manjula’s work has been cited in the Victorian Parliament and the Federal Australian Parliament several times. Manjula was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit. 

Jan Breckenridge is an Associate Professor, Head of the School of Social Sciences, and the Co-Convener of the Gendered Violence Research Network, UNSW, Sydney. Jan’s research is oriented towards maximum impact in innovative social policy development, service provision and outcome measurement of effectiveness. Jan leads an evidence informed knowledge-exchange stream ‘Gendered Violence and Organisations’ which provides expert advice to government, private and third sector organisations on best practice policies and organisational response to employees and the management of customers affected by domestic and family violence, sexual assault and sexual harassment. Jan was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit. 

Sara Singh Sara Singh is a Research Assistant at the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW, Sydney. She engages in research projects aimed at informing policy development and best practice responses to individuals and communities impacted by gendered violence. She was recently awarded a UNSW Scientia PhD Scholarship to examine dowry and bride price practices in the Indo-Pacific region.

Mailin Suchting is the Manager of the Gendered Violence Research Network (GVRN) at UNSW, Sydney. She has worked for over three decades in leadership, management, education and frontline roles shaping public sector policy and responses to the health and justice impact of domestic and family violence, sexual assault and child physical abuse/neglect on individuals. She has a particular interest in gender, culture, sexuality and intersectionality. A current focus is the Gendered Violence & Organisations stream at GVRN which offers a suite of services including policy advice, face to face training and eLearning to employers who want to address the effects of domestic, family and sexual violence on their employees and organisations. Mailin was a member of the steering group that organised the Second National Dowry Abuse Summit.

Day Ten |Women’s right to physical security in the Pacific region

Nicole George

Pacific Islands violence The Pacific Islands may be well-known as an idyllic tourist destination, but gendered violence remains a chronic issue for Island women. AAP/Diana Plater via the Conversation

Since 2013, I have worked with women’s groups in the Pacific Islands countries of Fiji, Bougainville (in PNG), New Caledonia, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, to reflect on women’s right to physical security, and ask what that principle looks like in our Pacific region. My research has had two aims; first to understand how the right to safety is institutionalised and reforms are implemented in each country, and second, to examine how the right to safety is understood by women in an everyday sense.

To give some context, it is important to consider the global origins of women’s right to live in security from violence. In 1993, the United Nations General Assembly formally recognised violence against women to be a violation of women’s human rights. In doing so, the issue of women’s vulnerability was no longer considered a source of personal shame and stigma. Rather, it was given full recognition as a global challenge, and states were asked to do more to support their female populations who experienced this violence, as well as to work towards its elimination. 

Since 1993, Pacific Island countries, including the larger island countries of Australia and New Zealand have all responded to this shift in global policy making on violence against women. We have come a long way from the days of 1995 when one Pacific leader jested amongst his male peers at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting, that Pacific men used the idle hours of the “Sunday Sabbath” to kick “either a football or one’s wife around”. 

Nearly twenty years later, the Pacific Island Forum leaders meeting in 2012 was, by contrast are more sympathetic event. Here the regions leaders made a powerful commitment to tackle gender inequality in their countries and also to do more to challenge violence against women. In the years since, we have seen Pacific Island governments recognise their responsibilities towards women and establish reforms that aim to eliminate violence against women.

In PNG, Vanuatu and Solomon Islands we have seen new family law legislation and new domestic violence legislation with more protections for women and harsher penalties enacted for those who perpetrate violence. In Solomon Islands, additionally, the government has established a National Policy to Eliminate Violence Against Women and Girls in 2016 which integrates government and civil society programs to assist those exposed to violence. 

In Fiji, we have seen new policing policy which stipulates a “zero tolerance approach” and “no drop” directing all officers to investigate cases of violence against women brought to their attention, even if women later try to withdraw the complaint. In New Caledonia there have been state and civil society initiatives such as the establishment of shelters and women’s bureaus who offer assistance to women who have been exposed to violence. 

All of these reforms show state and civil society commitment to the objective of eliminating gender violence. But what is their concrete effectiveness? Do they mean women experience less violence in their daily lives? This is always a hard question to answer ask because we also know that when there is more public debate about violence against women, and more effort to improve state authorities’ responses to this issue, more women who might not have reported abuse decide to come forward to demand assistance. 

But given that we are now 16 years on from that landmark international policy shift of 1993, and 7 years on from the Pacific Islands Forum declaration recognising women’s insecurity as an issue of regional concern, we might also expect to see the beginning of a decline in numbers of women being exposed to this violence. Sadly, this is far from evident, and in many countries around the region we see violence against women perpetrated at significant rates consistent, or even higher than, those of 20 years ago.  

So my research has really sought to understand why. My findings indicate to me that while state reform is important, implementation remains a challenge.  

Part of the problem lies in the difficulties that women continue to face in trying to progress charges against violent family members through the criminal justice system. In Solomon Islands, for example, between the establishment of the Family Safety bill in 2014 and 2018, there were only 18 people convicted of family violence offences and only one person had received a custodial sentence. 

There are many dedicated police officers that are sympathetic towards women who bring complaints of violence to their attention. But there are also many others who continue to treat this issue as of minimal importance in general law and order work. Through my research in the Pacific Islands region, I have amassed too many stories which show that even when official policing policy states that women’s complaints of violence must be investigated, individual police officers frequently dissuade women from pressing charges against family members and instead encourage them to return home and reconcile with their husbands.

The scope of policing authority in many Pacific Island countries is also usually quite limited too and this can have an impact on women’s safety. For example, when I began research on violence against women in Fiji in 2013, as the government was implementing the aforementioned “Zero Tolerance” policy on violence against women. This involved a community policing approach and cooperation from local community leaders. Many people around the country praised this program and urged me to study it. The fact that it sought to complement policing responses with the input and authority of community leaders seemed promising. 

Yet, when I went to rural villages, or squatter settlements around the main cities in Fiji to find out more, I encountered less enthusiasm. Women in these places made statements such as “men have no idea what we go through” or “our experiences are just our own”. This suggested that even this program with its zero tolerance message, and degree of community-level cooperation was struggling to make an impact. The testimonies of the women I spoke to in this context, suggested to me that that government programs must do more than show success in a few well-publicised locations if women’s rights to security are to be upheld generally.   

The question of what women might want in terms of state support when they are exposed to violence is interesting too, and suggests the ‘punish and protect’ model of policing may itself not be a solution that those exposed to violence always seek.  My work in Vanuatu with Melissa Bull has yielded particularly interesting results on this question. It has shown that where police do have the capacity to intervene, women simply want officers to bring about a halt in household or family violence so that order is re-established and do not expect or want their partners subjected to punishment. Women here also explained that police can play an important role in educating perpetrators that their violent actions are against law and human rights. 

So what can we take away from all of this? Certainly, we have come a long way in the Pacific region from the days when it was thought appropriate for Pacific leaders to make jokes about women’s vulnerability to violence and show little regard to questions of women’s safety. Today, many Pacific Island states take this challenge seriously and have enacted legal, policing and welfare reforms to uphold women’s rights to security, and make that an issue of state responsibility. But more work needs to be done to ensure that these commitments are more than just words. The design of reform is the first step.

Meaningful implementation in ways that provide women with valuable aid, support and protection from violence, is a second but far more challenging part of the process. This will be vital if we are committed to challenging the scenario where women’s rights to security are respected and we find it unacceptable that women’s stories of violence should remain “simply their own”. 

Nicole George is Associate Professor at the University of Queensland. Her research focuses on the gendered politics of conflict and peacebuilding, violence, security and participation. Since the early 2000s, she has conducted research in the Pacific Islands region focusing on gender politics, gendered security and post conflict transition in Fiji, New Caledonia, Bougainville and Solomon Islands, working in collaboration with women’s organisations, women decision-makers and women policymakers in these settings. 

Day Two | Abusive Language and Violence Against Women in the Public Sphere

Jennifer M. Piscopo, Occidental College, USA

Strongmen across the globe are ascending to the position of president or prime minister. Sexist and racist rhetoric is part of their brand, which followers find authentic and even unifying. Male political leaders who use swaggering masculinity to cultivate support express the growing global backlash to diversity, inclusion, and multiculturalism. When powerful men use their platforms to abuse women, they send the message that abuse is okay. It also makes abusing women an integral part of a right-wing agenda.  

Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, has an impressive track record of demeaning women. He has called women Members of Parliament (MPs) by their husband’s names and described women journalists and athletes in terms of their bodies – he once described female volleyball players “glistening wet otters”, for instance. 

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump uses adjectives like “fat” and “ugly” to demean women who have spoken out against him. He rallies crowds to chant “lock her up” in reference to his former rival, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro once told a congresswoman she was not “worth” raping, saying that she “didn’t deserve it”. 

Jennifer PiscopoLock Her Up” by James McNellis, 2017.

These leaders often reserve their most vitriolic comments for women of colour – attacks that often merge gender and race. Trump told four women Members of Congress – all of whom criticised his policies and his person – to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came”. Three of them were born in the United States, while the fourth – Somali refugee Ilhan Omar – was painted by Trump and other critics as a Jew-hater. Similarly, Johnson has spouted racialised descriptions of Muslim women, variously portraying them as objects and criminals. 

These incidents are not isolated. When powerful men deliver abuse, the attacks receive media coverage. But many women with public profiles – from activists to athletes – receive hateful messages daily. The senders are not usually powerful men, but everyday people. 

A study examining 152 leading British women in politics, business, entertainment, the media, and sports estimated that each received about 200 sexually-explicit tweets a day. In another study of nearly 600 women journalists, 63 percent reported being threatened and harassed on-line and 26 percent reported physical assaults. Amnesty International documents various quantitative and qualitative studies, all demonstrating that high-profile women on Twitter endure significant levels of abuse.

 

Abusive language as political violence against women

Abusive language is a form of violence against women. Much of it may happen online, but virtual harms cause actual damage. Hateful messages and death threats cause stress and trauma. Victims experience diminished self-esteem and an inability to focus and to complete their work. They fear for their safety and for their family’s safety, and they face disruption to their routines caused as a result of increased security. Many leave Twitter. In Britain, female MPs received such profane attacks that they received police protection.

But this language affects many more than just the immediate victims: it also tells the larger audience of women and girls to stay out of public life. Mona Lena Krook and Juliana Restrepo Sanín call these “message crimes.” Whether world leaders or everyday jerks, abusers want women in public life to shut up and go away. 

Since abusive language aims to diminish women’s influence over politics, policy, and the public debate, these attacks are forms of political violence. In my research with Elin Bjarnegård and Gabrielle Bardall, we argue that political violence is gendered in three ways: in its motive, in its form, and in its impact. The abusive language aimed at women in public life has all three elements. 

In terms of motive, attackers are driven by hate towards women in public, not hate towards public figures irrespective of gender. The rates at which women and men endure abuse are simply not the same: visible women receive disproportionate amounts of abuse when compared to visible men. In terms of form, attackers use gendered language, including threats of sexual harm and sexual assault. 

In terms of impact, the victims extend beyond the women targeted. They signal to other women and girls the costs of a public profile. And women and girls have received this message. A respected U.S. survey firm found that 70 percent of women, and 83 percent of young women, identified online harassment as a major problem, compared to just 54 percent of men and 55 percent of young men. Indeed, programs that train women candidates now include lessons that prepare women to handle abuse. Their tips include immediately reporting the abuse to authorities, using humour to diffuse the situation, and writing op-eds to call attention to the problem. 

 

Stopping abusive language 

Documenting and denouncing abusive language have not stemmed the attacks against publicly-visible women. The anonymity of online platforms combined with social media companies’ commitment to free speech means that attackers behave with impunity. Abusers even become leaders of powerful countries. 

The vicious and sexist abuse of women in public life has become so normalised that solutions focus not on holding perpetrators accountable, but on helping women cope. In the candidate training program, women politicians are told to be brave. A British MP, herself standing down because of online abuse, recommended that women MPs create circles of support

The women and girls of the world deserve better solutions. When the #MeToo movement brought down prominent men like Harvey Weinstein, the effects reverberated across the globe. Sexual harassment suddenly bore real consequences, even for powerful men. Likewise, voters must reject male political leaders who bully those weaker than them, especially women and racial and ethnic minorities. In the current political climate, protecting women from abuse cannot be divorced from resisting the right-wing forces that reject diversity and inclusion more broadly.   

 

Jennifer M. Piscopo (@Jennpiscopo) is an Associate Professor of Politics at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. Her research on women’s political participation and representation has appeared in over 15 academic journals. With Susan Franceschet and Mona Lena Krook, she co-edited The Impact of Gender Quotas (Oxford University Press, 2012). An international speaker and consultant, she has collaborated with international organizations such as UN Women, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and the Carter Center. Her op-eds have appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, among other outlets.