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Online harassment poses significant challenges for female candidates during elections

Partinella Ngozo

Female candidates for political office are increasingly facing a major hurdle in their electoral campaigns from the surge of online harassment. This disconcerting trend not only threatens to impede the progress of women’s representation in the political realm but also undermines democratic principles of free and fair elections.

The prevalence of social media platforms and the ease of communication they offer have undoubtedly transformed political campaigns. However, this shift has also opened the door to an amplified and often gendered form of harassment against women candidates. From derogatory comments, sexist slurs, and threats of violence, online harassment has become an alarming deterrent for women who aspire to enter public service or run for office.

The impact of online harassment on women candidates extends far beyond personal attacks. It has been found to diminish their credibility, erode public trust, and hinder their ability to effectively communicate their vision and policies. Research has shown that when women are attacked online, their supporters and potential voters often hesitate to engage actively in political discourse, fearing they will be subjected to similar abuse.

Narrating her ordeal on what transpired against her Melody Chingarande an aspiring council candidate for Ctizen Coalition for Change (CCC) said that cyberbullying is usually aimed at instilling fear, humiliation, embarrassment, and doubt, and reducing confident. She also said it is usually very hard to try and clear or defend oneself after online harassment has been done.

“It once occurred to me sometime back when l was humiliated on WhatsApp and l got so weary. My eating habits changed, l could not eat properly. l developed high Blood Pressure and headaches. l even lost my confidence. l could not face the community. l even feared facing people during that time. l had to develop this uncertainty about myself. l lost my self-esteem, and I even went to the extent of wanting to withdraw my candidature, but thank God l had some socio-political women support groups, such as WCOZ, WALPE, WILSA, IYWD, and my church pastors, elders, friends, and family who stood by me and supported me throughout,” she said.

Chingarande urged the government to introduce stiffer penalties for cyber-bullying in order to set good precedents for offenders.

“The government and women’s organizations should embark on awareness campaign programs starting from the lower schools, tertiary institutions, workplaces, and back to the community. Societies teaching and educating everyone on the effects, dangers of online harassment,” she said.

Speaking during an interview with Community Voices Zimbabwe Kwekwe City Councilor Mercy Ranga said that, online harassment is indeed a major problem for women because women are often taken as window dressers. 

“If a woman tries to get facts across people will look down upon you and label you a prostitute and you can imagine being labeled a prostitute, how then will you walk in the community? You end up losing self-confidence. l once faced such harassment when l was trying to explain the budget on social media, most people do not think women are capable of doing things for themselves. They just think that men are the ones behind it all and you can imagine what negative impact that can have on my campaign,” she said.

Ranga emphasized that they are a need for women to be educated on the cyberbullying law and the law needs to be enforced in order to stop online harassment.

Some researchers argue that this phenomenon of online harassment highlights deep-rooted societal attitudes towards women in positions of power, while others contend that it reflects broader issues of inequality within political systems. Regardless of the underlying cause, it is crucial to address this issue head-on to ensure a fair and level playing field for all candidates. Meanwhile, Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe Kwekwe Chapter Chairperson Rosewitter Matsveru said that online cyberbullying has a negative impact on women’s mental well-being and personal confidence.

 “…online cyberbullying causes low self-esteem and mental health disorder amongst women. The impacts are unbearable for women politicians,” she said.

Statistics from the ZEC nomination figures 2023 show that, there has been a decline in women’s participation as candidates in the 2023 election. The prevailing trend violates sections 17, 56, and 80 of the Constitution which call for gender equality in all sectors including politics.

Mayor of Kwekwe Future Titore also expressed concern over online harassment as this affects women to participate in influential positions. While urging people to cultivate political tolerance and peace in Zimbabwe.

“Women in politics usually face a lot of harassment from physical to online harassment and this usually results in most women suffering from an inferiority complex,” she said.

Furthermore, education and awareness campaigns are vital to not only empower women candidates to navigate these digital challenges but also educate the public about the negative consequences and broader implications of online harassment on democratic processes. By collectively standing against online harassment, society can create an environment that fosters greater gender equality in politics and enables women to participate fully and without fear. Gokwe Deputy Mayor Charity Mungwani advice women politicians to report any social media bullying

“As women we face cyberbullying it is an obvious thing in our country. Yes, it affects women politicians. So women should report immediately no matter how small the matter. If we do not report it reduces self-esteem among women intending to join politics. Women should learn to be resilient and develop a thick skin,” she said.

In Zimbabwe, the Cyber and Data Protection Act introduces section 164B in the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act which criminalises cyberbullying and harassment.  It states that any person who unlawfully and intentionally, by means of a computer or information system, generates and sends any data message to another person, or posts any material whatsoever on any electronic medium accessible by any person, with the intent to coerce, intimidate, harass, threaten, bully or cause substantial emotional distress, or to degrade, humiliate or demean the person of another or to encourage a person to harm himself or herself, shall be guilty of a criminal offense. This offense carries a fine not exceeding level 10 as well as imprisonment for a period not exceeding ten years or both.

There is a need for more efforts to combat online harassment, through implementing stricter social media policies, providing support and training to women candidates on dealing with cyberbullying, and fostering more inclusive online spaces. However, these measures alone are insufficient. Combating online harassment requires collaboration among tech companies, social media platforms, governments, and civil society organizations to develop comprehensive strategies.

As Zimbabwe strives for greater gender parity in political representation, it is imperative to confront the major obstacle posed by online harassment. By addressing this issue head-on and fostering an inclusive and safe digital space, we can strengthen our democracy and ensure that women candidates have an equal opportunity to contribute their voices, ideas, and leadership to the political landscape.

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