Fixing the Glitch: Being part of the #NotTheCost Campaign

Seyi Akiwowo (second from right) speaking at the #NotTheCost Forum held at the George Washington University titled “Opportunities and Threats Posed by New Media.”

In 2017, after facing horrendous online abuse and harassment when a video of my speech at the European Parliament went viral, I founded Glitch!UK, a not-for-profit online abuse advocacy, campaigning and training organisation. Glitch!UK aims to end online abuse and harassment including online violence against women in politics. ‘Glitch’ means a temporary malfunction with equipment, and I used it for my organisation’s name because when we look back on this period in time I want us all to be able to say that the rise in online abuse and harassment was only a ‘glitch’ in our history.

Because of my work with Glitch!UK, I was asked to be part of NDI’s Internet Governance Forum 2017 panel on the issue of online violence against women in politics, alongside the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression David Kaye; Digital Activist Nighat Dad; and Computational Scientist Dr. Nathan Matias.  

In the months since then, I have become a public advocate for NDI’s #NotTheCost campaign, participating in three #NotTheCost events in Washington, D.C., in May: a roundtable with political women representing each region the world; a public forum at the George Washington University; and the annual Madeleine K. Albright Luncheon. Each event was an awe-inspiring chance to hear testimonies of the violence experienced by other politically-active women from around the world and to discuss solutions to this multi-faceted and global problem.

For example, the roundtable discussion was a great opportunity to hear about and give feedback on NDI’s notable and comprehensive portfolio of work to stop violence against women in politics. But it was also a remarkable honour to meet and learn from brilliant women like Farida Nabourema, the executive director of the Togolese Civil League; Irish Senator Catherine Noone, who among many important roles led the legislative effort on the repeal of Ireland’s anti-abortion law; Carmen Alanis, a fellow London School of Economics alumni and the first woman magistrate of the Electoral Court of Mexico; Fátima Mena Baide, a city councillor from Honduras; and Mimoza Kusari-Lila, the first woman mayor in the history of Kosovo.

Hearing other women’s experiences and testimonies about how violence manifests itself in different ways was truly sobering and eye-opening. A sad commonality was that a lot of violence and trauma is a combination of both offline and online attacks, and many perpetrators were known: either members of the same political party, government leaders, or other colleagues. This rings true with NDI’s research on political parties, which revealed that 55 percent of women indicated that they had experienced violence while carrying out political party functions. Forty-eight percent of those respondents said they had experienced psychological violence – the most widely reported type of violence against women in politics. But I’m most looking forward to the launch of NDI’s individual risk assessment tool. This practical tool will empower women and give them confidence to engage in politics, but it will also help with the process of unlearning the acceptance of the violent behaviour we have normalised and tolerated for too long.   

During the #NotTheCost Forum at the George Washington University, I spoke on a panel titled the “Opportunities and Threats Posed by New Media.” Fellow panelists were Nino Goguadze, Member of Parliament and Deputy Chair of the Foreign Relations Committee in Georgia; Soraya Chemaly, Director of the WMC Speech Project at the Women’s Media Center; and our moderator was BBC News journalist Jane O’Brien. A personal takeaway from that panel was a point shared by Soraya about the existential crisis men are going through as women fight to redress the imbalance of power. Symptoms of this crisis include various forms of violence and resistance. This is not an excuse for the backlash that many women in politics are experiencing, but I found it an insightful and helpful explanation.

At NDI’s Annual Madeleine K. Albright Luncheon, @NDIWomen’s Director, Sandra Pepera, chaired a panel on which I shared the importance of differentiating between online abuse and robust debate. Online abuse in all of its terrible forms is about intentionally silencing and intimidating women from engaging in digital spaces. From my own experience, I know that online abuse chips away at your mental health, and your dedication to politics, and you often think ‘is it worth it?’ This is why it’s such a threat to gender equality and democracy. On the same panel, Fátima Mena Baide and Mimoza Kusari-Lila also described the toxic political environments in their countries.

In 2017, as part of its #NotTheCost global advocacy efforts, NDI submitted a fantastic report to the UK’s Committee on Standards in Public Life's Enquiry into the Intimidation of Parliamentary Candidates. I share and fully support NDI’s key position that while online violence against women in politics seems to be a new phenomenon, “this is an area where an old problem has been given new and more toxic life.” The anti-democratic impact of psychological abuse and other forms of violence through digital technology can all significantly change the nature, scale and effect of the intimidation of women in politics. Harassment online can be developed by a mob dynamic, undermining a woman's sense of personal security that leads to women's self-censorship and withdrawal from public discourse and correspondence. Online violence against women in politics represents a direct barrier to women's free speech and political participation.

This week, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Dr. Dubravka Šimonović, launches her report on online violence against women and girls. I'm honoured to have been invited by the president of the UN’s Human Rights Commission, Vojislav Šuc, to participate in the 38th Human Rights Council’s annual full-day discussion in Geneva on the human rights of women. The theme for the day is "The Impact of Violence Against Women Human Rights Defenders and Women Organisations in Digital Spaces," and as part of my presentation, I will be debunking five key myths about online abuse, offering a range of recommendations to both governments and internet intermediaries.

Thank you to the National Democratic Institute for inviting me to be a part of this wonderful #NotTheCost movement. I hope this week in Geneva will be another marker in international action and that we see significant commitments to ending all forms of violence against all women, including women in politics.