Ahead of Kenya elections, women politicians face more online abuse

Female politicians wave from a campaign tent

Esther Passaris, women's representative for Nairobi for the Orange Democratic Movement, on the campaign trail in this undated picture. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Photo Courtesy: Esther Passaris

What’s the context?

Women MPs like Esther Passaris face threats, slurs and body-shaming on social media ahead of Aug. 9 vote.

  • Online abuse included sexual imagery and public shaming
  • Some women candidates abandon social media due to abuse
  • Social media platforms, authorities urged to crack down

NAIROBI -When Kenyan politician Esther Passaris posted a loving tribute to her late father on Twitter, trolls responded with a barrage of abuse over an accompanying "sexualised" photograph of the 57-year-old in a black kaftan walking alone on a white sandy beach.

"Papou ... as you traverse the high seas, know that I will forever be your baby girl, #RIPDad," wrote Passaris, who represents Nairobi County, next to the contemplative image in which the sea breeze had slightly exposed one thigh.

One user reposted a magnified photo of her thigh and begged her to give men "a chance", while another accused her of "flaunting her nudity". A third quipped "sexualised mourning?"

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As Kenyans head to the polls in hotly-contested elections on Aug. 9, female MPs are witnessing a rise in online abuse and harassment, which could slow progress in boosting women's political voice in the country, warn rights campaigners.

Kenya has the lowest rate of women in politics in East Africa, with 23% of parliamentary seats, according to the global Inter-Parliamentary Union, most of which, like Passaris, are dedicated women's representatives not mainstream MPs.

"As a public figure, you have to develop a thick skin to cope ... the online abuse comes with the territory unfortunately," said the opposition Orange Democratic Movement's Passaris, who has more than 1 million social media followers.

"There are quite a few of my female colleagues who couldn't cope and have dropped off social media because of abuse - it can really bring you down."

Mercy Mwangi, programme coordinator at the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA), said women lawmakers had reported more online abuse ahead of the vote. This included sexism, misogyny, humiliating or sexualised imagery.

"It's mainly a lot of sexualising, insulting them for doing things like dancing at a political rally, zooming in a picture of their breasts or legs, or body-shaming them," Mwangi said.

"We don't have enough women in the political space as it is. and this kind of online harassment discourages young women who want to enter politics."

Few women politicians

Rising online violence jeopardises efforts to get more women into the higher echelons of political power, which many believe would have a trickle-down effect in helping women fight abuse, discrimination and inequality.

Women in Kenya are poorer than men and hold only one in three formal jobs, government data shows, while 41% have been beaten or sexually assaulted by their partners and 23% were child brides, says UN Women.

Although Kenya's 2010 constitution sought to ensure that women make up one-third of all elected and appointed bodies, male politicians have blocked efforts to pass legislation to realise this goal, despite court orders to do so. 

Kajiado East Member of Parliament Peris Tobiko dances with a supporter during her campaign rally

Kajiado East Member of Parliament Peris Tobiko dances with a supporter during her campaign rally in Mashuruu location of Kajiado county, Kenya, June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

Kajiado East Member of Parliament Peris Tobiko dances with a supporter during her campaign rally in Mashuruu location of Kajiado county, Kenya, June 30, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya

"If no efforts are put in place to better protect women politicians online, we will see more women being put off politics," said Robert Wanjala, programme officer at Article 19, which promotes freedom of expression.

"Ultimately, we will fail to be a truly democratic country as the voices of women will be missing."

This is a global trend, with female politicians in India facing a "shocking scale of abuse on Twitter", while Black and Asian women lawmakers in Britain deal with more online attacks, according to rights group Amnesty International.

Filtering out trolls

Ahead of the August polls in Kenya, some women have hired social media managers to filter out abusive posts and block and report persistent offenders to the platforms.

"The trolls never talk about policies like tackling inflation or youth unemployment - it's about your body, or they are claiming you are promiscuous or something stupid like that," said one female parliamentarian, who did not wish to be named.

Women's rights and digital rights groups said that social media platforms were often too slow to react to complaints and take down offensive posts, adding that women candidates should also report serious violations to authorities.

Kenya enacted legislation in 2018 to protect citizens from cybercrimes including harassment, but women MPs said they were reluctant to report cases as most police were not aware of the law and often did not take their complaints seriously.

Kenyan police were not available to comment.

Meta, which owns Facebook, and Google said they had ramped up support for female MPs during the elections by partnering with groups such as KEWOPA to provide training on how to block and report abusers, and introduced tools to flag serious violations.

"Meta also worked with participants to further understand the gender based slurs used in the online space across a number of local languages ... with the aim of helping to inform its automated detection of such slurs," said a statement from Meta.

Anne Ireri, executive director of the Federation of Women Lawyers Kenya, which has trained monitors across the country to track reports of gender-based violence, including online abuse, ahead of the vote, said women candidates also need funding.

"You have to have deep pockets to have a social media team to contain all this abuse during campaigning - from reporting threatening posts to being able to quickly counter misinformation and slanderous posts," said Ireri.

"Unfortunately, many women candidates - especially those that are less experienced - don't have the funds, and so they tend to shy away from social media - which is, ironically, key to their success."

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