A few years ago, I heard a podcast in which the Swedish Foreign Minister was explaining why it is important to have more women in leadership. She told a story about a fight between two warring territories over a river on a map. All the people at the table were men. When women from the area were introduced to the conversation, they pointed out that in fact, that river had dried up years ago and therefore the men were fighting over nothing.
About 50% of Zambia’s population are women, and yet only 16.7% of our parliament is made up of elected women members of parliament. Only 9 out of 29 cabinet ministers are women. Men and women differ in perspective due to the different experiences they have as a result of their gender. What we miss out on when women are denied a seat at the table is that different perspective. When women decide to use their voice by taking up leadership positions, they face much more ridicule, intimidation and abuse than men in leadership positions. This either diminishes their voice or silences them. That creates problems for all of us because it means that we are lacking a diversity of ideas. Democracy thrives when the marketplace of ideas thrives. When that pool of ideas is limited, so are the number of potential solutions to our problems. We need more women to point out where the “dry rivers” are.

As pointed out by Sophie Stevens and Dr. Erika Fraser in their article, ‘Digital Harassment of Women Leaders: A Review of the evidence’:

“Digital harassment of women leaders is part of the continuum of violence and discrimination against women in the public arena, including women politicians, activists, civil society leaders, prominent feminists or simply female political commentators, academics and journalists… [It] encompasses all forms of aggression, coercion, shaming, harassment threats and intimidation against women in leadership roles on the basis of their gender”.
There are no Zambian statistics on the prevalence of cyberbullying but there should be. However, anecdotal evidence shows that women in the public eye receive more abuse relating to their marital status, child-bearing ability, or sexuality. A recent example of this was the hurling of unpalatable insults against Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Dora Siliya, as she attended the memorial mass of Vespers Shimuzhila. More recently, Copperbelt Province Commissioner of Police, Charity Katanga, was called “inhuman” because she has no children by politician Chishimba Kambwili. Such attacks are indefensible and must be condemned; not because you agree with the views expressed by the individual, but on the principle that every human being has the inherent right to be treated with dignity. That is ubuntu.

Women’s reputations are so closely tied to their perceived virtue or morality or lack of it. I was recently on a discussion panel on cyberbullying as a form of gender-based violence. One of the participants from the audience suggested that women leaders are more susceptible to being attacked when they “sleep around”. Firstly, that is never an issue for men. Secondly, a woman’s perceived virtue is such a soft target. Women regularly get attacked on that basis as a means to discredit them. Often these stories are a complete fiction or a distortion of the truth. They are impossible to disprove or defend; but people believe what they read after all, “there’s no smoke without fire”. Certainly, our leaders should be role models, but we should be careful not to impose on them a standard of morality that we would not apply to ourselves or our loved ones.

Cyberbullying dehumanises both the perpetrators and the victims. Often the perpetrators spewing out hatred, anger and contempt are themselves suffering from some hurt, disappointment or frustration. For the victims, aside from the effect of women withdrawing or being silenced in public spaces, cyberbullying has serious emotional and psychological effects. Public figures are trained not to react to every provocation, but do not be fooled by tough exteriors, it can be extremely hurtful and damaging to individuals. According to Stevens and Fraser, being cyberbullied can produce “feelings of irritation, anxiety, sadness, loneliness, vulnerability, and unsafeness; to feelings of distress, pain, shock, fear, devastation, and violation”. According to an article in the December 2016 edition of the United Nations Chronicle, this can manifest itself in the form of heart disease, insomnia and depression.

What can be done about it? Cyberbullying is essentially anti-social behaviour and that needs to be tackled on multiple fronts:

1. At an individual level, we all need to realise that the people we abuse on social media are real human beings with feelings and with families. We need to think: ‘would I post that about someone I cared about’? That does not mean you cannot criticise people; but that you can do so without using cruel, insulting, sexual or demeaning language. Also, men and women who support the fact that women should be in leadership need to defend them online when they are under attack. An injury to one is an injury to all.

2. Social media platforms can stringently enforce their policies on the removal of fake news, fake social media accounts, harmful sexual content.

3. Existing laws should be enforced to curb cyberbullying, but this must not be done at the expense of people’s ability to express themselves meaningfully. We also need strong data protection laws that prevent data violations. I would also argue that we need a proper right to privacy introduced in the Bill of Rights that meets the needs of a digital society.

4. At the level of government, we need to see leadership on this issue, particularly from political leaders. They need to send a strong zero-tolerance message to all their followers. Through the Women’s Lobby, human rights activist Pamela Chisanga and I have been campaigning for political parties to sign a pledge condemning the sexual abuse, harassment and intimidation of female leaders and calling for political parties to punish the perpetrators from within their parties. To-date there has been no response. However, I am happy to see that the donor community has come up with a similar initiative for all donor agencies. We need to see such commitment right at the top and hopefully it will filter down.

5. Lastly, to all potential women leaders, please come forward. We need more of you. It is only when we have a critical mass of women that our gender will become less of an issue as it will not be interesting anymore. People will then turn their attention to whether or not the women have substance. Lean In. Yes, I still think women still need to lean in. It is hard to be a minority in any circumstance. But just as with the suffragettes and the original feminist movement before us, we need the pioneers and the radicals to draw in the masses.

Women leaders need protection from cyberbullying, not because they are the better sex or morally superior to men, they are not; but because we are not tapping into a rich resource of diverse ideas because there are not enough of them in leadership. It is not enough to have one or two women at the leadership table because there is diversity of views and experiences even within the entire population of women in Zambia. Often, the abuse hurled at women and the stories made up about them are just an attempt to put women in their place and to tell them that they are not welcome in leadership roles. That needs to change.

The author is a lawyer and civil rights activist. She is a 2014 Archbishop Desmond Tutu Leadership Fellow.