In the Philippines and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, female lawmakers suffer online attacks. Photo: iStock

You spread the illegal drugs, sexcapades all your drivers, had a sex video, commit concubinage. Only stupid believe on you.” 

This is just one example among many other online comments that my dear friend and colleague Philippine Senator Leila de Lima – who has been in prison for more than three years on trumped-up charges – has received. 

The Internet can be a tough place for women. Although access to it has undoubtedly brought with it benefits, there are many dark elements to its explosion too, including how it has amplified the misogynistic attitudes that are still prevalent in society. 

Here in the Philippines, this ugly rhetoric has been strengthened by our president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has become infamous for his sexist comments since taking office. He has spoken of wanting to rape women, saying he would give permission to soldiers to shoot female rebels “in the vagina,” and several other crass and misogynistic remarks. 

Not only do the president’s words normalize talk around violence against women, but they also embolden his supporters to launch vicious personal attacks on social media, especially against his opponents – of whom I am one. As just one example, I was recently called a “thirsty slut” online for a dress I wore to last year’s State of the Nation Address. 

All women can be the targets of online attacks, but those involved in politics are particularly susceptible as a result of being in the public eye, and especially so if they are outspoken. 

While in the Philippines the issue has been heightened by the president’s words, these online attacks are happening globally. In Southeast Asia, where patriarchal and outdated sexist stereotypes remain prevalent, and where the population are “the most engaged mobile Internet users in the world,” it creates a “perfect storm” for the spread of online attacks against women. 

For example in Malaysia, female member of parliament Kasthuri Patto was called a “deviant” for speaking out in defense of religious minorities and urging her government to sign a global decree that promotes freedom of religion or belief. Meanwhile in Thailand, Pannika Wanich, former MP for the recently dissolved Future Forward Party, faces regular sexist comments online. Last year she was attacked – including by fellow MPs – for wearing a black-and-white pantsuit in parliament, as opposed to the traditional black, during a period of mourning. 

A study by the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that social media is now the most common place where psychological violence – in the form of sexist and misogynistic remarks, humiliating images, mobbing, intimidation and threats – is perpetrated against female lawmakers. 

Many of the attacks are sexually charged, including obscene images or disparaging comments, often drawing on information published on social media to suggest issues in their private lives. Women are also often told what they can or cannot wear, a clear violation of their right to freedom of expression. 

The attacks have a major impact on those who are targeted. According to the IPU study, two-thirds of those surveyed said they had been distressed by their experience, while almost half said they had feared for their safety and that of their friends and family. In addition, nearly two-fifths of those subjected to these attacks said the incidents had undermined their ability to fulfill their mandates and freely express their opinions. 

The attacks are also a major drain on resources, often creating additional workloads for women that their male counterparts do not experience. MPs who face online attacks have to devote significant time to measures such as improving their security, blocking or reporting abusive users, or combating disinformation. 

This has a wider impact on society. Women who are attacked could decrease their online presence – and therefore their message, negatively impacting their ability to fulfill their mandate – or potentially leave politics entirely. The attacks also impact the next generation of female leaders, who could be dissuaded from entering politics as a result of the vitriol aimed at their predecessors.

Such an outcome would decrease the diversity of electoral representatives, and further entrench the male-dominated system that remains prevalent around the world. 

On International Women’s Day this Sunday, we must urge governments around the world to do more to protect women from these online attacks. In my region, all countries  have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), and governments must take these obligations seriously and ensure their laws are in line with international standards. 

Meanwhile, digital literacy across the region can be improved through a multi-stakeholder approach that includes input from the media, technology companies and civil society, among others.  

In the Philippines, we are calling for the effective implementation of the Safe Spaces Act, which was enacted last year, and aims to tackle gender-based harassment, including online sexual abuse. 

Finally, we must all contribute in our own way, by continuing to call out sexist and misogynistic comments whenever we see them, to ensure that those who resort to them are fully aware that these attitudes are never acceptable. 

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Risa Hontiveros is a senator of the 18th Congress in the Philippines and a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR).