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'Surprised, scared and helpless': Swiss female politicians reveal battle with online verbal abuse

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'Surprised, scared and helpless': Swiss female politicians reveal battle with online verbal abuse

'Surprised, scared and helpless': Swiss female politicians reveal battle with online verbal abuse
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Courtesies to Ada Marra, Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin, and Amanda Gavilanes
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Swiss female politicians have been dealing with harassment within parliament chambers for some time, but it's the verbal abuse they're receiving online that has affected their personal lives.

A 2016 online campaign found that many women in the Swiss parliament encounter sexism and harassment in the workplace every day. But in this digital age, Swiss female politicians have also become victims of cyberbullying and verbal abuse outside of the office. Many of them say they find inappropriate comments about their origins, opinions, and gender in their social media pages after speaking out about an issue or voicing an opinion.

'People thought I was lying about the rape'

Jolanda Spiess-Hegglin, a former parliament member for the canton of Zug, near Lucerne, said she felt "helpless" when she started being targeted by cyberbullies on social media.

In December 2017, the Green Party member found herself embroiled in a political scandal after she filed a rape allegation against another Swiss male politician.

"People thought I was lying about the rape allegations because the hospital couldn't prove that drugs were used, it started a nasty media witchhunt in which I became the victim of all Swiss tabloids," she told Euronews.

Even after the incident was left in the past, the ex-Swiss politician said she kept receiving spiteful comments on social media and email.

But Spiess-Hegglin is not alone. Two other Swiss female politicians spoke to Euronews about how their political careers exposed them to verbal harassment.

'I was outraged and scared'

Amanda Gavilanes, a municipal councillor and substitute deputy for the canton of Geneva, said she's gone through hard times trying to deal with verbal abuse.

"The first time I experienced verbal abuse was after I gave a TV interview in 2013 where I defended the anti-militarist lobby I was working for at the time. I received a poorly-written letter by mail that insulted me and my family — and that was quite difficult."

Courtesy: Amanda Gavilanes

Gavilanes said she was completely crushed by the letter to the point where it took her about two months to get over it because she felt so "outraged and scared".

"My colleagues told me to ignore it and that's what I did. I just started ignoring all the insults I received after because I really didn't know how to deal with such a situation. It was very violent."

After appearing in a TV interview in 2017 in defence of women wearing burkinis in public swimming pools, a flood of online harassment ensued on her Facebook page, where she was called a "whore" and "bitch".

The municipal councillor said she now regrets not filing a complaint about online harassment from the beginning and waiting until she snapped to take some action.

"I ended up lodging a complaint about something that was less violent than what I had previously lived through."

For Gavilanes, constantly dealing with verbal abuse for voicing her opinion or for the fact that she was a woman in politics made her reconsider whether she wanted to keep working in public office.

"The worst is that people are always challenging your opinion, telling you you're wrong. You reach a point where you ask yourself why you are working in politics, why you're defending equal rights for men and women when people react in a sexist manner or insult you."

Gavilanes believes the Swiss political system is a catalyst for verbal abuse towards female politicians because it "disqualifies the expertise women bring to the political system in an extremely masculine environment".

"There's a form of acceptance of violence that exists within (Swiss) politics — a structural sexism — so verbal harassment towards women politicians is different from the one male politicians receive," Gavilanes said about the way verbal abuse towards women is perceived within Swiss political circles.

'I regret how verbal abuse changed my behaviour'

Courtesy: Ada Marra

Another Swiss politician who said she was verbally abused, Ada Marra, said she feels like she has a "free membership to insults in social media".

An episode of verbal harassment particularly stands out for Marra, a Swiss national councillor. It happened about a year ago when Marra wrote a post about Swiss identity politics for Switzerland's national day.

"The idea of one Switzerland doesn't exist, only the people who live inside it exist, with different ideas and opinions as well as different priorities and issues ... My Switzerland is not yours and your Switzerland is not mine," she wrote.

But what she didn't expect is the big backlash that would ensue, with people online blasting her as a "whore", "stupid immigrant" and to "give back your Swiss passport and go to Italy".

Marra insists the insults stem from the fact that she speaks about inflammatory topics such as immigration and integration.

"When you speak about those kinds of topics and you're a woman with an immigrant background, reactions are very violent."

Like Gavilanes, Marra regrets not filing a complaint sooner in time.

"I digested the insults for way too long, so now I've decided that I'll file a complaint about everything systematically."

But what the deputy regrets most is that with time online verbal abuse changed her behaviour about certain things: "I get anxious just opening my mailbox now. It took me years to realise I've become paranoid about some things."

According to Marra, it's mostly members of far-right networks and political parties that target her. But she says their insults will not stop her from voicing her opinions and pursuing her political career.

What's Swiss law on verbal harassment?

In short: it depends, according to Geneva-based lawyer Pascal Rytz.

"It depends how you define verbal harassment," he said to Euronews. "In Swiss law, we don't have a specific criminal offence corresponding to harassment."

But, within the harasser's behaviour, there are several possible criminal offences, said Rytz.

Everything that concerns damaging someone's honour, such as defamation, slander, or insults, can be criminal offences that a victim can file a complaint about.

So to file a complaint for cyberbullying, it must be filed under "damage to someone's honour" from the criminal point of view, he adds.

The specific offences, which can be done by the same behaviour, need to appear in the complaint.

For example, if someone insults or slanders another person over instant message, then a complaint about slander and the misuse of telecommunications can be filed.

The complaint is addressed to the police or to the prosecutor's office and it needs to be sent within the first three months after the incident took place. The only exception is coercion, which has a longer statute of limitations than the other offences, says Rytz.

If the prosecutor arrives at the conclusion that the facts constitute a criminal offence during trial, then they are free to give a conviction order.

Sanctions vary from fines to imprisonment, which can also be a suspended sentence depending on the harasser's behaviour and their past history, said Rytz, adding that it is difficult to put someone in prison for this kind of offence.

And what do people think of this system? "Some say the penalties are not a strong deterrent while others believe the system is mainly focused on social peace," said the lawyer.

The women fighting back

As a result of all the verbal harassment she received, Spiess-Hegglin decided to take matters into her own hands and fight back against the cyberbullies. She founded #NetzCourage, an NGO that brings support to women who are confronted with online verbal abuse and hate speech.

The organisation not only brings legal advice to victims but also tries to start a dialogue with cyberbullies in a bid to make them more aware of the damage they're causing.

#NetzCourage works particularly with women working in the public space be it politicians, authors, or activists, as they are the ones who are the most exposed to cyberbullying, said its website.

"Since the founding of #NetzCourage in 2016, people affected by verbal harassment online are no longer alone. We support the victims in coping and help them get back on their feet quickly. We've managed to decrease hate speech by engaging in conversation with the perpetrators," she said.

Over the course of two years, the organisation's founder has filed about 180 complaints.

Both Gavilanes and Marra think the work of organisations like #NetzCourage is essential in Switzerland, but both agree that there's still a lot to be done, including educating young adults about the harm of online verbal harassment.