Hanson-Young defamation ruling is a rare victory for all women in public life

Sarah Hanson-Young defamation ruling is a rare victory for all women in public life

Sarah Hanson Young
Earlier this week, Senator Sarah Hanson-Young emerged victorious from her year-long defamation proceedings against former MP David Leyonhjelm. The judge agreed that his comments had attempted to “publicly shame” her and awarded her $120,000 in damages, which the Senator has donated to Plan Australia and the South Australia Working Women’s Centre.

At an emotional press conference, Senator Hanson-Young said the Court had “vindicated” her decision to stand up and call out the abuse of female politicians. “This is an important day for this Parliament to put a line under this type of behaviour,” she said.

Yes it is. And not just for this Parliament here in Australia, but in Parliaments around the world for whom the issue of so-called “political violence” (violence against women in politics) is a growing concern, including everything from commonplace acts of harassment and sexual harassment to misogynistic and sexist verbal attacks, much of it increasingly online.


Women in politics have been consistently undermined for far too long— the entire point is to discourage them from being politically active. And, alarmingly, it seems to be working.

I was reminded of this recently when I read this article in The Guardian featuring four women in UK politics speaking out about the “constant” abuse they face and the tole it is taking on them. The quote from British MP Jess Phillips in which she stated that she is not worried about Labour winning the upcoming election (as anyone with a passing interest in the Brexit saga will know, Brits go to the polls before Christmas), she is worried she will get killed, literally stopped me in my tracks.

This is the world women in politics now inhabit. Is it any wonder a significant number of women opted not to pursue re-election in the UK citing abuse as their reason?

If that sounds like hyperbole, consider this: all the women in the Guardian article talked about receiving a growing number of threats and intimidation. They all talked about having to take additional steps to ensure their safety. Internationally, a number of high-profile instances of violence against women in politics have reached extremes, most notably the murder of UK Parliamentarian Jo Cox in 2016.

Now, as Britain heads to the polls, female MPs in the UK are clearly living in the shadow of Jo Cox’ murder and going into the next election the spectre of violence looms large. There is a lot of talk of “being a lot more careful now”. This should not be part of the calculation for taking part in political life.

As Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green, put it, “You do have to ask yourself what the hell is going on.” Quite.

For an answer to that, I give you these statistics from a 2016 study by the Inter Parliamentary Union. Globally, nearly all female MP’s have experienced psychological violence in the course of their parliamentary work. One third have experienced economic abuse, a quarter some type of physical abuse and a fifth some form of sexual violence. And what does that mean for our democracy: “Two thirds of women MPs say that progress on tackling violence against women in politics impacts their willingness to stand for re-election.”

Here in Australia, a new survey released by Plan International Australia found 90% of girls and young women polled say female politicians are not treated fairly compared with their male counterparts.

Three-quarters of young women surveyed believe it’s harder for women to become politicians and 77% also think female politicians are treated unfairly by the media and by their male counterparts.

This is the story behind the story of last month’s open letter from female UK MP’s standing in solidarity with Meghan Markle. The consequences of misogynistic and racist undertones in the treatment of women in public life is clearly deeply felt — for good reason. Now, Senator Hanson-Young and others are letting it be known — individually and collectively — that it is no longer open season on women in public life.

As Mona Lena Krook, an expert on political violence and Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University, recently wrote in a paper published in the journal Perspectives on Politics, “A crucial first step…is to begin raising awareness that violence and harassment should not be the cost of women’s engagement in the political sphere.”

So when Senator Hanson-Young stated at her press conference and again in a comment piece for The Guardian today that it’s time to draw a line under this abuse, she is speaking not only about the abuse she has personally received – though that has been repugnant.

This is a rare victory for all women in public life that goes against the growing tide of political violence that plagues too many, with increasingly devastating consequences. It is, indeed, time to draw a line.

Kristine Ziwica tweets @KZiwica

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