Analysis: The Government needs to urgently fulfil its legal obligations toward women MPs, writes law expert Cassandra Mudgway.

The high-stress nature of working in politics is increasingly taking a toll on staff and politicians.

But an additional threat to the personal wellbeing and safety of politicians resides outside Parliament, and the threat is ubiquitous: online violence against women MPs.

Since her election in 2017, Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman has been subject to persistent online violence.

Ghahraman’s resignation following allegations of shoplifting exposes the toll that sustained online violence can have on a person’s mental health.

In an interview with Vice in 2018, Ghahraman expressed how the online abuse was overwhelming and questioned how long she would continue in Parliament.

Resigning in 2024, Ghahraman said in a statement: “It is clear to me that my mental health is being badly affected by the stresses relating to my work,” and “The best thing for my mental health is to resign as a Member of Parliament.”

Ghahraman is not alone in receiving torrents of online abuse.

Many other women MPs have also been targeted, including former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, Green Party co-leader Marama Davidson, National MP Nicola Willis and Te Pāti Māori co-leader Debbie Ngarewa-Packer.

Words can not only hurt, but they can seriously endanger a person’s wellbeing.

Online violence against women MPs — particularly against women of colour — is a concerning global trend.

In an Australian study, women MPs were found to be disproportionately targeted by public threats, particularly facing higher rates of online threats involving sexual violence and racist remarks.

Similar online threats face women MPs in the United Kingdom. Studies show that women of colour receive more intense abuse.

Male politicians are also subject to online violence. But when directed at women the violence frequently exhibits a misogynistic character, encompassing derogatory gender-specific language and menacing sexualised threats, constituting gender-based violence.

Our legal framework is not enough

New Zealand’s current legal framework is not well equipped to respond to the kind of online violence experienced by women MPs such as Ghahraman.

The Harmful Digital Communications Act 2015 is designed to address online harassment by a single known perpetrator.

But the most distressing kind of abuse comes from the sheer number of violent commentators, most of whom are unknown to the victim or intentionally anonymous. This includes “mob style” attacks, where large numbers of perpetrators coordinate efforts to harass, threaten, or intimidate their target.

Without legal recourse, women MPs have two options — tolerate the torrent of abuse, or resign. Both of these options endanger representative democracy.

Putting up with abuse may mean serious impacts on mental health and personal safety. It may also have a chilling effect on what topics women MPs choose to speak about publicly.

Resigning means losing important representation of diverse perspectives, especially from minorities.

Having to tolerate the abuse is a breach of the right to be free from gender-based violence. Being forced to resign because of it also breaches women’s rights to participate in politics.

Therefore, the Government has duties under international human rights law to prevent, respond and redress online violence against women.

Steps the Government can take

Green Party co-leaders James Shaw and Marama Davidson speak following Golriz Ghahraman's resignation as an MP.

United Nations human rights bodies provide some guidance for measures the Government could implement to fulfil their obligations and safeguard women’s human rights online.

As one of the drivers of online violence against women MPs is prevailing patriarchal attitudes, the Government’s first step should be to correctly label the behaviour: gender-based violence.

Calling online harassment “trolling” or “cyberbullying” downplays the harm and risks normalising the behaviour. “Gender-based violence” reflects the systemic nature of the abuse.

Secondly, the Government should urgently review the Harmful Digital Communication Act.

The legislation is now nine years old and should be updated to reflect the harmful online behaviour of the 2020s, such as targeted mob-style attacks.

New Zealand is also now out of step with other countries. Australia, the UK and the European Union have all recently strengthened their laws to tackle harmful online content.

These new laws focus on holding big tech companies accountable and encourage cooperation between the government, online platforms and civil society.

Greater collaboration — alongside enforcement mechanisms — is essential to address systemic issues like gender-based violence.

Thirdly, given the increasing scale of online violence, the Government should ensure adequate resourcing for police to investigate serious incidents.

Resources should also be made available for social media moderation among all MPs and training in online safety.

More than ever, words have the power to break people and democracies.

It is now the urgent task of the Government to fulfil its legal obligations toward women MPs.

Cassandra Mudgway is a senior lecturer in law at the University of Canterbury.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence.