STANDING for election has never been a particularly easy endeavour, but for women in Scotland in 2023 – amid a rise of relentless online abuse and harassment – it’s seldom been harder.

In a trend that threatens the very essence of democracy, women who are brimming with potential and fresh perspectives are more hesitant than ever to stand for elected office in Scotland. Their number-one reason? Fear of relentless online harassment at the hands of deranged internet bullies. People who dedicate their entire lives to posting bile on the internet – and seemingly not much else.

We’re often told as women in this space to simply ignore. To not engage. That if we don’t feed them, they will get bored and find another woman to hound – the 2023 strain of victim-blaming. As if harassment is to be expected or is some obscure, alien problem that cannot possibly be tackled. Because god-forbid people be held accountable for their actions.

Any woman who has fallen victim to the now well-identifiable faction of Scotpol school bullies would argue that when you’re being harassed by hundreds upon hundreds of accounts to the point that your notification feeds are swarmed, or your life is being threatened by an anonymous fully grown man online, it’s not easily ignored. And nor should it be. The impact of online abuse is not hypothetical – it has real consequences.

Not only is that experience trivialised in such a way – there’s very little the police can actually do to help and it soberingly lays bare the holes in harassment law. Women are chronically failed by the criminal justice system. Online abuse and harassment is just another in a long line of failures to add to the list. We merely have to hope that these people are all fart and no poo, and that they won’t actually turn up at our door and try to kill us.

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A plan of action that does really very little to quell the crippling fear and anxiety the experience brings.

You might ask: “And where are the political parties?”

You’d think that given the delve into the social media age, and how politics has managed to adapt so seamlessly to it – much to its advantage, in fact – there might be some sort of protections in place, or even thoughts hashed out about how political machines might protect their candidates or indeed anyone at all who wants to partake in democracy. But you’d be wrong.

When I reached out to my party amid the first batch of hellish online abuse I received, I didn’t even get a response. Let alone any concrete advice on how to handle it.

Collectively, the duty of care is being shirked across the board. Parties have no idea how to get a handle on this, so they’re casually ignoring it and hoping for the best. A tactic I can’t warn against enough – because someone will be to blame when one of these people makes good on their threats. I’d actually argue that they are complicit in it, I feel resentment for the fact that these online factions have been allowed to spiral out of control in the face of inaction for so long that the problem now feels insurmountable.

I have spent time recently, as I often do, with a whole host of talented, politically engaged women. The vast majority of whom have told me they don’t want to run and won’t be putting themselves forward for election next year. Not because they don’t want to, or have nothing to offer but because it’s not worth the harassment that they would face.

Not in a “letting the bullies win” kind of way – but from the completely valid perspective that we are all as human beings entitled to our peace, privacy and quality of life. A life where you don’t have to worry that the anonymous troll who said you should be “given a bullet” is actually that man walking across the street from you. And elected politics robs women of it all.

For women, front-line politics requires a relinquishing of freedom that is in no way expected of men. For an increasing number, it is unfortunately too high a price to pay for a seat at the table. And for as long as political powers take no action, women’s voices will continue to be stifled in public life.

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One of the many reasons this has spiralled in the way that it has is that politics is still deeply male-dominated. Even the Scottish Parliament, while better than the UK Parliament, hasn’t seen nearly enough progress towards gender balance since it was established – and none of the major parties have fully gender-balanced their candidates. The Greens are leading the way so far – and at the last Scottish Parliament election 49% of the candidates they fielded were women.

Interesting, isn’t it? That women are being hounded away and discouraged from public life, all the while the men within it tell them to ignore it as if it were a mere irritation, and the structures that are supposed to support them turn their backs and pretend they can’t see.

Call me a conspiracist, but it looks suspiciously to me like patriarchy in action. Almost as if the oppression of women is a man-made (pardon the pun), intentional, systemic problem or something. If only we could come up with some solutions.

Scotland has a rich history of political engagement, and it’s one of the things I find myself most proud of as a Scot. The political energy we have is special and not to be taken for granted – but I fear women are starting to take a step back. A trend that we will only see continue, for as long as nothing is put in place as support.

This rise in online misogyny is starting to really bleed into real life – just yesterday, in one of the most harrowing examples of this I’ve seen yet, a 15-year-old girl was stabbed to death in broad daylight for rejecting a peer. The Andrew Tate, toxic masculinity era is, unsurprisingly, creating an increasingly unsafe and anxiety-filled existence for women everywhere.

The last place we need that to penetrate is our political life. If women are to have a chance at equality in any branch of society, we must have a seat at the table.

And it must be safe for us to pursue that seat.