When sexual taunts are hurled at leaders

28 Jun, 2020 - 00:06 0 Views
When sexual taunts are hurled at leaders

The Sunday Mail

Women & Leadership
Maggie Mzumara

AS I sat down to write this instalment, vote tallying in Malawi’s polls was in progress.

The hotly-contested presidential election rerun was necessitated by the annulment of President Peter Mutharika’s disputed win by the courts in February over irregularities.

As you read this, there is probably a new president in Malawi.

What the new leader brings or does not bring to the highest office of that country is important to the people of that nation and has a bearing on how they are treated or perceived.

One may ask what this plebiscite has to do with the usual discussions on this column.

Here it is: Early this month, while on a campaign trail in his home district of Thyolo, President Mutharika referred to Dr Joyce Banda as a hule (prostitute).

That drew the attention of this column because the maligning and bullying of female leaders through use of sexual taunts cannot go unchallenged.

In Zimbabwe, we have had our own experiences where the Shona version of the h-word was hurled at some women leaders.

A case in point being that of MDC-T leader Dr Thokozani Khupe during her tussle with Mr Nelson Chamisa for the presidency of their party following the death of Mr Morgan Tsvangirai.

Dr Khupe was booed and bullied by youths and others from a faction led by Mr Chamisa. The dreaded h-word dominated the slurs against her.

Elsewhere in the world, such sexual taunts, verbal abuse and bullying targeted at leading women have occurred as well.

In 2018 in Australia, two women leaders — Labour politician Emma Hussar and later on Sarah Hanson-Young;  Senator for the Greens Party — were targets of vicious slut-shaming which resulted in the former quitting her position and the latter suing for defamation.


The effects of sexual taunts can be devastating on a woman. And the higher up the ladder she is, the more prone to the attacks she becomes.

Dr Banda, a former president of Malawi, is a political figure of formidable stature. She was targeted by President Mutharika for supporting and endorsing opposition leader Lazarus Chakwera of the Tonse Alliance.

While it is one thing to have some unruly youths and other hooligan characters hurl vile public taunts, it is baffling that the same could come from the apex of leadership, a President seeking re-election.

One shudders to imagine how females of a country governed by such leaders are supposed to feel. Do they feel safe and protected? What sort of example does it set for those leaders’ followers? What is the take-home for youths and others who may view such leaders as role models?

What is worse is that most people take the taunts in their stride.  This is why there is hardly ever any public rebuke of those who perpetrate such abuse. Life goes on as normal with women victims left to lick their wounds alone.


Slut-shaming is a reputational assault inflicted on women. It is a form of bullying and abuse whereby a woman’s sexual history — real or completely fabricated — is used to embarrass her.

It is used to punish a woman for supposed transgressions. Such public sexual taunts turn women’s sexuality into a weapon that can be used against them.

These sexual taunts are one of the most virulent forms of hate speech. They are used to malign a woman’s sexual virtue.

While such taunts are common in other sectors and sections of society, they are more rampant in politics. Politics is an arena dominated by men. When women defy oppressive gender binaries and enter fields like politics, slut-shaming is a way to remind them that they have transgressed and have entered a territory where they are neither welcome nor wanted.

For women who have positions of power, slut-shaming is a technique used to undermine them. Rather than considering women’s rise as attributable to hard work and tenacity, particularly so in a field as cut-throat as politics (or business), instead, virulent accusations are levelled at them.


As a form of workplace bullying, slut-shaming can push women out of industries where they are already under-represented or alternatively, dissuade them from joining in the first place.

This results in male-dominated spaces remaining like that and keeping women even further away from full equality.

The way a society and its leaders treat and view women is telling. Where sexual bullying of women is commonplace, the probability of women reaching their maximum potential becomes doubtful.

The repeated subjecting of women to such taunts often indicates that women have become punching bags for their male counterparts. These are, more often than not, males that feel challenged and intimidated by the success, rise and power of women.

Double standards

All the above are indicative of the holding of women to a higher standard than men.

While men’s sexual histories and sexual references are never brought to bear on them, for women, at the slightest chance possible, their sexual CVs, real or imagined, are wheeled out in attempts to soil their names.

This has the effect of drowning out the real contributions and successes of the women under target.

It is disturbing to see this occurring in countries that seek to be counted under modern-day democracies and additionally very disturbing for leaders seeking high offices to exhibit the despicable practice.


Maggie Mzumara is a leadership, communication and media strategist as well as corporate trainer. She advocates women leadership and is founder of Success in Stilettos (SiS) Seminar Series, a leadership development platform for women. Contact her on [email protected] or follow on Twitter @magsmzumara.


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