Women in Political Life Say #MeToo: Here’s How Harassment and Violence Limit Their Political Lives Worldwide

Women in Political Life Say #MeToo: Here’s How Harassment and Violence Limit Their Political Lives Worldwide
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal last week, millions of women and men took to social media to speak out against sexual harassment and violence. Facebook alone saw over 12 million posts as more than 4.7 million users around the world shared their experiences and reacted using the phrase “Me too.” In the United States, Facebook reported that 45 percent of its users have friends who posted #MeToo — which makes about 100 million Americans who know someone affected by sexual violence.

Ending sexual assault and harassment have not been a political priority in any society. Perhaps this is no particular surprise; over three-quarters of the world’s legislative seats are held by men. What may be surprising is how many women in politics around the world can also say #MeToo — and why.

What are some common stereotypes?

For most people, the phrase “violence against women” or “gender-based violence” is associated with domestic violence and rape. By contrast, the words “political violence” or “election violence” are often associated with assassinations, bombs in markets, and violent street demonstrations. In reality, these kinds of violence overlap; women around the world are attacked for being female and involved in politics as voters, candidates, elected officials, staffers, poll workers, civic leaders, and in other roles of public leadership.

Although the term “violence” is commonly understood to mean physical harm, the United Nations defines violence against women to include both physical and sexual harm as well as mental harm and suffering. For this analysis, violence against women in politics includes both physical harm and sexual violence, as well as non-physical harm, such as threats, intimidation, shaming, withholding a woman’s financial resources or food, harassing the victim or her family, or having children forcibly taken away or harmed.

Gender-based political violence doesn’t just affect women; it is an umbrella term for any harm that violates any individual or group’s political rights on the basis of their gender identity. However, here I focus on women, because they are the overwhelming majority of gender-based violence victims.

Here’s what I found in my research on these developing-world countries 

Worldwide, scholars agree that violence against women is universally underreported. In my research in developing states, I examined more than 2,000 incidents of election violence in six countries — Bangladesh, Burundi, Guinea, Guyana, Nepal, and Timor-Leste — between 2006 and 2010. I also drew on narratives of experiences related by women and men from 45 countries over the course of working on elections and political transitions internationally since 2005, and other qualitative sources.

In doing so, I’ve found that men and women have quite different experiences. Women reported being beaten, raped, burned, and mutilated by men who wanted to punish or coerce their political choices or prevent them from participating in a political activity like voting or running for office, because they are female. When general political violence occurred against both men and women, women were much more likely to experience sexualized forms of violence, including rapesexual assault, and “virginity tests.” In some places this was extreme, such as the disputed 2007 Kenyan election when thousands of women were raped during post-election violence that swept the entire country.

The research revealed that women are as much as three times more likely to experience sexual and non-physical attacks, while men are up to three times more likely to suffer the more public forms of violence, such as political assassination and street violence. The quantitative data was collected by trained local monitors through the IFES Election Violence Education and Resolution (EVER) program. These community researchers were up to 10 times more likely to find information about acts of election violence affecting men by looking at public documents, such as police and hospital reports, and media coverage. In contrast, where election violence against women occurred, it was nearly three times more likely to be verbally reported by a member of the community.

Women were threatened, coerced, or deprived economically more often than men, enduring such experiences as being stoned and torn from their children, morally condemned by their church leaders, or even burned to death — simply because they tried to vote, work at a polling station, or run for office. In the statistical data, both men and women were most likely to be targeted because they supported a particular party or candidate (69 percent of male victims, and 48 percent of female victims were party/candidate supporters). However, the proportion of rural voters and journalist victims who were women was four times higher than among male victims.

These patterns are found in Western democracies as well

In my further research, I have found that comparable reports are rife in Western democracies as well. A Canadian parliamentary staffer suffered PTSD and attempted suicide following sexual assault by her bosses. A British lawmaker received over 600 rape threats in one night. French women legislators and political leaders revealed a multitude of incidents of harassment, assault, and rape in their political workplaces.

And just last week, during the #MeToo surge, over 140 women leaders in Californian politics — including nearly a quarter of all the women currently holding seats in Sacramento — reported that during their political careers they experienced, witnessed, or worked with women who were groped, propositioned, or otherwise harassed.

Other studies are finding similar results. For instance, when the Inter-Parliamentary Union surveyed women parliamentarians in 39 countries across five regions, 82 percent reported that during their terms they endured gendered psychological attacks, such as sexist insults or social media threats of rape, death, or abductions of their children.

The letter from the Californian women in politics poignantly describes how such gendered and sexualized attacks cause fear, shame, and anxiety about losing one’s livelihood; fear of encountering more such attacks can crimp personal and professional growth. In countries where such attacks are more physically brutal, women reported that the effect is measured in lives lost, physical and emotional scars, and shattered families. As documented in my research, they also reported fear of going to the polls, resulting in lower women’s turnout on Election Day, alienation from politics, and weakened democracies.

The nearly universal inequality in elected offices around the world may result in part from women being either turned off by or shut out of leadership roles because of the pervasive threat of gender-specific political violence.

Gabrielle Bardall, PhD, is a research fellow with the University of Ottawa’s Centre for International Policy Studies (CIPS) and senior gender specialist with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) in Washington, DC. 

 This article was originally published in The Washington Post on 23 October 2017.


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