A tide of women is rising to exercise formal power – we must counter the violence against women in politics that seeks to push them back
Nokuthula Mabaso. Nancy Pelosi. Sanna Marin. Three women with little in common. Their politics, races and ages are diverse, and they are based on three different continents. What they share is the salience of their gender identities to their work, as women in politics. And, in 2022 they were victims of violence against women in politics (VAWP).
Nokhutula Mabaso was a South African leader in the eKhenana Commune and Abahlali baseMjondolo. Among her achievements, she prevented the illegal eviction of residents in mostly women-headed shack dwellings in her community. In May, Mabaso was assassinated at her home aged 39.
Sanna Marin is the Prime Minister of Finland. When appointed at age 34, she was the world’s youngest serving Prime Minister. She has led progressive policies and laws on the environment and reproductive labour. In August, Marin had her private videos leaked. The resulting furore forced her into taking a drug test to prove her competency for office, where she remains.
Nancy Pelosi is the Speaker of the US House of Representatives. She cites her work ushering in the 2010 Affordable Care Act as her major achievement. In October, a conspiracy theorist invaded Pelosi’s home, violently attacking her husband, while she – the intended target – was away. She has announced her decision to step down, a week after stating that the attack would influence her decision to stay on as Speaker.
VAWP is a gendered phenomenon that women can experience alongside violence in politics. VAWP is gendered in its purpose – to exclude women from their rightful participation in politics – and in its execution, by tapping into gendered inequalities, social norms, and stereotypes to target women in specific and harmful ways. VAWP presents across physical, sexual, psychological, and economic forms of violence.
The dreadful impact of violence against women in politics
As Mona Lena Krook has outlined, identity-based violence serves to restrict who participates or is seen as a legitimate participant in public life. Women deviate from the context-specific leadership ideal; typically male, older, from the dominant ethnoreligious group, and part of the economic and or political elite. Women whose identities deviate further from these characteristics are punished for their disruptive potential to the status quo. Nokhutula Mabuso explicitly rejected the elite capture she found in formal politics and advocated for radical changes in her community. Prime Minister Marin is both young and a woman and she vocally supports women’s rights, bodily autonomy and making systemic changes to the sexual division of labour. As the once long-time highest-ranking woman in US history, House Speaker Pelosi repeatedly defied expectations of what women’s political leadership could be.
While the acts perpetrated against these leaders may seem unconnected, in fact they all hang on a common thread of delegitimisation. It has been carefully woven and then skilfully weaved to conceal its purpose: to silence and disappear women from politics, often convincing us that VAWP is merely the cost of doing politics. The delegitimising force of VAWP is an integral part of a coordinated campaign to neutralise incremental gains in women’s rights and gender equality. It triggers a vicious cycle of disenfranchisement: harm inflicted directly on political leaders signals to women and girls everywhere that there is no place for them in politics, deterring them from participating.
Resisting the pushback against women’s rights and gender equality
The common thread can be disrupted if we recognise VAWP in its all its insidious, interacting, mutually reinforcing forms – and name it. The violent attack on House Speaker Pelosi’s husband and home escalated the insurrectionists’ violence on her office just 18 months earlier. A violent discourse incited those attacks, feeding on social media. Social media is also where Jo Cox’s murderer was radicalised, Sanna Marin was shamed for her humanity, Diane Abbott alone received half of all online VAWP during the 2017 UK elections, and Franzia Marquez was routinely subjected to racist, sexualised abuse before surviving an assassination attempt in 2019, frighteningly similar to those that claimed lives of Marielle Franco and Nokuthula Mabaso.
It is sobering to see across the continuum of VAWP and its impact on women now and in the future. But it is important to remember that VAWP is employed in response to the rising tide of women exercising power. And what a tide it is. Between 2021 and 2022, Denmark elected record numbers of women parliamentarians and 430 people from LGBT+ communities won seats in the US mid-term elections – including historic wins by two lesbian governors. Women from ethnic minorities, particularly afro-descendent women, have increased their presence in Brazil, Germany, Australia and beyond. Women leaders are pushing forward despite the unjust barriers put in front of them, of which violence is just one.
VAWP weaponizes the construct of gender, in norms, inequalities, labour division and violence. Democracy support actors like WFD need to respond as radically as the women who challenge these societal limitations. We need to set a goal of elimination through the transformation of gendered power relations.
We can start by breaking the silence around VAWP with survivors and continuing to tell these stories, but also challenging the way VAWP is concealed and stoked in our ever-violent political discourse, as outlined in our new strategy. We won’t achieve this alone, and efforts must be collective. Let’s match the courage of these leaders and take a stand to end violence against women in politics.