We need systemic change to end violence against women in politics – the Summit for Democracies must recognise that

Women at a stop violence against women in politics event
09 December 2021
Commentary
We need systemic change to end violence against women in politics – the Summit for Democracies must recognise that
To end violence against women we need women in politics. That is why the upcoming Summit for Democracy must address both women’s political leadership and violence against women in politics.  

My reflection during this year’s 16 days of action against gender-based violence is on the violence against women in politics (VAWP) that curtails women’s political careers, and at the same time, the need for women to be present in decision-making spaces to address violence against women and girls.  

Research has shown that when women are able to be fully and equally lead and take part in politics, the whole of society benefits. This is because women political leaders reframe the conduct of politics and international relations and prioritise addressing the fundamental problems to equality in societies. Women political leaders have been shown to prioritise the introduction of laws and policies that address gender-based violence, reproductive rights, equal access to infrastructure and to be a strong force against corruption in public service delivery. 

But three big obstacles stand in women’s way: cultural norms, money and violence.  

The abuse, threats and violence directed against women in politics are increasingly a reason why women do not want to enter politics or why they are leaving it. This is a problem for democracies: If half of the adult population of most countries are not equally engaged in decision making, democracy cannot be said to exist. 

Violence hinders women’s ability to get elected in the first place. It stops them from being selected as candidates, makes them more likely to drop out of elections, and impedes their success at the polls. When they are in leadership positions, women MPs face abuse, sexual harassment and blackmail. 

Violence should never be the cost of participating in decision-making.  

Recently, WFD interviewed women politicians about political leadership for two reports on where leaders come from and leadership in practice. Violence and abuse towards women in politics was mentioned in all interviews. This is unsurprising, at the same time that it is sobering: recent figures show that there is an upward trend of reported violations against parliamentarians, with women MPs suffering disproportionately. 

Nearly all the women we spoke to mentioned their own personal experiences of wide-ranging abuse they faced as a result of their political leadership. These ranged from attacks on their character, rape and death threats, to physical assault within the parliament building. Violence and abuse were not solely gendered, and those interviewed spoke about the racialised violence that they and other women of colour had experienced, and homophobic abuse that they had been subjected to. All these threats had physical and psychological consequences.  

There were five different strategies that women told us they used for dealing with violence and abuse: naming the problem; reporting; ignoring and blocking; separating personal attacks and legitimate feedback; and remembering your purpose. 

These are coping strategies. Women in politics should not have to face violence and abuse in the first place. Democracies need to tackle the problem of violence and abuse against women in politics itself, and all women noted the difficulties that came with trying to avoid and cope with these barriers. 

We see some progress globally. Bolivia was the first country in the world to legislate against political violence and harassment, passing Law 243 in 2012. This law covers both women in public office and women in a political role. A case was successfully prosecuted under this law in 2016, and reporting rates have increased, but implementation still has a way to go.  

In the UK, the draft Online Safety Bill is currently being reviewed by parliament, and we’ve seen civil society, journalists and Members of Parliament calling for the specific inclusion of measures to address online abuse of women and girls.  

In other countries, legislation has been passed that penalises social media companies if they do not remove hate speech and other illegal content from their sites.   

While the introduction and effective implementation of legislation is important to tackle this phenomenon, addressing and preventing violence against women in politics requires a systemic societal shift. Institutional and national level approaches are needed, such as comprehensive legislation, awareness campaigns, digital literacy, and better policies by media companies where abuse is often levelled at women.   

Including the voices of women and girls in political decision-making helps create a fairer and safer world for all. So, to end violence against women we need women in politics. That is why the upcoming Summit for Democracy must address both women’s political leadership and violence against women in politics.  

A virtual event will be hosted as part of the Summit for Democracy on 8 December 11am EST on Empowering Prosperity: Advancing the Status of Women to Advance the Status of Democracy. Find out more.

WFD and DemoFinland hosted an event as part of the Global Democracy Coalition Forum on 7 December, Women’s Political Leadership is Essential for Democracy. Watch the event.