All over the world, women remain significantly underrepresented in decision-making positions and political roles. A variety of factors connected to patriarchal societal structures contribute to women’s political underrepresentation and deter their participation, including gender-based harassment and violence and a tradition of men holding economic, political, and social power.
As a matter of fact, the number of women represented in parliament has increased around the world in recent years. According to the report Women on Parliament, published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) in 2019, the Americas continue to lead in terms of both regional averages of women in parliament and the rate of change observed following elections last year. In 2018, Asia and the Pacific followed the Americas over women’s representation in the parliament, reaching stability and new engagements. In Europe, advances and erosions in some countries were registered. Parliaments in Africa, the Middle East, and the North Africa (MENA) region witnessed relatively modest progress.
While the number of women in parliament continues to rise globally, albeit slowly, women also face increased violence and harassment. This negatively impacts their health and their performance and ultimately dissuades them from running for election or even pushes them to leave office prematurely. This is often linked to the fact that by entering the political domain, women are shifting away from a role that confined them to the private sphere by entering a world where their legitimacy is sometimes challenged. For years, the IPU has addressed violence against women in politics as a widespread phenomenon, but several factors in 2018 brought this issue to greater prominence, as highlighted in the report Women on Parliament. This includes the publication of the report Violence against women in politics by the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, which contains specific recommendations to States in this arena. The most recent edition of the IPU report also highlights the extended use of the #MeToo hashtag that has been used to denounce sexual harassment and violence in all spheres of life, including politics, specifically parliaments, and the problems with violence against women that have surfaced in the course of the election cycle in a number of countries.
In the report titled Sexism, harassment and violence against women in parliaments in Europe, the IPU acknowledges the high prevalence of such acts and behaviour, where 85.2 % of female MPs who participated in the study said that they experienced psychological violence in the course of their term of office, while one in four reported suffering sexual harassment. This study follows the findings of a 2016 report conducted across 39 countries, where 81.8% of the female parliamentarians surveyed from all countries and regions reported psychological violence, and 44.4% of those surveyed said they had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction. All of these studies reveal that acts of psychological violence against women are especially profuse online and through social media.
Concerningly, in most parts of the world, violence against women in the political sphere has very low levels of prosecution, and violence perpetrated through social media benefits from a very significant degree of impunity. In 2016, British Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox and Honduran environmental activist Berta Cáceres were murdered for their political efforts and participation, and neither of these cases was met with the prosecution of the perpetrators. A study examining violence against women in politics in India, Nepal, and Pakistan found that for all three nations, there exists low political participation due to the fear of violent consequences. There is particular difficulty in implementing laws protecting women while many cases were unreported, and the reported cases had high acquittal rates.
The CEDAW Committee has reported in several periodic reviews that women in many countries face repression, discrimination, and violence as a consequence of their participation in political and public life. A 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences discussed how violence against women in politics preserves archaic gender roles and inequalities. In 2013, the Working Group on Discrimination against Women in law and practice’s thematic report highlighted the stigmatization, harassment and outright attacks used to silence and discredit women who are outspoken as leaders, community workers, human rights defenders, and politicians. These forms of violence against female political candidates are tactics used to discourage women from exercising their right to vote and run for elections.
Various countries have implemented diverse strategies to combat violence against women in politics including the adoption of laws. In 2012, Bolivia became the first country to criminalize political violence and harassment against women. Ecuador, Peru, Costa Rica, and Mexico have introduced similar legal initiatives. In 2015, the Committee of Experts of the Follow-up Mechanism to the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI) adopted the Declaration on Political Harassment and Violence against Women and in 2017 and published a model law drawing on experiences in Bolivia to serve as inspiration for other legislative measures in the region.
While the adoption of laws and regulations can contribute to preventing and addressing violence against women parliamentarians, a holistic approach that emphasizes accountability is needed. The 2018 report of the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences, has noted that in addition to legislative measures, a range of other measures can be taken by State parties to prevent and tackle violence against women in this field and ensure victims’ access to justice to end the cycle of impunity. This includes raising awareness, collecting and monitoring data and analyzing cases on violence against women in politics to design prevention strategies, strengthening complaint mechanisms and response protocols and codes of conduct for institutions, ensuring the functionality of enforcement mechanisms, implementing capacity-building activities, and establishing monitoring bodies and access to justice and reparations mechanisms. The Special Rapporteur also encourages the media to promote public awareness and actions to mitigate gender-based stereotypes and violence against women in politics and increase the visibility of women’s empowerment initiatives.