from Women and Foreign Policy Program and Women Around the World

Violence Against Female Politicians

Voices from the Field features contributions from scholars and practitioners highlighting new research, thinking, and approaches to development challenges. This article is authored by Hilary Matfess, research analyst on defense and security issues in  Africa and doctoral candidate at Yale University.

July 11, 2017

Iranian women show their ink-stained fingers after casting their votes during the presidential election in Tehran, Iran, May 19, 2017. TIMA/REUTERS
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Women involved in politics around the world are constrained not only by the proverbial glass ceiling, but also by the quiet threat of violence they face—and the significant challenges they may face when attempting to report these threats.

Global surveys of female politicians confirm how pervasive violence, and the threat of violence, are in the lives of female politicians. A 2016 report found that more than 44 percent of elected female representatives have been threatened in office, including threats of death, rape, beatings, or abductions. Roughly two-thirds of those surveyed reported that “several times or often” they had been subjected to humiliating remarks of a sexual or sexist nature. Roughly eight in ten of the surveyed women reported being victims of psychological violence—which includes hostile behavior that causes fear or psychological harm. Other research, based on surveys of political candidates from the U.S., UK, and Australia, suggests that female politicians are subjected to significantly more abuse online than their male counterparts. While heated political rhetoric affects both male and female politicians, these studies suggest that women bear a disproportionate brunt of abusive language and threats. 

The situation worldwide has become such a problem that the National Democratic Institute (NDI) has launched the “Not the Cost” initiative to end violence against women in politics. The initiative recognizes that women face violence and threats of violence in varied contexts around the world, in developed nations and emerging economies alike. According to NDI, for example, nearly all of the female candidates in the 2010 elections in Afghanistan “received threatening phone calls,” and 39 percent of women leaders in regional and local government in Peru reported experiencing “acts of political harassment related to their political positions.”

A number of incidents around the world illustrate that these are not merely empty threats. The assault last month on Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet, a French politician who was attacked and knocked unconscious while campaigning, is merely the latest in a string of acts of visible violence against female politicians. In 2011, Representative Gabrielle Giffords was the victim of an assassination attempt in Tucson, Arizona during a public gathering with constituents. Under tragically similar conditions, in June 2016, British Labour politician Jo Cox was assassinated while preparing to meet with her constituents. Angiza Shinwari, at the start of a second term as a provincial council member in Nangarhar, Afghanistan, was killed in a targeted bomb attack on her vehicle. And Mexican senator Ana Gabriela Guevara was severely beaten by a group of men who violently stopped her motorcycle on a highway. 

Even in situations where quotas or legislative measures exist to increase the number of women in office, female politicians can face grave danger. Marie E. Berry, a professor of sociology at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, whose work focuses on women in political office in sub-Saharan Africa, observes that in Kenya, despite a court-issued two-thirds ‘gender rule,’ which stipulates that no elected body in the country can be more than two-thirds one gender, “women running for political office face profound impediments to their success and many face extraordinary rates of violence, both while running for office and once in political office.” While a number of programs exist to encourage Kenyan women to run for office, like in other countries around the world, very few resources are available to women who face harassment, threats, and violence. Berry suggests that “as women are trained and encouraged to vie for these seats, they risk taking power (and resources) that male politicians see as rightfully theirs, opening them up to the risk of violence and other efforts to limit the effectiveness of their campaigns.” And in many contexts, those who obstruct female candidates or levy threats are not held accountable. 

These threats of violence and the tangible attacks on female politicians dissuade women from seeking office or pursuing re-election the world over. According to NDI, evidence shows that incidents of violence have demotivated female politicians in Asia as well as Latin America, making them less likely  to  stand for reelection and more likely to leave after fewer terms  served as compared to male colleagues. The report also found that one in three female politicians in Sweden’s local politics reportedly considered giving up their positions as a result of threatening incidents and that, in Nigeria, a marked decline in the number of female politicians elected to the country’s congress between 2011 and 2015 can be attributed to the violence and harassment that women in office face. 

The violence and intimidation that women face while running for office, as well as the threats they receive after being elected, also affect not only the women themselves but their polities. Research confirms that disincentivizing female political participation hurts the political process as a whole: diverse organizations have been found to be more effective in decision-making and  female politicians are more likely than their male counterparts to cooperate and prioritize consensus-building. Other studies of U.S. policymakers finds that women elected to Congress sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than men do, are more effective at bringing federal money to their districts, and are significantly more likely to sponsor bills in areas like civil rights, health and education.

When violence and intimidation prevent women from participating in the political system, good governance is threatened. Advancing women’s participation in politics requires that these threats faced by female politicians are taken seriously—while a number of efforts exist, in the United States and abroad, to encourage women to run for political office, women must also be equipped with the tools to respond to threats that they will face while seeking office or governing, and mechanisms to effectively report and respond to these threats must be strengthened.

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