Home » Politics as Usual?; Rising Violence Against Female Politicians is a Threat to Democracy

Politics as Usual?; Rising Violence Against Female Politicians is a Threat to Democracy

by Narges Mohammadi

BRITAIN/ On 12 July, MPs took part in a Westminster Hall debate on abuse and intimidation of candidates and the public in the recent UK elections. During the debate, Chris Skidmore, the Minister for the Constitution, announced that Prime Minister Theresa May had requested that the Committee on Standards in Public Life carry out a review – firstly, to examine the nature of the problem and its implications for candidates and office holders and, secondly, to consider whether measures already in place to deal with this issue are sufficient, effective, and enforceable.

Research published in 2016 and 2017 indicates that the vast majority of British MPs have experienced ‘intrusive or aggressive behavior’ from constituents, while more than half of female MPs report having received physical threats. News reports suggest that intimidation and harassment have been on the rise for at least the last several years, with the online harassment of Stella Creasy being perhaps the most well-known case. Assassination of Jo Cox in June 2016, however, brought this issue into greater focus – and highlighted that women, in particular, appear to be targeted more often and more viciously than their male colleagues.

Over the past year, numerous MPs have reported online rape and death threats, including Jess PhillipsYvette Cooper and Anna Soubry. In some cases, these attacks have occurred on multiple fronts, with misogyny combining with homophobia against Angela Eagle, racism against Diane Abbott, and anti-semitism against Luciana Berger.

Further Information

Shortly after the 2017 general elections, some Conservative MPs began to share their experiences, with Sheryll Murray and Sarah Wollaston divulging threats received on social media, as well as incidents of vandalism and intimidation occurring at their homes and offices. In early July, the Citizens Commission on Islam, Participation, and Public Life published Missing Muslims, with a section detailing harassment of British Muslim women aspiring to participate in local politics.

In 2011, for example, the United Nations General Assembly approved Resolution 66/130, calling for zero tolerance for violence against female candidates and elected officials. Furthermore in 2015, states-parties to the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence against Women endorsed a Declaration on Political Harassment and Violence against Women. In 2017, the French Senate approved an amendment that would disqualify those found guilty of sexual or psychological harassment from holding political office.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Democracy, I map these emerging global debates, focusing on the nature of the problem, its implications for candidates and other office-holders, and solutions that might be employed by different actors to address this problem. These international experiences provide a useful starting point for the work of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, enabling it to focus its efforts on developing strategies to combat political violence and harassment in all its manifestations.

What is violence against women in politics?

International actors typically define violence and harassment against women in politics as (1) aggressive acts toward female political actors, faced largely or only by women; (2) because they are women, often using gendered means of attack; (3) in order to deter their participation, as a way to preserve traditional gender roles and undermine democratic institutions. This definition seeks to go beyond traditional understandings of political and electoral violence and harassment, understood as attempts to defeat or silence a particular political perspective through force.

Present debates seek to expand the discussion to address efforts to exclude and silence women specifically – sometimes due to their political affiliation, but also, more often, in spite of it.

The result is that female politicians often confront similar challenges as their male colleagues, stemming from their work as public servants, while also facing resistance and even danger in spaces accessible and safe for men – like political assemblies, party meetings, their offices, and their homes.

Differences in male and female politicians

Differences in male and female politicians’ experiences on social media illustrate these dynamics: while both women and men are (and, for democratic reasons, should be) criticized online for their policy positions, female MPs – and women who voice their opinions more generally – tend to be attacked in highly personalized, sexualised, and often vitriolic ways.

To be sure, there are high levels of political disaffection among the public towards politics and politicians and, when asked to compare the US Congress to a series of unpleasant things, respondents reported a higher opinion of root canals, cockroaches, and traffic jams.

Even in such a context, however, individuals tend to express greater levels of hostility toward female as compared to male leaders, judging women to be less likeable, qualified, and competent despite equivalent profiles.

Devastating consequences for democracy

Normalizing the abuse of public figures – and dismissing sexism and misogyny in the political world – as simply the ‘cost of doing politics’ has devastating consequences for the quality of democracy.

First, it can undermine the will of voters by skewing electoral outcomes and rendering elected representatives less effective. Sexist comments and the sexual objectification of female politicians can have a critical impact on their electoral fortunes, while sexist hostility and intimidation can detract from substantive policy work and drive female politicians to step down.

Second, violence and harassment can impoverish political discourse by truncating the diversity of perspectives brought into the policy-making process. Women whose presence challenges multiple inequalities are frequently targeted, like Cécile Kyenge, the first black minister in Italy, who had bananas and racist epithets thrown at her.

Former Texas state senator Wendy Davis noted: ‘I have lots of bots who follow me. I could literally say it’s a beautiful day in Texas and the responses I get on Twitter are “baby murderer.”’

Third, violence and harassment directed at women can restrict women’s political rights. Motivated by a desire to preserve traditional gender roles, perpetrators may target individual women, but in so doing, communicate a broader message that women as a group should not participate in politics.

Fighting perceptions that this is just ‘politics as usual’

Together with online harassers – whose identities are often more difficult to ascertain amid fake and anonymous accounts, as well as automated bots and communities of trolls – this landscape calls for a multi-level, multi-actor response.

A crucial first step is to resist dismissing violence and harassment as simply ‘politics as usual.’ In 2016, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) launched the #NotTheCost campaign to stop violence against women in politics, arguing that violence is not the cost of doing politics: women should be able to be politically active without experiencing discrimination, harassment, or assault.

At the state level, the National Commission on the Status of Women in Pakistan began collecting official data on violence against women in politics in 2015. In Mexico, various state agencies came together in 2016 to develop a protocol to coordinate their work to combat political violence and harassment.

Within parliaments, legislators have launched reforms to criminalize political violence and harassment, such as a law passed in Bolivia in 2012 and bills proposed in at least five other Latin American countries. In 2014, an all-party committee in the Canadian House of Commons instituted a new code of conduct and procedure for handling sexual harassment complaints.

Final Word

There is no doubt, however, that global momentum is building as women and men around the world recognise that violence against women in politics poses a serious and growing threat to democracy. In the words of former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright: “When a woman participates in politics, she should be putting her hopes and dreams for the future on the line, not her dignity and not her life.”

Source: London School of Economics Blog

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