Targeted: Marielle Franco, Jo Cox, Caroline Spelman, and Diane Rwigara
Left to right: Ellis Rua / AP Images; Yui Mok / AP Images; Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters; Jean Bizimana / Reuters

In recent years, a rising tide of women’s activism has swept across the world. Online and on the streets, millions of women have raised their voices and called for action against systemic abuse, harassment, and discrimination. This activism has translated to the ballot box, with higher numbers of women running for office than ever before.

In 2018, women in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq brought their fight for equal rights to the political arena, with unprecedented numbers of female candidates running in parliamentary elections: 417 in Afghanistan and 2,011 in Iraq. From 2005 to 2018, Lebanon saw more than a 27-fold increase in the number of female parliamentary candidates, from only four to 111. In the United States, over 500 women—a record number—ran for Congress or for statewide office in 2018. And this past spring, local elections in Ireland and national elections in India and Japan featured more female candidates running for office than in any prior election in those countries.

The result has been more women in power. For the first time in U.S. history, women hold close to 25 percent of the seats in the House of Representatives and the Senate. In Brazil, a historic number of female candidates in the 2018 election produced a 35 percent increase in women’s representation in state legislatures compared with four years earlier and a 50 percent improvement in the lower house of the National Congress. In Sri Lanka, following a 2016 electoral quota law that reserved 25 percent of local councils seats for women, 2,000 were elected countrywide, compared with 82 in 2011. Similarly, in Tunisia, a 2016 law demanding the alternation of women and men on political parties’ candidate lists dramatically increased the number of women in local council positions; as a result, women now hold nearly 50 percent of local government positions, compared with 27 percent in 2010. And in Mexico, a record number of nearly 3,000 women ran in the election in 2018, leading to full gender parity in Congress and the first elected female mayor of Mexico City. The largest percentage increase in female parliamentarians as a result of an election in 2018 took place in Djibouti, where women’s representation rose from a meager 11 percent in 2013 to 26 percent.

Women register to vote in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 2018
Women register to vote in Kabul, Afghanistan, April 2018
Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

There have been setbacks in some places—such as in Iceland, where women’s parliamentary representation fell from 47 percent in 2016 to 38 percent in 2017, the lowest it had been since 2007. Overall, however, women’s global parliamentary representation has vastly improved: as of September 2019, women held 24 percent of all seats in national parliaments around the world, nearly double their representation 20 years ago. Although women’s representation remains far from equal to that of men, the rate of change is increasing.

Female representation is not simply a matter of fairness. Research shows that gender diversity in leadership correlates with better governance. Women are more likely than men to advocate laws supporting children and social welfare. In India, a study by the scholars Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo found that village councils led by women were more likely to support investing in clean drinking water, childhood immunizations, and education. And in Norway, women’s representation in municipal councils has been linked to greater childcare coverage, which has improved women’s ability to participate in the workplace. Gender diversity in governments has also been associated with decreased corruption: an analysis by the economists Chandan Jha and Sudipta Sarangi of over 125 countries found that corruption levels are lower in countries with a higher percentage of female legislators.

As women enter politics, they face disproportionate numbers of attacks.

Women are also more likely to reach across political divides: a 2015 study of the U.S. Senate found that female senators more frequently worked across the aisle than did their male counterparts. Research from Uppsala University, in Sweden, has shown that women’s political participation is associated with a lower risk of civil war and a lower incidence of state-perpetrated political violence, such as killings, forced disappearances, torture, and political imprisonment. A quantitative analysis by the political scientist Mary Caprioli found that when women’s parliamentary representation increased by five percent, a country was one-fifth as likely to respond to an international crisis with violence.

Yet as the number of women seeking political office has grown, so, too, has the backlash. This hostility is far from unexpected. Whenever underrepresented groups gain power and rights, they are met with opposition—and, frequently, violence. As women enter politics, they face a disproportionate number of attacks, many of which take on specifically gender-based forms. To protect the progress of recent decades, governments, civil society organizations, and activists must work together to make it easier for women to participate in politics—and harder for others to block their rise.

TAKE COVER

Politically motivated attacks on women have been on the rise in nearly every region of the world, reaching a record high in 2019, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project. Even women who are merely exercising their right to vote fall victim to violence at nearly four times the rate of men, especially in rural areas and at polling locations and voter-registration drives. As women have shifted from voting to seeking elected office, the violence has followed them. Surveys conducted in 2017 in Côte d’Ivoire, Honduras, Tanzania, and Tunisia found that 55 percent of female officials were subjected to violence while carrying out political party functions. In Kenya’s 2017 parliamentary election, a record number of women ran for office, thanks in part to a rule requiring that no more than two-thirds of the seats in a governing body be controlled by one gender. But during the campaign, many of those candidates faced targeted forms of violence, including threats of public stripping. Many of these threats explicitly demanded that the women quit politics, hoping to discourage women from accessing male-dominated political spheres. Similar violence against female candidates and officials has marred the political sphere in Bolivia in recent years. “Women [are close to parity] now, and men cannot easily accept this,” remarked Katia Uriona, the former president of Bolivia’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

Female participants in politics are disproportionately targeted online as well, where they confront an onslaught of harassment on social media. A 2016 survey of female politicians from 39 countries around the world found that 82 percent had experienced some form of psychological violence, with 44 percent facing violent threats. Similarly, a 2018 survey of European female parliamentarians and staffers found that 58 percent had experienced threats of violence online, with nearly half being threatened with death or rape. In Afghanistan, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems has uncovered widespread harassment of female candidates, often at the hands of party leaders, police officers, or election administrators. And in the United States, according to a study conducted by the Australian artificial intelligence research company Max Kelsen, Hillary Clinton received close to twice as much abuse on Twitter as did Bernie Sanders, her main opponent in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary election.

Violence against female politicians undermines their credibility and limits their electoral success.

A particularly pernicious element of the abuse that female political participants endure is its sexual or gender-specific quality. Whereas abuse against men in politics largely relates to their professional duties, the online harassment of female candidates is far more likely to include comments about their physical appearance or threats of sexual assault. In some instances, harassers distribute sexual photos of female politicians, as was the case in Rwanda, when harassers posted fake nude photos of Diane Rwigara, the only female presidential candidate in the 2017 election. Harassers also threaten female politicians’ loved ones: in 2018, researchers at the University of Bradford found that an astonishing 62 percent of female parliamentarians in the United Kingdom had received physical threats to their friends and family, compared with only six percent of their male counterparts.

At its most extreme, violence against female political leaders has become lethal. Last year in Brazil, Marielle Franco—a black, gay, feminist city councilor in Rio de Janeiro—was assassinated by militia members opposed to her political positions. Similarly, a series of violent attacks against elected female leaders across Bolivia in 2012 culminated in the assassination of Juana Quispe, a councilor in Ancoraimes who had come under fire for assisting female colleagues in filing harassment complaints. And in 2016, an assassin motivated by a toxic mix of white supremacy, xenophobia, and misogyny took the life of Jo Cox, an outspoken feminist British parliamentarian.

Also distressing is the way that such violence threatens to undermine the credibility and limit the electoral success of female politicians. According to the National Democratic Institute, violence against female politicians in Asian and Latin American democracies has led them to serve fewer terms, on average, than their male colleagues. In the United Kingdom, several female members of Parliament decided not to run for reelection in December 2019 in large part owing to the abuse they experienced. Caroline Spelman, one such member, wrote in The Times of London that “sexually charged rhetoric has been prevalent in the online abuse of female MPs, with threats to rape us and referring to us by our genitalia. It is therefore not surprising that so many good female colleagues have decided to stand down at this election.” 

Tributes in memory of murdered Labour Party MP Jo Cox, who was shot dead in Birstall, are left at Parliament Square in London, Britain June 18, 2016.
Tributes to Jo Cox in London, June 2016
Neil Hall / Reuters

And this abuse prevents women from running for office in the first place. In a 2014 survey in Australia by the YWCA and the University of Adelaide, two-thirds of the women polled who expressed interest in running for office said that threats against female politicians made them hesitant to do so. In Afghanistan, women reported to the International Foundation for Electoral Systems in 2019 that pervasive sexual harassment was one of the primary factors discouraging them from running for higher office. And in Iraq in 2018, one woman entirely withdrew her candidacy for parliament after a fabricated video surfaced online showing her in bed with a man.

These forms of harassment and violence not only damage a woman personally; they also hinder her ability to govern effectively. In a 2016 survey by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, almost 40 percent of the female parliamentarians interviewed who had experienced violence said that those acts undermined their ability to speak freely and uphold their mandates. Consider, for example, the financial burden female candidates and officials face in requiring unusually high levels of security in the form of paid guards and protected facilities. In Kenya in 2017, some female candidates chose not to hold meetings at night, thereby putting themselves at a severe disadvantage as compared to their male opponents. And in the United Kingdom, nearly 100 percent of female legislators have increased their security at home, compared with 75 percent of the men.

BLANKETING THE BACKLASH

Much of this violence is driven by misogyny, a deep-seated pathology in most societies and cultures that won’t be eliminated anytime soon. But it is overly fatalistic to conclude that policy changes would be useless. In fact, governments, international organizations, and technology companies can enact reforms that would help blunt the corrosive violence.

In 2011, the UN General Assembly issued a declaration calling for zero tolerance of violence against female candidates and elected officials; an investigation by Dubravka Simonovic, the UN’s special rapporteur on violence against women, followed in 2018. Regional bodies have also taken up the issue: in 2015, the state parties to the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment, and Eradication of Violence Against Women endorsed a proclamation that committed political parties, trade unions, and social organizations to “create their own internal instruments and mechanisms to prevent, punish and eradicate political violence and/or harassment against women.” In response, several Mexican state agencies developed a protocol to coordinate their efforts on combating such violence, which has supported survivors in bringing and winning claims.

Governments too rarely enforce laws intended to protect women.

A growing number of countries have also taken steps to criminalize violence against women in politics. Latin American countries have taken up this issue, passing standalone laws and amending electoral codes. In 2012, for example, Bolivia passed a law criminalizing political harassment and violence against women; since then, the law has increased consciousness and accountability on the issue. Other countries around the world should follow suit; new legislation is needed to recognize the specific threats that female politicians and candidates face.

But legal reform is worth little if governments don’t enforce the laws. Bolivia’s landmark legislation is a case in point: despite nearly 300 prosecutions, there has been just one conviction. Countries like Bolivia can increase enforcement by providing judicial and law enforcement training to the local authorities processing prosecutions.

As a start, authorities should better track violence against female politicians. The hidden nature of the problem is exacerbated by underreporting: many women remain silent so as not to feed the stereotype that they are ill equipped for politics. Another problem is the lack of data that would allow analysts to compare rates of violence suffered by women to those suffered by men. Governments, nonprofits, and academic institutions should fund research that fills this gap. Additionally, governments can look to civil society organizations that have developed ways to measure violence against women in politics. The National Democratic Institute, for example, has created a risk-assessment tool that helps identify the personal, professional, and political risks that women face; shape response plans; and report incidents to the relevant governing entity.

Simonovic, the UN’s special rapporteur, has urged governments to train observers and authorities to monitor and report attacks against female voters and candidates and submit their findings to treaty-monitoring bodies, such as the UN Human Rights Committee. States should hold election administrators accountable if they fail to take measures to prevent the harassment of female politicians. Countries could also establish independent observational bodies responsible for identifying and reporting violence against female members of political parties.

The hidden nature of violence against female politicians is exacerbated by underreporting.

Meanwhile, only a few parliaments have internal mechanisms for handling harassment within their ranks. The 2016 Inter-Parliamentary Union survey found that fewer than ten of the 42 parliaments investigated had policies on sexual harassment against parliamentarians, and fewer than half had policies designed to protect female staff. Even where these mechanisms do exist, parliamentarians and their staff often don’t realize it. Political parties also have a role to play, by adopting codes of conduct, introducing zero-tolerance policies, monitoring social media accounts for abusive speech, and providing training to party members. Governments can also combat harassment in parties by ratifying the Convention Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, which was adopted in Geneva in 2019 by the International Labor Organization and obligates governments to monitor, prevent, and resolve workplace harassment.

The prominence of online abuse demands action from technology firms. Social media companies have done far too little to address abuse and harassment of female public figures. Platforms such as Facebook should automatically identify and remove intimidating content—including threats of rape—and enable users to alert police to illegal online activity. And if corporations continue to delay making such reforms, governments should enact legislation to hold them liable. The French government is taking steps to require technology companies to remove hateful content within 24 hours or suffer financial penalties, such as multimillion-dollar fines. (France encouraged other governments to follow suit during its presidency of the G-7 in 2019, and the United States should broaden the call when it assumes that leadership in 2020.) Governments could also classify gender-based attacks on public figures online as hate speech and regulate it accordingly. To address concerns over the effect such a move would have on freedom of expression, legal scholars have outlined changes to communications laws and judicial procedures that would help shut down online abuse without infringing unduly on free speech. For example, Danielle Citron has proposed that social media platforms ban only those threats that name specific individuals, not those targeting unspecified groups.

Washington, for its part, should use foreign aid as a lever to drive reform. Particularly in conflict areas, the United States should earmark assistance for the physical protection of female candidates. U.S. programs that train criminal justice officials and media professionals in other countries also ought to emphasize the issue.

Violence should not be the cost of women entering politics. Governance suffers when women are harassed into leaving politics or are too intimidated to get involved in the first place. As women around the world raise their voices and step into the political arena, countries committed to representative democracy must do more to ensure that the playing field is level—and safe.

  • JAMILLE BIGIO is a Senior Fellow in the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
  • RACHEL VOGELSTEIN is Douglas Dillon Senior Fellow and Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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