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Nearly Half of Female Politicians Have Been Threatened with Rape or Violence

New research shows that women around the world face violence, abusive threats, and sexist behavior while they serve in office.
October 26, 2016, 2:05pm
Photo by Simone Becchetti via Stocksy

Female politicians in parliamentary democracies around the world are being undermined, threatened, and targeted with violence, according to new research.

A report from the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 44.4 percent of female elected representatives have been threatened in office, including threats of death, rape, beatings, or abductions. Another 65.5 percent said they had received "several times, or often" humiliating remarks of a sexual or sexist nature. Disturbingly, the remarks made in the "great majority" of cases came from male politicians in parliament—including those in their political party.

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Coming just months after the brutal murder of British MP Jo Cox, the report—which surveyed 55 female MPs from 39 countries—makes for devastating reading. Over a fifth of parliamentarians have been subject to acts of sexual violence, and a quarter have been physically attacked. 81.8 percent say they have experienced psychological violence, defined in the report as hostile behavior causing psychological harm, suffering, and fear.

"We knew that psychological violence against female MPs would have a significant prevalence," says report author Brigitte Fillon. "But what surprised me about the findings is how much they indicate that this is a global phenomenon."

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In what's been universally acknowledged to be a shithole of a year, female parliamentarians have had a lot to contend with. In June 2016, Cox was murdered by an English far right activist outside a public meeting. The humanitarian worker and advocate for refugee children was only 41 years old. Her death came five years after US congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords sustained life-altering injuries after being shot in the head at a constituency meeting. The cases had demonstrable parallels: Left-leaning female politicians attacked by men with a history of mental health problems while they met with constituents.

Even if not subject to open acts of violence, elected representatives experience daily threats and harassment, particularly online. The report found that over 40 percent of female parliamentarians had seen "terribly humiliating or sexually charged images" of themselves spread through social media.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union founds that a majority of female parliamentarians face violence and abuse while serving their terms. Photo via Wikimedia Common

The problem manifests itself in countries around the world. In June 2016, British MP Jess Phillips told the Guardian that she received 600 rape threats in one night on Twitter. Data analysis also reported in the Guardian showed that Hillary Clinton received almost double the online abuse as her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders over the space of one year. And female politicians looking for basic rights—such as the ability to breastfeed at work—are often shut down or humiliated online or by their peers.

"We know that social media is one of the main areas where psychological violence is perpetrated against female MPs," explains Fillon. "But it's also a problem inside parliament. Sexist remarks and sexual harassment are [also] being perpetuated by men inside parliaments."

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The testimonials from Fillon's report are bleak. We learn that one Asian parliamentarian has threats made against her son via social media: They send "information about [her] son—his age, the school he attends, his class, etc.—threatening to kidnap him." In another testimonial, a politician from Sub-Saharan Africa reports that a female colleague said that the Speaker of Parliament refuses to let her have the floor after she refused his sexual overtures.

According to the report, younger women and those from ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience harassment. "It's another layer of discrimination," Fillon argues. "It can be difficult for female MPs in those situations to do their work freely and without threat."

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When female politicians speak out on gender issues or describe themselves as feminist, they are also more likely to be attract sexist behavior and violence—60.5 percent said their activism on these issues had made them targets for this abuse. "When we asked them why they think this is happening," Fillon explains, "they told us that it's part of a campaign to dissuade them and their female colleagues from continuing in politics."

In a week where Joe Biden has spoken of wanting to punch Donald Trump out, it's clear that politics remains very much a schoolboys' game. The solution? "Parliaments need to address violence against women within and without their structures," Fillon says. "They need to lead by example and show that this isn't tolerable in parliament, just as it wouldn't be tolerable in any other setting."