On May 24, 2018, Canada celebrated the 100th anniversary of a minority of women’s right to vote in federal elections. As we reflect on this important milestone and the many trailblazing women on whose shoulders we continue to stand, we must also acknowledge the long road ahead to truly dismantle the barriers to equal access to democratic institutions at the national and international level. In recent years, many political parties around the world have subscribed to the principles of representative democracy by adopting parity policies and amending practices to encourage female involvement, both informally and formally. Such initiatives have included implementing internal quotas on women’s candidatures, ensuring women are nominated in “safe” ridings, and appointing gender-balanced cabinets. In effect, they have created space for more women to enter the profession and hold greater decision-making capacity, thus realizing their right to equal political participation (as enshrined in CEDAW).
Yet, rarely have such efforts been combined with enhanced preventative and security measures for women who experience resistance and violence. To place in context the rate of violence against women parliamentarians, consider a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Based on interviews of female Members of Parliament from 39 countries, the study found that 81 percent of respondents experienced psychological violence and 44 percent of respondents received death threats, rape, beatings, and/or abduction, including threats to kidnap or kill their children during their term in office. In a study conducted in the United Kingdom, 53 percent of respondents, of whom were Members of Parliament, reported experiences of stalking/harassment and 18 percent had been subjected to physical attacks or attempted attacks. Women who were a member of the opposition, young, or belong to a minority group experienced increased rates of violence. The question one should then ask is: would the fear or actual experience of such resistance and violence not dissuade women from seeking nomination or re-election? Therefore, at stake is not only the wellbeing and health of women, but also the sustainability of women’s formal political involvement.
In many countries, violence against women parliamentarians is a corollary of several social and political barriers, namely traditional gender roles/norms, systemic sexism, a lack of trust in legal institutions, weak rule of law, and media representations that reinforce stereotypes, among others. To combat the normalization of such resistance, campaigns have been increasingly used in Western democracies, such as the hashtags #NotTheCost and #AddWomenChangePolitics. Such campaigns have received buy-in from notable Canadian politicians, foremost of whom include Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Minister Catherine McKenna, and Minister Karina Gould. The promise of such campaigns lay in their effort to mobilize people towards challenging sexism, reframing the culture of silencing female voices, and showing solidarity among male and female parliamentarians, including those across party lines.
There are many mechanisms that can be put in place to mitigate the extent to which women experience violence by fellow politicians and the public. In Bolivia, for example, a law was enacted in 2012 to prohibit harassment and violence against any women holding elected office. Four years later, the law was amended to exclude people with known backgrounds of violence against women from running for office. Inspiration can also be drawn from both the public and private sectors that have established independent complaint mechanisms and third-party reporting options for those who wish to seek redress without fear or actual retaliation. These mechanisms adopt a victim/survivor centered approach, and enable more timely access to justice. In many cases, victims/survivors of more serious forms of violence may wish to remain anonymous but would like to report their experience, which may allow authorities to identify patterns of offences. Where such reporting mechanisms are not available, investigators should be properly trained on trauma-informed principles for responding to alleged incidents in a sensitive manner, one that does not re-victimize the victim/survivor.
Moving from reactive to proactive approaches, a culture shift must continue to be made towards ending the impunity of violence and eliminating the “normalization” of resistance. In Canada, a multi-partisan organization called Equal Voice is leading the development of a series of Toolkits to equip young activists with practical knowledge and skills to mobilize action, including towards preventing and responding to gender-based violence. Although the gender-based violence Toolkit has not yet been published, it will be a useful resource to encourage collective action.
For its multidimensional nature, preventing and combating violence against women politicians requires a holistic approach, one in which changing social norms and customary beliefs lies at the heart of proactive initiatives. In order to ensure that “the only glass ceilings are in greenhouses,” as Hannah Berry aptly put it in Daughters of the Glass, recognition must be paid to the critical role of parity policies and practices, but that such efforts ought to be combined with increased protection against violence for women.
Photo: Global Leaders’ Meeting on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Commitment to Action (2015), by UN Women. Liscenced under CC BY 2.0.
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