Violence against women in politics is a rising global problem

Women have made significant inroads into elected office in recent years – largely due to the introduction of gender quotas – nonetheless, their presence has spurred multiple forms of sexual violence including online abuse, verbal harassment, stalking, intimidation, unwelcome sexual advances and acts of physical or sexual assault. 

In 2016, a ground-breaking report on violence against women in parliaments published by the Inter-Parliamentary Union revealed that 80% of interviewees had experienced psychological abuse in connection with their political work.

Highly misogynistic

While this is linked to the growing threats of force and intimidation against elected office-holders more generally, gender-based violence against women politicians is a highly misogynistic form of behaviour, targeting women as women in an attempt to silence them as political actors. It also impacts family members, including children, who are not in the public eye.

Gendered political violence is highly racialised, with black and minority ethnic women disproportionally targeted for abuse, particularly in online settings. 

Younger women and LGBTQ+ women in politics also face a heightened risk of abuse, but no women office holder-holder is immune.

Violence against women in politics is far from a new phenomenon, but in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is a greater awareness that the problem exists in politics as it does in other sectors.

The issue remained hidden for many years as survivors normalised their experiences as part of the ‘hustle and bustle’ of institutional politics. 

More survivors are now willing to come forward to share their stories and make reports. However, many women politicians have remained quiet, or decided to only speak out anonymously, for fear it will harm their political career or the image of their political party or that they will be subjected to victim-blaming and retraumatisation.

Violence against women in politics is becoming an increasing problem in Ireland. Last September, a survey conducted by this paper showed that 12 of 35 women TDs serving in the Dáil at the time have been subjected to sexual harassment at some point in their life. 

Worryingly, this statistic aligns with research I carried out around the same time for the National Women’s Council, which found that 35% of women councillors have experienced sexual harassment or sexual misconduct in their political role.

Social media

Social media was identified by participants as an area where women were subjected to considerable abuse.
Social media was identified by participants as an area where women were subjected to considerable abuse.

Another study I co-authored with Dr Pauline Cullen (Maynooth University) on women candidates who ran in the 2019 local elections reported cases of stalking and for ethnic minority candidates, racist and sexist abuse. Social media was identified by participants as an area where women were subjected to considerable abuse.

Gender-based targeting or intimidation of women politicians is a major challenge for the functioning of our democracy, and the impact on women’s representation is two-fold – victims may decide to retire early from public life, while other women may be reluctant to go forward as candidates when they see what elected women are experiencing. 

As it stands, a number of women councillors have told me they will not contest for their seats in the 2024 local elections because of online abuse.

This problem needs to be tackled proactively by all stakeholders. At a macro level, social media platforms must play an active role in combatting online abuse.

As key drivers of democracy, political parties also need to deal with this issue head-on. For instance, the UK Labour Party revised its rulebook in 2018 to include a policy on sexual harassment and another on social media usage.

Legal reforms

Women candidates and politicians who are targeted should be offered full supports, including legal, security and counselling supports as required, while the gardaí need to be fully trained and resourced to respond to reports.

Finally, the newly-established Electoral Commission is in a key position to collect and publish high-level data on violence against women in Irish politics, make further recommendations to Government and political parties, and to educate political actors and the public on the problem.

Violence and harassment should never be the price that women pay to be in politics on equal terms with men.

Claire McGing

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