Both female voters and politicians have experienced increased harassment, violence and psychological abuse in elections around the world.
Despite recent success in Tunisia, which elected the capital’s first female mayor in July, many women around the world continue to experience significant violence around election time. This type of violence is not exclusive to one region of the world, but is experienced by women globally as seen in the recent elections in Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Mexico. Both female voters and politicians have experienced increased harassment, violence and psychological abuse. Electoral violence against women must be addressed and ultimately prevented as it is damaging for states attempting to maintain inclusive governance and democratic societies.
Harassment against women, including acts of domestic violence, tends to increase during electoral periods and is not limited to a single culture or context. In 2016, an Inter-Parliamentary Union report discovered that 44% of surveyed elected female officials experienced threats of rape, death and abductions while in office. Threats of violence and acts of violence dissuade female politicians from continuing to run for political positions and also discourages women from voting. Research has confirmed that hindering female political participation negatively impacts constituencies and undermines the overall political process in countries around the world.
During Zimbabwe’s contentious 2018 general election, female politicians faced multiple barriers when competing for office. In many cases, women received frequents threats from opponents, members of their own party and even from their own family members. During the election period, female politicians experience intense psycho-social violence, particularly with the growing prevalence and importance of social media. Unlike their male counterparts, female politicians are called demeaning names and subjected to gender stereotyping. For example, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) quotes one interviewee noting that “A woman still cannot question an MP in parliament without being [told] her thighs are too big.”
Female voters also experience similar cruelty during electoral periods. Throughout ultra-conservative regions of Pakistan, such as in a village near Khubab, in the Punjab region, many women were only able to vote for the first time since independence in 1947 in the 2018 general election even though they have been legally enfranchised since 1956. Despite this milestone, Pakistani women continue to face violence and restrictions when attempting to exercise their right to vote. They are hindered by discrimination that takes place at polling booths as well as outright declarations from the jirgas, or councils of elders, forbidding women to vote, threatening to be shunned from their communities.
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These traditional and religious barriers, plus the lack of segregated voting stations, means Pakistani women tend to stay at home instead of exercising their right to vote due to fear of retribution, backlash and even threats to their personal safety. Globally, Pakistan is ranked last when it comes to female participation in elections.
It is critical to promote peaceful and violence-free elections, which necessitates full gender inclusivity at every step of the electoral process. An example of a positive innovation for women within electoral periods is the creation of IFES’ Women against Violence in Elections Advisory Group in Bangladesh, which is an innovative community forum that empowers community members — both women and men — to discuss ways to mitigate electoral violence against women and how to promote overall peaceful elections. The use of community forums and awareness trainings equips women, and also men, with the tools to respond to violent threats and effectively report them back to the authorities.
Legislation can be utilized to protect women against harassment and violence during elections. However, many countries do not have extensive laws protecting women during electoral periods, such as is the reality in Zimbabwe and Pakistan; and if they do, the laws are often not enforced. A positive example of useful legislation is the case of Bolivia, which passed Law 243 specifically focusing on how to address violence against women surrounding elections. Unfortunately, limited financial resources prevent the law from being fully be implemented.
Impunity is an egregious injustice that allows electoral violence against women to continue. In many cases, women are unable to report acts of violence to authorities without fear of backlash or lack of confidence in the officials to do their jobs. Beyond legislation, governments need to support and work with community forums and local non-governmental organizations to both combat electoral violence as well as empower women during electoral periods, whether in their roles as voters or politicians. For instance, governments can hold community forums with security officials, female and male politicians, and other community members to collectively discuss the violence women face during elections and the obstacles they face in finding justice. Including security officials may build more solid relationships between women and those who are supposed to protect them and uphold their rights during electoral times.
In the atmosphere of fear and violence against women voters and politicians during election periods, a country’s overall ability to represent its citizens is diminished as women’s voices are prevented from being represented within the elected governments. This discrepancy perpetuates a vicious circle wherein women will continue to be underrepresented and often outright harmed by legislation that they had no say in.
*[Young Professionals in Foreign Policy is a partner organization of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.