Female MPs in Africa have a lot to fear with 80% of them having experienced psychological violence in parliament, 67% having been subjected to sexist behavior or remarks and 39% of them having faced sexual violence. Disturbingly, the main perpetrators of this violence are their male counterparts.
This is according to a new study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the African Parliamentary Union (APU) showing that sexism, harassment and violence against women is rampant across African parliaments.
“Sexual violence [against] women parliamentarians…begins as soon as the parliament opens,” says Ugandan MP Hon. Winnie Kiiza, a Ugandan MP who served as the country’s first female leader of the opposition from 2016-2018, in an interview with Quartz.
“Even in my own parliament, it is happening. The problem is that most of our men still believe they are the leaders and the women are secondary.”
Women parliamentarians under 40, unmarried women, and women from minority groups face a higher incidence of violence, and women living with disabilities are the most seriously affected, says the report.
Released ahead of the 16 Days Against Gender-Based Violence campaign, the study is based on anonymous interviews with 224 women from 50 African countries and one sub regional parliamentary assembly.
“The conclusions reveal an insidious epidemic of sexism in parliaments in Africa,” IPU president Duarte Pacheco said in a statement. “Sexism and gender-based violence against women threatens parliaments as it deters young women from entering politics…We need those young women in parliament for the sake of strong and representative democratic institutions.”
It confirms many of the results of the IPU’s 2016 global study, which revealed a high level of gender-based violence across all parliaments and that women MPs around the world suffer similar levels of harassment, and sexism. However, the level of sexual violence against women parliamentarians in Africa is highest at 39%, compared to in Europe (25%) and in the world (22%.)
Women interviewed in the study reported that the majority of sexism and abuse comes from male parliamentarians, often from a rival political party. Violence can take several forms, including psychological (such as sexist remarks, discrediting and online sexist attacks); physical (pushing, slapping, throwing objects), sexual (harassment, assault, extortion for sex); and economic (refusal of funds, resources or destruction of property.)
“When young women and girls read about these stories, some of them may fear getting into spaces of influence,” said Hon. Kiiza. “Until we challenge the patriarchal system, then the men will continue stopping women from participating in politics.”
Women currently occupy 24% of Africa’s 12,113 parliamentary seats in 2020, which is up from just 9% in 2000 but still below the global average of 26%, according to a report from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, a European think tank. It also noted that female representation in African parliaments is much lower than in the Americas (32%) and in Europe (30%), and it is still a long way off from the global goal of gender parity in politics by 2030.
Respondents to the IPU study gave several reasons for not reporting acts of violence. They include the institutional environment that tolerates this behavior or views sexism and gender-based violence as unimportant issues, as well as a lack of a safe and reliable reporting mechanism and a risk of damage to their political reputation.
“Some women feel shy to come out in the open and say ‘I am being harassed sexually’ because according to our societal norms, it is very normal,” said Hon. Kiiza. “So for safety and for purposes of not being laughed at, many women die in silence.”
Women parliamentarians’ experience of violence is also impacted by factors such as their age, disability, minority group status, and marital status.
Wanja Maina is a 30-year-old Kenyan disability rights activist and a former parliamentarian assistant. She is also the founder of Hummingbird+, which is an initiative that advocates for people with disabilities and lobbies for policy change in Kenya. She said she was saddened but unsurprised by findings that female parliamentarians with disabilities are most seriously affected by violence in all its forms.
“Traditional African society looks at disabled people as people to be helped, people who have so many problems, people who cannot amount to much…Many members of Parliament are products of that culture which means they are just as ignorant as everybody else,” she said. “The media has also contributed in enforcing these narratives.”
Maina said that an important aspect of her work is using social media to create equal representation for people with disabilities and to change negative perceptions. She also advocates for programming around gender-based violence that addresses the needs of people with disabilities.
“When you’re disabled, you’re at the margins of society. When you are a woman, you are also looked down upon. So when it comes to intersectionality, [disabled women] are twice as looked down upon,” she said.
According to statistics from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP,) the literacy rate for women with disabilities is 1%, compared to 3% of adults. As a result of this, Maina says most women and girls with disabilities are continuously excluded from formal education and political representation, and they become further marginalized.
“In essence, you’re dealing with the sad reality that all the odds are against you,” she said. “The work that we’re doing is to make people look broadly at these issues and to convince parliament to do better. Change is not as fast as we would hope…but when you’re part of a minority, you have to always be vigilant.”
The IPU recommends legislative reform and strengthened enforcement of existing laws to address all forms of violence against women in politics and in the workplace.
According to World Bank data, 33 of 54 African countries have a law on violence against women, gender-based violence or domestic violence, and 30 countries have laws governing sexual harassment in the workplace. The IPU also recommends institutional reform including a zero tolerance policy and a code of conduct that prevents and eliminates violence against women in parliaments.
Both Hon. Kiiza and Maina say that discussions around gender-based violence should be prioritized and that they must involve women and men at all levels.
“I think the discussion should be for all of us. Some countries are still in denial that [violence against women] is happening,” said Hon. Kiiza. “Sometimes we fear to tackle the hard stuff because of societal constructions. But if we can get out of the confines of society…I think it can help the new parliamentarians and the next ones to come.”
Maina adds “Women make good leaders and efficient parliamentarians. This is not an issue of debate. But sometimes we assume that women are homogenous. There are women with challenges that do not look like our own – but they are still challenges. So it is also upon all women to stand up strongly and collectively. In the future we want to discuss leaders and their performance and not some of these backwards barriers.”
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