Day Nine | Fighting against Disablist Gender Based Violence: A Double Dose of Discrimination

Caroline Bradbury-Jones and Sonali Shah 

Disability, Gender

Disability and violence are global human rights issues that cut across gender, race, age, sexuality, geographical, religious, socio-economic and cultural boundaries. They are socially produced and culturally constructed, and can manifest at different or multiple, generational locations over a person’s life-course (childhood, youth, adulthood and older age). Disability and violence have a bi-directional relationship in that the onset of impairment can be caused by being exposed to violence, or violent actions by a perpetrator can be stimulated by a victim’s impairment.

While both were once considered to be private problems hidden from public view, increasingly they are recognised as issues that call for public attention and intervention. Moreover, both are gendered, and both begin early in life. Here, we focus on what we term ‘disablist gender-based violence’, that is, violence that is specific to being disabled and that is targeted at women and girls because they are women and girls. It is, in effect, a double dose of discrimination.

Across the globe, the risk of violence for children with impairments is up to four times greater than their non-disabled contemporaries. Violence against disabled children tends to be more severe than for non-disabled children, while severity is correlated with the impairment type. They are likely to experience more than one type of violence across their lifetime starting from an early age.

From infanthood, disabled people are continuously reminded of their ‘difference’ and ‘otherness’ in society. There is now indubitable evidence that there are considerable gendered risks that lead to disablist gender-based violence. Accounting for gender, significantly more disabled girls than disabled boys are likely to experience sexual abuse, while the opposite is true for physical abuse. 

The high proportion of disabled women and girls exposed to and experiencing violence during their lives is associated with a number of factors, starting with the societal contention that the life of a disabled child is a wrongful life and an economic burden to the family and society. The objectification and manipulation of the disabled female body have been suggested to create opportunities for violence.

Disablist gender-based violence includes actions that simultaneously increase the powerfulness of the perpetrators and the powerlessness of the disabled women and girls. Although disabled women and girls can experience the same types of abuse as their non-disabled contemporaries – physical, sexual and emotional – they are likely to be subjected to additional abuse triggered by the objectification and manipulation we mentioned earlier. Moreover, abuse may be perpetrated by people who are supposed to ‘care’ for them, such as personal assistants or carers in institutions, parents and health care workers.

Into adulthood, over half of all disabled women have experienced physical abuse, compared with one third of non-disabled women. Nearly 80% of disabled women have been victims of psychological and physical violence, and are at a greater risk of sexual abuse than non-disabled women. Traditionally, as a group, disabled women and girls have been exposed to disempowering messages about their reproductive choices from early childhood, for example having limited exposure to sexual knowledge and opportunities while growing up. 

This arises from them being excluded from the cultural spaces where such exchanges take place or being constrained by high levels of surveillance. Disabled women have been discouraged and sometimes physically prevented from exercising their reproductive capacities and becoming parents. They are subject to social infantilisation, being conceptualised as weak, passive and dependent. The disabled female body has not been seen as beautiful or sexual, but as fragile, weak and asexual. Moreover, the disabled female has historically been objectified asexually by media, medical and legal discourses; conceptualised as undesirable sexual partners or mothers. 

The fact that disabled women and girls may have to depend on others for basic personal and social needs, not only places them at greater risk of abuse compared to non-disabled females, but also reduces opportunities to disclose. Professionals may not necessarily recognise scars of disabled child abuse and misdiagnose them as being related to the child’s impairment. Such diagnostic overshadowing can thwart opportunities for child protection and support and exacerbate marginalisation and risk to disabled women and girls. Moreover, limited violence prevention support and intervention for disabled females at different points of their life can leave them feeling disempowered and doubting their rights to protection and support. 

In conclusion, gender-based violence perpetrated against women and girls is a major human rights issue that blights the lives of millions worldwide. This risk is greater for disabled women and girls and is less likely to be recognised among policy makers and health service providers. Disabled women and girls are more likely to encounter barriers to support and protection for a number of reasons, connected to the overall pattern of disablism in society.

The evidence suggests that indicators of violence can be overlooked by practitioners who see the disability first, rather than the woman or girl as a person. The reality is that many disabled women have intersectional identities – they may identify as homosexual, identify as transgender, are of minority ethnic or religious background, and are of different ages – which contributes to unique experiences of oppression and disadvantage.

Across the globe, there is a dearth of voices and experiences of disabled women and girls in mainstream research, policy and practice in relation to violence, victimisation, protection and prevention. The inclusion of these hidden voices will not only help achieve the goal “nothing about us without us”. It will also raise an awareness of the need to include disablist violence in official definitions of gender-based violence and child abuse. 

The issues covered in this blog are addressed more fully in our book: Disability, Gender and Violence over the Life Course: Global Perspectives and Human Rights Approaches. Shah, S. & Bradbury-Jones, C. (2018), Routledge, London. 

 

Caroline Bradbury-Jones is a registered nurse, midwife and health visitor. Her research interests lie broadly within the scope of addressing inequalities and more specifically are focused on issues of family violence and child abuse and neglect. She has led or been actively involved in securing funding for a number of research projects relevant to these areas. She has undertaken research or engaged in scholarly activities with a number of countries including Japan, New Zealand, Denmark, Germany and Finland. Caroline leads the Risk, Abuse and Violence research programme at the University of Birmingham. 

Sonali Shah is a Research Fellow in the School of Nursing at the University of Birmingham. She is funded by a Burdett Trust award to undertake a qualitative study ‘Eternal: UK healthcare of women with Cerebral Palsy across the female life cycle’. The purpose is to address the gap in existing understandings about growing older with Cerebral Palsy, and women’s health, and to highlight the health and healthcare experiences of disabled women in general, and women with CP in particular. The proposed outcome is to develop an educational tool for nurses, midwives and allied healthcare practitioners to understand the embodied changes experienced by girls and women with Cerebral Palsy across the life course (from menarche to menopause), and how to overcome structural and cultural barriers to healthcare services, environments and treatments, particularly in relation to reproductive and sexual health. 

Day Eight | Reflecting on Zimbabwe’s Gukurahundi Genocide through Poetry

Dudu Ndlovu

Zimbabwe

Silence 

Everyone knows of that time

That time nobody wants to go back to

That time that will never be forgotten

That time we never speak of

 

Screams in the night 

Fear gripping the most brave

Nobody wants to witness the shame

Gukurahundi Genocide

 

Daylight brings sunshine and blue skies

Yet the brightest song from the birds

Can never soak away 

The blood drenching the earth 

Calling out for justice 

 

Mothers bear a fatherless generation 

Girls pay with their sexed bodies 

Young men flee for their lives

Fathers killed for their politics

 

Silence labours to erase 

The trace of that time 

But like a woman bewitched

Produces a thousand times more

The stench of death

(Poem by Duduzile S. Ndlovu, 2015) 

 

Zimbabwe, a country on the southern tip of Africa, gained independence from direct colonial rule in 1980. This signalled the end of the liberation struggle; however, people in the Matabeleland and Midlands parts of the country (which were also strongholds for the opposition party at that time) experienced another war, this time at the hands of the army of the newly-independent country. 

The poem above reflects on this period, which is popularly known as Gukurahundi, where 20,000 people were killed or disappeared from 1980 to 1987. Much has been written on the causes of the Gukurahundi violence and most importantly that its victims have not received any acknowledgement or restitution for the pain suffered. Many see the Gukurahundi as a genocide meant to annihilate the Ndebele from Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwean government has justified its silencing of the memorialisation of the violence by arguing that speaking about the Gukurahundi will incite ethnic division in the country.

Since the late 1990s, Zimbabwe began to experience economic decline resulting in an increase in the number of those migrating to neighbouring countries such as Botswana and South Africa, some as far as the United Kingdom and other countries across the globe in search of economic opportunities. As people migrate, they carry along with them their memories and trauma across the borders. Some of the victims of the Gukurahundi who migrated to Johannesburg find in it space to commemorate the Gukurahundi – which they couldn’t do in Zimbabwe, where the government prevented such efforts.  

There are calls for the acknowledgment of the Gukurahundi and for the truth about the atrocities to be made public so the perpetrators can be held accountable.  However, a male-centric, ethnic and nationalistic memorial narrative prevails in these memorials and calls for acknowledgement, reparation and reconciliation. Some calls for acknowledgement, for example, demand the cessation of borders to create an ethnically pure nation for the victims. This is despite the fact that many women were sexually violated and conceived and bore children out of the rape, thus making the idea of an ethnically pure nation impossible. Speaking about the sexual violence that many women (and some men) experienced and the presence of children born out of this thus presents an inconvenient truth. 

These calls for acknowledgement therefore do not provide women with spaces where they can speak about their pain from the sexual violence. The gendered location of women, their experience of conflict and how it is remembered is rarely captured and represented in popular memory (see, for example, ‘Gender, Memorialization, and Symbolic Reparations’ by Brandon Hamber and Ingrid Palmary). The above poem, ‘Silence’, which I wrote in 2015, seeks to rectify this, and make visible the ways in which violence is gendered, and how conflict is felt differently on different bodies.

 

Dudu Ndlovu is a postdoctoral fellow at the African Centre for Migration and Society. Her research interests include exploring arts-based research methods as a form of decolonising knowledge production; interrogating intersectionality through narrative work; and analysing the gendered politics of memory. Since March 2018, she has been developing this research agenda through a Newton Advanced Fellowship attached to the University of Edinburgh, Centre for African Studies (CAS) (2018-2020). Dudu completed her PhD at the University of the Witwatersrand focusing on Zimbabwean migrants’ use of art (poetry, music, drama, film) to navigate precarious lives; speak about violence – including the Gukurahundi in Zimbabwe and xenophobia in South Africa, and memorialise those events. More of her poetry can be found here.

Day Thirteen |Women’s Navigation of Xenophobia and Violence in South Africa and the UK

photo credit: IHSAAN HAFFEJEE/AL JAZEERA. Men from the Jeppestown hostel in Johannesburg make threatening gestures towards foreign-owned businesses

Written by Natasha Dyer

In 2015, I was back in South Africa, after two years living and working in the country. The newspapers were full of graphic pictures of men brandishing knives, hammers and clubs, with headlines blaring about the resurgence of xenophobic violence after 2008’s nationwide attacks against foreign nationals left 63 dead, hundreds injured, dozens raped and hundreds of thousands displaced.

I had so many questions. What and who exactly were behind these attacks? Which foreign nationals were being targeted? Why was violence flaring up again now? And why were only men in the pictures? What about the women affected by the violence?

Violence against women and girls in South Africa is an ever-present reality. The rates of female rape and sexual assault mostly against black women are some of the highest in the world. Over the last five years, the number of women murdered in the country has increased by 16%, while one in 13 adult women have experienced violence at home. Violence against women is generally under-reported, and LGBTI and gender non-conforming people face severe risk of violence and discrimination, including a pandemic of “corrective rape” violations against lesbian women. Both men and women were reported as victims in the xenophobic attacks of 2015; foreign nationals and South African wives of migrants.

This reality, coupled with the gruesome newspaper images, propelled me to ask questions of activists, scholars, politicians and civil society and scour debates online. Eventually, it led to starting a PhD at the University of Edinburgh this year. In May, I conducted preliminary research in Johannesburg, with South African women and African women of multiple nationalities. The project convinced me to broaden my doctoral study to compare critically with African female experiences in the UK, looking at the gendered manifestations of xenophobia in Johannesburg and London, two cities experiencing rising levels of anti-migrant abuse and gender disparities, while linked by histories of colonialism and complex patterns of migration. Gender-based violence is a phenomenon being increasingly understood and fought against, as the 16 days of activism against gender-based violence campaign shows.

Xenophobia and misogyny intertwined

Xenophobia is not new to either South Africa or the UK. Despite migrants constituting only 5% of South Africa’s population and 9% of Britain’s, foreign nationals are publicly blamed for almost every social issue. Since the start of South African democracy in 1994 and as recently as two weeks ago, politicians and the media have portrayed international migrants as “unwanted aliens”, negatively affecting businesses, acting in criminal ways and stealing our jobs and our women”. In the UK, the wave of hostility leading up to the Brexit referendum result was propelled by divisive political rhetoric led by far-right figures such as Nigel Farage, warning that failure to deal effectively with immigration may lead to ‘cultural issues’, such as women being attacked by foreign nationals. These sentiments have built upon decades-long racism embedded in UK society and policy, most often expressed in debates over immigration controls and bolstered by a media narrative about migrants as ‘scroungers’.

Approximately half of migrants in both Johannesburg and London are women. Despite this, political and media debates often position women as silent victims, passive targets of spectacular xenophobic violence or vulnerable persons. Academic studies on xenophobia are mostly lacking in rigorous gender-based perspectives (see Morrice, 2016 and Sigsworth et al, 2008 for exceptions), despite the similarity between xenophobia and the battle for power inherent in misogyny, as noted by Helen de Cruz. In her new book DownGirl (2017), Kate Manne describes misogyny as “dependent on patriarchy – societal structures that demand that women cater primarily to men’s needs.” When women do not fit the demands of patriarchy – for example, by standing up for their rights or taking on leadership roles – backlash occurs in the form of verbal or physical abuse.

As de Cruz explains elsewhere, one can see a similar struggle for control in xenophobia worldwide. Instead of a representation of hatred between a country’s native population and its immigrants, xenophobia demonstrates a fight for control over identity, rights and resources. It is a manifestation of the institutionalised sense of entitlement generated in citizens born in a country. Immigrants are tolerated as long as they adhere to stringent political and legal rules, learn trivia about a country’s history to pass immigration tests and keep out of the way, even when they contribute to society or their safety is at risk. It occurs when immigrants fight against measures designed to control them or force them into positions of dependency and potential rejection. In African contexts, xenophobia is understood as the systematic construction of strangers as a threat to society, justifying their exclusion and sometimes their suppression.

My PhD compares how women of different socio-economic classes in London and Johannesburg experience ‘everyday’ forms of xenophobia and how this impacts upon their lives. More broadly, it looks at questions of access, race, identity and belonging in two countries where migrants and often women (and especially women of colour), are made to feel unwelcome. It creates a space to explore the multiple roles women play as would-be targets, observers, accomplices and instigators of xenophobia in day-to-day life.

 Exploring conflict and violence through the arts

This work requires tools that can sensitively enable a multiplicity of voices to interact. They must facilitate the sharing of feelings and experiences, and challenge stereotypes associated with different identities. Creative, arts-based research approaches such as theatre, film, photography and walking can facilitate spaces for women’s stories to be told, shared and processed creatively, contributing to positive social change. Like the arts, conflict resolution is often approached experientially. The key to successful approaches is to create safe spaces that guarantee physical safety and a learning environment free from violence. In these forums, participants can communicate their fears, problems, feelings and frustrations.

Over a decade working on development projects across Africa, I have seen the usefulness of some of these methods first-hand. For example, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was introduced to peacebuilding NGO Search for Common Ground’s project using participatory theatre to help transform the way that people view conflict. In South Africa, I have met researchers and NGOs using the arts to work with marginalised women and their communities, such as Sonke Gender Justice’s community radio arts production to help educate women about surviving sexual assault. The African Centre for Migration and Society (ACMS) at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg does excellent work on migration, identity and belonging, as well as supporting artists using multimedia to explore similar issues, such as Sydelle Willow Smith, whose most recent project investigates white South Africans exploring their past and present in the new post-apartheid society.

For research to have meaning and impact beyond the academy, cross-pollination between artists and academics exploring social issues is essential. It combines creative ways of learning and investigation with well-worn data-gathering tools, hopefully providing positive ways for those affected by conflict and violence to process their experiences, as well as new insights for academics, policy-makers and practitioners. Using a participatory approach in my research, I look to the female participants to lead the process, while learning from feminist scholars and experienced artists. My hope is that by enabling women of different socio-economic classes, races and nationalities to explore their feelings on identity and belonging through the arts, in two countries where debates on these issues have become so divided, it will generate new understandings of how to tackle xenophobia and its gendered dimensions. In places where migrants are at serious risk of deportation or violence and where gender-based violence or discrimination is ever-present, women need spaces to explore and share their thoughts and experiences creatively, helping them to make connections and generate answers to increasing social problems.

Natasha Dyer is a research and communications consultant in international development, currently pursuing a PhD at the Centre for African Studies, School of Social and Political Science at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked across Africa for over a decade, supporting organisations and governments to achieve gender equality, provide quality education and resolve conflict. Twitter handle: @nrlcadyer

Day Twelve | To Speak/To Complain: Reflections on Indian Feminist Politics in the Moment of #MeToo and LoSHA

Photo credit: provided by author

Written by Prof Rukmini Sen

On October 2017 – just after the first allegations of rape and sexual harassment were levied against Harvey Weinstein through the #MeToo social media campaign –  an Indian student based in a US law school ‘published’ a crowd-sourced list on Facebook (FB) that named and accused more than 70 Indian professors (based in Indian universities or outside) as sexual harassers. This FB post by Raya Sarkar was shared, liked and commented on widely. In social media circles this list has since been referred to as LoSHA (List of Sexual Harassment Accused) and it also has its own Wikipedia page. LoSHA is seen as the catalyst for the #MeToo movement in India.

LoSHA provoked both support and resistance within feminist circles. Immediately after the FB post, a statement was released and signed by fourteen Delhi based feminists who critiqued the ‘naming and shaming’ of men, cautioned against making accusations of sexual harassment without ‘context or explanation’,  and advocated ‘due process’.  After the statement, many other feminists across India commented and reflected on this, raising concerns around the over-emphasis on the law. It became evident again that there is no monolithic feminism in India – or any single unified position on feminists engaging with the law. The last year or so has been an interesting ‘new’ moment in feminist politics in India, and amongst the accusations, counter accusations and closing down of conversations,  we have also seen nuanced and thoughtful reflections trying to understand complexity and express solidarity. V Geetha, in an important essay, points out the need to initiate dialogue about sexual harassment, and the power politics in social relationships including in the Academy:

“Therefore, rather than fall back on the need to observe due process, which, indeed we do, when we engage with the justice system, we need to also think of how we enable speech about sexual harassment and violence that is not about law and justice alone, but about social relationships and the power invested in those who defined the terms of the latter, on account of their class, caste and authority as intellectuals.”

Whilst the media has characterised feminist conflict over LoSHA as that of ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminisms, of ‘ungrateful daughters’ and ‘tut-tutting mothers’, others, such as Srila Roy, have argued that a generational analysis is unhelpful and over-simplifying:  “there has been both support for and condemnation of the list across different generations of feminists.” Meanwhile there have been provocative discussions on erotics in the Indian university classroom through pedagogic practices (Brinda Bose and Rahul Sen https://cafedissensusblog.com/2018/08/17/liberal-vertigo-eros-and-the-university/), projecting the interconnections of caste and patriarchy in University spaces in contexts of sexual harassment (Drishadwati Bargi https://www.epw.in/engage/article/misreading-dalit-critique-university-space) and hoping for a conversation on the modes and methods of speaking, complaining on sexual harassment by netizens (Gita Chadha and Rukmini Sen https://www.epw.in/engage/special-features/power-relationships-academia)

Since LoSha and then #MeToo in India, languages of both law and feminism have been questioned, subjected to reflection upon their own hegemony and boundaries respectively. The legal history around sexual harassment in India goes back to the 1997 Supreme Court Vishakha judgment recognizing unwelcome sexual behaviour in the workplace as harassment, which mandated workplaces to create gender sensitization and complaints committees. Twenty years post the judgment and four years since the 2013 Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, it is important to understand that the LoSha and #MeToo campaigns have happened as a result of years of feminist politics and not despite them. Yet, this contemporary moment opened up new conversations about the meaning(s) of speech, silence, evidence, criminality, intimacy.

This is a crucial point at which it becomes necessary  to acknowledge that the law would  define and construct boundaries within which a violation has to be expressed. The limitation of what is intrinsic to law is the need to speak in the language of law—within definitions, through written/oral testimonies, evidence, or witness, especially in situations injury leading to punishment. The definition of sexual harassment includes and yet also leaves out many kinds of behaviour from the definition; it is hinged at a complicated understanding of ‘unwelcome behaviour’, where the definition of ‘unwelcome’ is be redefined in each new case. Interpretation of what is not exactly in the definition is always possible, yet it is important to recognise that quasi legal committees operate within the framework of the law and all (sexually unwanted) behaviour cannot find a name in the law. Speech therefore is an essential component of any legal process, when law is in action either in a courtroom or within an anti-sexual harassment complaints committee. It is relevant to remember here that feminist politics has encouraged and emphasised the need to use speech to bring experiences into the public realm. Breaking the silence or chuppi todo has been part of posters and campaign slogans since the 1980s when issues of rape and domestic violence were discussed publicly in unprecedented ways. Thus voicing and not silence has been a tool for any politics emanating from the margins and feminism has been no exception. Silence, hesitation, pausing, self-imposed caution are all part of the process of making sense of a sexual violation, and the definition of the law is not the only way through which this happens.

What is of critical importance in the post LoSha moment is to reaffirm that universities are sites of both possibilities and contradictions. They foster ideas and imaginations of new citizenship by removing boundaries about who can have access to higher education. On the other hand, universities also cultivate power in relationships while encouraging and sustaining relations – all of which are a complex web of multiple social locations and identities that individuals inhabit based on gender-sexuality, caste, class, religion, language, disability or place of origin. It is necessary to take cognisance of the co-existence of power and intimacy in teacher–student relationships in contemporary institutions of higher learning. As V Geetha  notes: “ In the university context, indeed in any learning context, especially in caste society, the communication of ideas, and the practice of teaching and learning are fraught and precarious”

In these transformative times, with the demands for empathetic, more democratic teachers, are flows of power disrupted? How do gender and caste relations play out within these flows? Is being (and expected to be) obedient as a student judged as being submissive by the faculty, and is the inability to resist interpreted as consent? It is important to note this transforming landscape in which young, aspiring, freedom-seeking women/multiple genders in institutions of higher learning across Indian cities talk about, discuss and debate sexual politics. Institutions need to create an enabling eco-system much beyond only a complaint registering committee, where, within pedagogic and political practices of the institution’s everyday functioning, certain non-negotiable ethical principles of interpersonal interaction are deliberatively arrived at.

I am proposing the need to craft opportunities for dialogue (between students, between faculty, between faculty and students, between administrative staff) moving beyond merely a culture of formal complaints. Through this the claim, besides being aware as gendered citizens about the legal provisions on sexual harassment but to not overemphasize the need  for more training or improved legal skills , but for a democratic space in which the complexity of life experiences of students as well as early career women/multiple gendered faculty in institutions of higher learning can be acknowledged and explored. This will enable conversations (speech of a certain feminist kind, not necessarily the juridical) on the plural meanings of unwelcome experiences, transgressions, consent and control.

Rukmini Sen is Professor at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. She teaches and publishes around sociology of law, feminist movements and personal narratives

rukmini@aud.ac.in

https://www.facebook.com/rukmini.sen.31

https://twitter.com/RStweet18

The ideas expressed in this blog are taken from, continuing and connected with two previously published essays https://www.epw.in/engage/article/sexual-harassment-limits-speech and https://thewire.in/education/sexual-harassment-committee-universities-jnu-gscash

Day Eleven |Democracy’s Promise Unfulfilled while Violence against Women in Politics Persists

photo credit: Eric.Parker DSC07415_ep via photopin (license)

Written by Dr. Gabrielle Bardall

In October 2018, the Office for the High Commissioner on Human Rights’ Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women and Girls presented a report to the UN General Assembly recognizing violence against women in politics (VAWP) as a human rights violation and calling upon all UN member states to take action. In less than a decade, this issue went from an unnamed and unnoticed fact-of-life to an internationally-recognized threat to democracy and violation of human rights.

What is “VAWP” and why is it so significant? Political violence during elections and democratic processes is a common occurrence in many countries, especially states undergoing regime transitions. Likewise, the global and pervasive presence of gender-based violence (GBV) is well-established. VAWP exists at the crossroads of political violence and GBV, targeting women who participate in public or political life either specifically because they are women, or in distinctly gendered ways. Sadly, there is no shortage of examples and no boundaries — from Zimbabwean women experiencing genital mutilation in retribution for engaging in politics, to women legislators across Western democracies denouncing sexual harassment within the halls of their parliaments, to the bombing of a busload of female election workers in Afghanistan.

VAWP is not only a manifestation of inequality or a harm against an individual. It is a mechanism that formally institutionalizes women’s subordinate position in society by coercively excluding them from state governance. Just as VAWP terrorizes and degrades its individual victims, it undermines democracy by enforcing patriarchal control of democratic institutions and impedes the economic growth potential associated with greater women’s political participation. VAWP is the ultimate expression of the patriarchy and until it is eradicated, democracy’s promise remains unfulfilled.

VAWP occurs in multiple locations, including private and domestic spaces, and online. It is often perpetrated by someone known to the victim – indeed, in many cases we have encountered, women experience violence at the hands of other elected officials as well as by their intimate partners as a result of their political or public engagement. Women overwhelmingly experience psychological and sexual forms of political violence, compared to men who are more often targeted by physical harm. VAWP has been documented in all parts of the world, regardless of regime-type or socio-economic status, although it takes different forms in different places. Emerging statistical research suggests a very high prevalence. One recent of 45 countries found that over 85 percent of women parliamentarians had suffered psychological violence, while 58 percent had been attacked online. Our research at IFES finds that in some countries, political women are targeted with online threats, degrading attacks and other forms of digital harassment at up to three times the rate of their male counterparts. These attacks largely reflect anger with a woman’s decision to run for office or otherwise engage in public affairs because of the break with traditional gender roles, and the content of online vitriol – from Zimbabwe to Sri Lanka to Ukraine to the USA – is riddled with sexual threats, manipulated images and video, and threats of physical harm to the woman herself or to her children and partner. We also know that VAWP has an intersectional dimension and that women who also identify with marginalized religious, ethnic, racial groups have a distinct experience.

The path to ending VAWP has turned into a highway over the decade since the issue of VAWP began to be recognized as a distinct threat to democracy and human rights. The SRVAW’s report in October 2018 unified the vision, action and research of many global activists and researchers, and provided direction and momentum. Responses to mitigating and ending VAWP once and for all are manifold and include education, awareness, improved data, personal security, law enforcement training, and monitoring. One response in particular is of vital importance, no less because it is reflective of a deep and abiding inequality that crosscuts global democracies: the issue of ending impunity for VAWP.

With only a handful of exceptions in Latin America, VAWP is not explicitly addressed in national legal frameworks. However, most frameworks do address the most egregious manifestations of VAWP, including physical and sexual violence and many forms of harassment and discrimination. Yet, laws protecting victims of VAWP and punishing its perpetrators are systematically overlooked and unenforced worldwide. More challenging still, legal frameworks are often murky or absent for the types of violence women most frequently experience in politics, including online and many forms of psychological violence. So long as we fail to recognize VAWP when it occurs and to prosecute its perpetrators, permissive norms and attitudes will remain.

This is a fundamental issue because it goes to the heart of how we judge the quality of democracy itself. A double-standard for electoral standards operates in democratization processes today. In practice, some laws simply count more than others when it comes to determining how democratic a democracy is, regardless of the hierarchy of law. The trouble is, the laws that end up in the second-tier are often those laws designed to defend women’s participation and security in the course of the exercise of their civil and political rights. Recently, Kenya and Haiti have, respectively, annulled national elections and undergone upheaval over electoral irregularities. Yet in both cases, blatant violations of Constitutional law were not the issue behind the turmoil – because those violations pertained to the protection of women’s space in state institutions.

Understanding VAWP provides a vehicle that compels us to re-evaluate the fundamentals of how we define and defend democracy. There can be no gender-exceptions to the hierarchy of law. Electoral integrity does not exist where the rule of law is not applied to protect and defend all citizens equally. Democratization remains incomplete where half the population is subject to discrimination and political violence, in all its forms. Until violence against women in politics is systematically addressed, many electoral processes remain at risk of reproducing the patriarchal structures that exclude and silence women’s voices. Adapting a feminist approach to democracy and democracy assistance is vital to overcoming this fundamental human rights challenge.

Dr. Gabrielle Bardall is the Gender Advisor at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems and Research Fellow at the Centre for International Policy Studies, University of Ottawa. Bardall was an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow (2016) and a Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation doctoral scholar (2012).

Twitter handles: @gabrielleB17 @IFESGender