#16DaysActivismAgainstGBV: Workplace Harassment in the Political Arena
By Vaishnavi Pallapothu
Image: Adnan Abidi/Reuters | Al Jazeera reported in April 2020 that nearly 100 Indian female politicians faced abuse on social media during elections last year
As more and more women, non-binary and LGBTI members of parliament around the world are speaking about the violence that takes place within the political chambers, it is now becoming evident that just as any other workplace, parliaments have also been and continue to remain unsafe workplaces for many. According to the international campaign #NotTheCost, violence against women in politics targets them because of their gender; is exemplified by sexist threats and sexual violence and discourages women from becoming active political actors. It encompasses aggression, intimidation tactics, online violence, and can be sexual, physical or psychological in nature. This violence is not only a violation of human rights, but also a serious challenge to access leadership positions and for those in those positions, to carry out their mandates. In some cases, it can even lead to women dropping out of politics altogether or facing reprisals and even more violence if they speak up. It is no surprise then, that the cycle continues – the harassment faced by elected women remains under-reported and invisible, and is not taken seriously.
World over, there are inadequate institutional responses that afford impunity to perpetrators. The United Nations does not have any mechanisms in place to address sexual harassment in the workplace – or at least one that is mentioned on paper. The Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women and Girls does not include women in politics under its ambit. However, there are a few multilateral organisations such as the European Institute for Gender Equality and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that have developed toolkits for ‘gender-sensitive parliaments’ for countries across both the Global North and South. These toolkits encourage members of parliament and associated staff to both pay attention to and develop actionable responses to redress gender-based discrimination in the workplace.
Only a handful of countries have introduced laws to criminalise such sexual violence, and appropriate complaint mechanisms for affected members of parliaments and legislatures to rely on in reporting and/or lodging complaints. Despite this, research suggests that even those that do may end up providing inadequate protection or reparation to survivors. Among the countries that have legal provisions for violence, Latin American countries can be considered pioneers. After sustained activism and the murder of councilwomen Juana Quispe and Daguimar Rivera which served as a catalyst, Bolivia passed a law to protect women politicians, with Law 243 in 2012, which categorises various types of violence and lays out punishments and sanctions for perpetuators. Another example can be found in Mexico’s new feminist foreign policy, launched in 2020, wherein one of the primary goals is to create ‘a Foreign Ministry that is free of violence and that emphasizes collective action to create a working environment free of gender-based violence’. In parliamentary codes of conduct, only South Africa, Canada, Costa Rica and Thailand include provisions that protect women parliamentarians against sexist remarks, sexual harassment, and threats of violence.
Where do survivors go, then, when faced with violence? What can be done in the chambers of parliament to make it a safer place to work and thrive? How do we even begin to tackle such a multifaceted problem? Even as the questions continue to mount without an answer, one useful starting point can be the ideas provided in an Issue Brief by the Inter-Parliamentary Union. It recognises three crucial steps in effectively responding to the problem of WPSH in parliaments:
i) Recognising the problem, talking about it and naming it opens the way for recognition by the state, political parties, parliamentarians and citizens. Politicians and colleagues, in particular, have a responsibility to denounce such behaviour and lend support to the survivor.
ii) Implementing strictly enforced laws on violence against women can create a safer and more conducive environment, ensuring perpetrators are held accountable. Laws must be all-encompassing of different forms of violence – overt and otherwise – and the mechanisms put in place must allow for women to lodge complaints. Such laws can only be effective if they are made widely known and smoothly invokable.
iii) Changing the political culture by normalising the participation of women and solidarity among members can help change mentalities and imbibe a positive and supportive work atmosphere.