By Maria Vanikiotis, 2018 NYCLA Representative to the United Nations
In March 2018, United Nations dignitaries and non-state actors gathered at UN Headquarters in New York City to attend a Side Event to the Sixty-Second Session of the Commission on the Status of Women (“CSW62”) dedicated to the discussion of “Fighting violence against women in politics”. On the very next day after the international conference, Brazilian City Councilwoman Marielle Franco—an outspoken champion of women, Afro-Brazilians, the LGBTQ community, and the poor—was assassinated in the streets of Rio de Janeiro. Violence against women in the political sphere is far from an abstract concept.
As 2018 NYCLA UN Observer, I attended the panel on fighting violence against women in politics and enjoyed the privilege of engaging with representatives of the UN Member States, UN agencies, and non-governmental partners. The panel was led by moderator Ms. Dubravka Šimonović, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences. Speakers touched on a wide range of topics including the origins of political gender-based violence, obstacles to political participation and leadership by women, opportunities for information sharing and lessons learned, and good practices to adopt and adapt.
Opening remarks by His Excellency Ambassador Marc Pecsteen de Buytswerve, Permanent Representative of Belgium to the UN, and Ms. Helena Štimac Radin, Director of the Croatian Governmental Office for Gender Equality, outlined the realities faced by women in politics. Specifically, while women’s participation in politics is improving on a global scale, little is spoken about the many obstacles that women face in the political sphere, such as sexism, sexual harassment, verbal aggression, and outright violence.
Female political figures may be targeted, in some cases, because their participation represents a challenge to traditional power relationships between men and women or to women’s broader role in society. In other cases, societal gender norms over-emphasize the role of emotional drivers in decision-making by women, which is often dismissed as incompatible with the aggressive nature of the political realm. Women often are the victims of stereotypes and sexism that focus on physical appearance, e.g., a woman’s age or clothing. Further, in many communities, a woman’s own agency to participate in politics is curtailed by societal norms requiring that women shoulder the lion’s share of responsibility for domestic matters. For many women, political participation requires genuine sacrifices. All of these factors discourage women from engaging in politics and result in underrepresentation.
Further, from an institutional perspective, political parties in many countries have not adapted to find ways of bringing women into the fold and empowering women as active participants and drivers of political activism. The added threat of violence against women who step into the political arena further discourages women from participating in politics and, importantly, from aspiring to leadership roles.
Equally important as the historical and structural factors contributing to the lack of political parity achieved by women are the demographic factors. Panelist Ms. Purna Sen, Policy Division Director at UN-Women, noted the interrelationship of aggression against women and other factors such as race and ethnicity. Ms. Margarette May Macaulay, the Rapporteur on the Rights of Women of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (OAS-IACHR), also identified women of color and indigenous women as among the most affected groups.
UN-Women framed the issue within the broader context of a human rights paradigm. Essentially, violence against women in politics is a manifestation of a globalized human rights problem. Women must be encouraged to take a more active role in creating policy and making decisions in their communities. Working against this goal in some ways, however, is the Internet, which has taken gender-based violence to new levels. Ms. Sen of UN-Women portrayed social media as an active breeding ground that at times blurs the line between online violence (i.e., cyber threats) and real life violence. Panelist Ms. Feride Acar, President of the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence of the Council of Europe (GREVIO), also noted that women who enter the political arena are at high risk for certain types of violence, including cyber-stalking, and that governments could encourage social media companies to ban cyber “trolls” and traffickers of offensive or threatening content.
The panelists also discussed lessons learned and best practices in promoting political participation among women and fighting violence in any form against women in the political sphere. Ms. May Macaulay, for instance, described legislation set forth in Bolivia that explicitly prohibits and criminalizes violence against women in politics and establishes tangible legal mechanisms to hold perpetrators of such violence accountable. While expressing the need for the development of broad training and measures to adapt, she also emphasized the importance of compiling data as an integral part of the strategy to assess and prevent political violence against women.
In turn, Ms. Acar of GREVIO discussed the Istanbul Convention, which has been described as the “gold standard” in legislation addressing gender-based violence, and Ms. Silvie Mesa Peluffo, President of the Committee of Experts of the Follow-up Mechanism to the Belem do Para Convention (MESECVI), described the efforts of the Inter-American Model Law on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence Against Women in Political Life (published in 2017 by MESECVI and the Organization of American States) to develop a model law that could serve as a foundational framework available for all women, would-be candidates and political activists and participants included, to engage in community politics. She noted that, while the Model Law outlines various actions for States—including, e.g., the compilation of statistics, the incorporation of this issue into education and training initiatives for political parties, and the establishment of mechanisms to sanction violence against women in politics—engagement at the local level is critical, as it is there where most women are exposed to political violence. Ms. Mesa Peluffo acknowledged the challenge in identifying the most effective way to distribute and implement the model law.
Finally, in her closing remarks, panelist Ms. Sylvie Durrer, Director of the Swiss Federal Office for Gender Equality noted that, for women in politics, sexist attacks often continue even past their mandate. Media personalities and platforms, political parties and other actors should adopt policies to push back against such attacks. Violence against women in politics, Ms. Durrer stated, is not an issue of freedom of expression. It is not to be trivialized and it is not to be brushed off as politics as usual. In addition, bystanders must engage. By making it clear that sexist behavior and attacks are not acceptable, bystanders can do their part to change the game.
Maria Vanikiotis is a customs and international trade attorney admitted to practice in New York. Prior to obtaining her J.D. from Fordham University School of Law in 2015, Maria earned a Master of Science degree in global politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science and an undergraduate degree from Brandeis University.