“There should be zero tolerance for any form of violence against women in parliaments. It is the responsibility of our institutions and all parliamentarians, both men and women, to take urgent action to become more gender sensitive.”– Mohamed Ali Houmed (APU president)
By Nyasha Mcbride Mpani
Introduction and Background
The inclusion of women into political positions has been an ongoing battle/process as a number of factors has hindered meaningful participation of women in politics. Across the continent and the world, a number of measures have been put in place by various governments, regional and international bodies to support the involvement and inclusion of women in politics and for them to assume powerful positions. Different measures have been put in place to encourage women to take part in what has been a male dominated sphere (politics). Some of these measures include putting into place legal frameworks which values gender equality and equity in politics. A number of countries in Africa, such as Zimbabwe, Rwanda, South Africa, Zambia, are signatory to the many declarations aimed at increasing women’s leadership and decision-making, e.g., the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development,the 2000 UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, AU policy positions on gender equality, etc., which are all geared to facilitate gender mainstreaming. In Zimbabwe, the new Constitution which came into effect in 2013, promotes women’s participation in politics through the quota system which sets sides 60 seats for women for proportional representation in Parliament, increasing the number of women in Parliament from 16% to 34%.
While the enactment of these progressive legal frameworks and resolutions is applauded, it should be noted that developments in many African Parliaments where cases of women abuse and sexual harassment, are being reported, counterbalances these positive developments thereby continuing to make life so difficult and not friendly to women who are parliamentarians and to those who have ambitions to become parliamentarians. This paper will focus on the role of parliaments in the fight against the abuse of women in parliaments in Africa. It will attempt to answer why there is increased abuse of women in African parliaments, and provide the legislative mechanisms that are available to deter the scourge of abuse of women in African parliaments and touch on the role of male parliamentarians and political parties that are playing in the fight against such abuse.
Defining Sexual Violence, Abuse and Harassment of Women
Violence against women is conceptualised by the United Nations Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women (1993), as “any act of gender based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.” The violence comes in difference forms which are physical, sexual, psychological or economic in nature. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union (2021:2), these types of violence “clearly constitute a violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms”. This also includes the duty to guarantee women’s participation in political processes fully, without obstruction and in all security, as enshrined in a plethora of international instruments, which are the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the Beijing Platform for Action and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Furthermore, it should be noted that women in politics are affected by sexism, which, in many cases, is influenced by the wider stereotype which believes that women “are not made for” or “should not meddle in” politics (Inter Parliamentary Union,2021). This therefore, subsequently deters women from wishing to go into politics.
What is the situation in Africa?
As women’s political activity has grown in Africa over the past two decades, so has the frequency and degree of violent responses to their presence in politics, which continues to restrict their political participation. Literature is awash with evidence which recognises that gender based violence, in particular, violence against women, constitutes one of the biggest obstacles to women’s participation in decision-making. This violence severely limits women’s ability to participate in economic and social activities. It is to be understood that this violence against women is being committed in Africa where a majority of African countries are signatory to the international and regional human rights frameworks for women’s rights, e.g., the Maputo Protocol. Male counterparts are the main perpetrators, especially those from rival parties. A recent study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (2021) and the African Parliamentary Union has found that African parliaments are not safe for women. 137 African women parliamentarians participated in the study and they represented North, Central, East, Southern and West African continents (See Figure II)
Source IPU (2021)
The study’s key findings indicate that;
80% of the women parliamentarians interviewed have experienced psychological violence in parliament,
67% have been subject to sexist behaviour or remarks,
42% have received death threats, rape threats, or threats of beating or abduction, usually online, and
40% have been sexually harassed and 23% have endured physical violence.
Women parliamentarians report that the majority of abuse stems from male parliamentarians, who are often from rival parties.
Women parliamentarians living with disabilities, women under 40, unmarried women and women from minority groups face a higher incidence of violence.
Women MPs who promote women’s rights and gender equality are also targeted.
Most parliaments do not have a mechanism to enable women to safely speak out.
If we are to compare the extent of the problem and in comparison with global and European data, findings (see Table I) clearly reveal that the problem is the same or similar as percentages on psychological violence across Africa, Europe and the world is all 80% and above. This is also the same if one looks at sexual violence, physical violence and economic violence which also have similar to no different results across Africa, Europe and the Word. This data clearly shows a worrying trend of violence against elected women parliamentarians.
The table above is clear demonstration that in Africa women parliamentarians are being abused by their male parliamentarians and it confirms that sexism, harassment, and violence against women parliamentarians is very real and widespread in Africa. While the paper focuses on women parliamentarians, it is also worth mentioning that while women parliamentarians are being abused in parliament, the abuse is also cascading down to female parliamentary staff. According to the same study, female parliamentarian staff who were interviewed for this study, 14 % have been subject to sexist remarks, 12 % have been the target of moral harassment, and 25 % have been sexually assaulted (See Table IV).
Source IPU (2021)
Source IPU (2021)
The study findings also reveal the intersectional nature of violence against women parliamentarians (see graph above). This intersectional nature of violence against women, according to the Inter Parliamentary Union (2021) “can lead to an exponential increase in gender-based violence against some women parliamentarians”, and thus, making women more vulnerable to violence.
What are the legislative mechanisms that are available to deter the scourge of abuse of women in African parliaments?
One would think that there are no legislative mechanisms that are available to deter the scourge of abuse of women in parliaments from their male counter parts but this is not true, as a number of laws have been passed by different African parliaments to protect women from abuse. It should be clear that most African parliaments do have strong laws which are designed to address all forms of violence against women, including violence in politics and gender-based harassment, and violence against women in parliament. For instance, the World Bank (2021) data reports that 33 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. With laws in place to protect women from abuse, the challenge lies in lack of enforcement of these laws. Parliaments, as the prime legislative institutions of States, are well placed to fortify these existing laws to deter the abuse of women. In cases where these laws are weak, it is the duty of Parliament to enact new laws that are water-tight to end violence against women in politics. It is the duty of African Parliaments to make sure that they enforce the existing laws and strongly ensure that all these laws are implemented. According to the Inter Parliamentary Union (2021), some of the legislative reforms that can be championed by African Parliaments in order to deter the abuse of women parliamentarians include:
Incorporating provisions on violence against women in politics into existing laws on the elimination of violence against women,
Passing new stand-alone laws to prohibit and criminalise violence against women in politics,
Adopting or improving domestic laws and policies against harassment and violence at work, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence,
Legislating on violence against women in politics through legislative changes to electoral or criminal codes.
With these existing legislative frameworks, it is also prudent that these laws on violence against women, including in politics, be applied to parliament and parliamentarians, as it does to society as a whole.
What can Parliament do?
Parliaments in Africa have a crucial role to play in fighting violence against women. The violence against women that has taken place in a number of African Parliaments, such as South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, etc. it is evident that MPs are those who, to a great extent, are in need of education concerning the awareness and prevention of gender-based violence (GBV). As perpetrators of GBV are resident in most parliaments in Africa, as revealed by IPU study findings, it is important that, African Parliaments ensure that all parliamentarians are taken through gender awareness and sensitisation programmes. Parliamentarians must be educated on this important matter so that they can be well-informed before they develop policies and rules on how to deal with such issues. Furthermore, parliaments should further go to ensure that any parliamentarian, despite economic, social or political standing, who is implicated in any act of gender-based violence should no longer enjoy any special status or security because of his or her mandate. Parliamentary immunities should not be used to protect those who should be prosecuted for abuse and parliament should allow justice to take its course.
With regard to the abuse of women parliamentary staff, parliaments in Africa should come up with a strong Human Resource policy that protects women staff from abuse. African parliaments should take a cue from the Ugandan and Sierra Leone parliaments that have a Human Resource policy manual and a gender policy for public servants, which contains information on what constitute sexual harassment, outlining precise examples of episodes from the “physical (unwelcome physical contact to sexual assault), to the verbal (sexual advances, sexual jokes) or non-verbal (sexually suggestive gestures)” (Parliament of Uganda, 2019). Also, the manual gives details for the punishment of any person found guilty of sexual harassment, be it duty officers, parliamentary clients, casual workers, contractors, or visitors. The existence of these manuals are important in addressing the abuse of women parliamentary staff and parliamentarians and if all African Parliaments have such manuals and policies, it will make the fight against women abuse much easier.
What is the role of men and political parties in deterring the abuse of women?
Male parliamentarians, as the chief culprits of women abuse in parliament, have a critical role to play in deterring abuse through showing solidarity with women and in defending the cause of equality between women and men. Male parliamentarians also have a role to play in ensuring that they promote and champion zero tolerance of sexism and violence against women in parliament. They should use their influence to raise awareness of the problem to their fellow counterparts. Furthermore, they have a role to play in participating in training that will make them appreciate and distinguish these unfitting acts to become more aware of different abusive behaviour. Having undergone this training, the Inter Parliamentary Union (2021:24) argues that male parliamentarians will be able to “respond instantly, support the victims, talk to their male colleagues who are perpetrators of violence and report them if necessary, break the silence, take a stand against such behaviour in parliament and in the media, and thus set an example of good behaviour”. It is therefore critical that male parliamentarians be in the forefront and take up the struggle to stop violence against women parliamentarians and staff and have the battle cascade down to the whole society.
Political parties also have a serious role to play in deterring abuse of women parliamentarians in parliament. Firstly, political parties should take a strong stance against women abuse in their political parties. Political parties should stand up against men who gang up against women and mostly in a violent way, in order to gain political power in their respective parties. It is imperative that political parties stick to the Constitution and legal frameworks and protocols in existence on what they dictate about violence against women. Furthermore, political parties should ensure that they have a specific gender-based violence policy which seeks to ensure that the rights of female politicians are respected by all party members from the top to the bottom. Research done in Zimbabwe by a gender activist, Grace Kwinji, indicated that a number of political parties in Zimbabwe do not have a gender policy. Lack of such a policy in many political parties in Africa works against the fight on violence against women as it allows perpetrators to continue abusing women without fear.
Violence against women parliamentarians is on the rise in most African parliaments and the main perpetrators of this violence are their male counterparts. Study findings have indicated that 80% of African women parliamentarians have experienced psychological violence in parliament, 67% have been subject to sexist behaviour or remarks and 42% have received death threats, rape threats, or threats of beating or abduction. The paper articulated how violence is a major push-away for women and how the political environment is not conducive for more women to enter the space. Institutions, such as the parliament, have a role to play in addressing violence against women parliamentarians, such as not allowing parliamentary immunities to protect those who should be prosecuted for abuse and parliament should allow justice to take its course. Furthermore, male parliamentarians need also to ensuring that they promote and champion zero tolerance of sexism and violence against women in parliament and should use their influence to raise awareness of the problem to their fellow counterparts. Political parties should also craft a specific gender-based violence policy which will seek to ensure that the rights of female politicians are respected by all party members from the top to the bottom.
Parliament of Uganda (2019). Human Resource Policy Manual, Item 32 – Parliamentary Service Staff Regulations.
Parliament of Sierra Leone (2019). Gender Policy, Parliamentary Service Commission.