Female lawmakers across the world face sexism, harassment and violence impeding gender equality and undermining freedom of democratic participation, a new report from the Inter-Parliamentary Union found.
The study is based on interviews with 55 women MPs from 39 countries across the five regions of the world. The findings reveal that the most common form of violence is psychological, with over 80% of respondents saying they have experienced it in some form. Almost half of the female MPs (44%) reported threats of rape, beatings, abduction or death during their parliamentary terms, including threats to their children's lives.
The treatment of women engaged in the political sphere has become a subject of public interest in many countries, including the UK, where female MPs have been denouncing an increase in online abuse – threats that have become particularly disturbing following the murder of Labour MP Jo Cox.
According to IPU secretary general Martin Chungong, while the survey sample is small, it already highlights the issue's ubiquity and the scale to which it is under-reported. "The parliamentary community must speak out against sexism and harassment and make clear that it cannot be tolerated as the price to be paid for women's political involvement," he said.
Sexist insults are frequent, with 65.5% of respondents declared to have been subjected to humiliating comments on repeated occasions during their mandates. Sexual harassment is described as "common practice" with one in five MPs saying they had been sexually harassed during their term and 7.3% said that someone had tried to force them to have sexual relations. One in five also reported physical assault, as they had been slapped, pushed, struck or targeted by an object that could have injured them.
The main channel through which the threats target lawmakers is social media. One European MP said that, at one point, she received more than 500 rape threats in four days. An Asian parliamentarian told IPU researchers her abusers targeted her child: "I receive information about my son – his age, the school he attends, his class, etc. – threatening to kidnap him," she said.
Speaking to IBTimes UK in June, Labour MP Stella Creasy advocated for compulsory sex and relationship education to fight online abuse. Creasy routinely receives abusive messages over social media, and is a passionate advocate for women and minorities' rights. In May, she was one of the several female politicians to launch the cross-party Reclaim the Internet campaign targeting online misogyny.
IPU's study called upon parliaments to define and apply robust policies and mechanisms to deter such behaviour. "Parliaments need to put their own house in order if they want to lead by example and stop discrimination and violence against women in all walks of life. The effectiveness of parliaments, progress toward equality between men and women and the vitality of democracy itself all depend on it", said Chungong.
While the study exposed the obstacles for female MPs to safely carry out their work, it also revealed that the attacks are unlikely to affect their political engagement, as 80% of those that have been victims of sexist violence said these acts would not discourage them from fulfilling their parliamentary mandate, nor from running for another term.