Study reveals that the majority of female MPs in Europe endure sexual abuse

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that “85 percent of women MPs have suffered from psychological violence in parliament.” How can we expect our governments to address sexual abuses when the same problems are rampant in their own parliaments?

Elizabeth Walsh
Elizabeth Walsh Producer, Al Jazeera English, Europe
Study reveals that the majority of female MPs in Europe endure  sexual abuse  - NewsMavens
K. Jakobsdóttir speaking, Wikimedia Commons

A study released on Tuesday, October 16, 2018, by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) found that “85 percent of women MPs have suffered from psychological violence in parliament.”

Eighty-five percent.

That staggering figure suggests that if you’ve ever helped vote a woman into parliament, then there’s a decent chance she has experienced psychological violence while on the job. For perspective: there are 3,515 women MPs (the IPU interviewed 123 women from 45 European nations).

That violence is pretty far-reaching. Forty-seven percent of women said they had received death threats as well as threats of rape or being beaten. Sixty-eight percent have been the targets of sexist comments related to their looks or stereotypes about their gender role. Another 25 percent experienced physical sexual violence and more than half reported being attacked on social networks.

Certain groups fared worse than others: women under 40 and those in staff positions suffered higher rates of harassment and violence. Women who actively campaigned for feminist policies and fought against gender inequality and violence were also more likely to be singled out for attacks.

These findings should drive home what we already know -- rape and other forms of sexual harassment are crimes of power. Somehow that reality is even more striking when we see it play out in politics.

One woman who was interviewed told the IPU: “An MP was harassing an assistant. On a business trip, he tried to force his way into her room. He would send her texts with sexual connotations and threatened her with dismissal if she didn’t comply. She reported him. However, she was the one who had to quit, while he kept his job. And what’s more, he’s still an MP.”

Sexist comments weren’t limited to after-hours. Survey respondents also reported an alarming number of sexist comments from male MPs that took place during parliamentary sessions:

“You are too young and stupid. Get back to your kitchen.”

“Stop being hysterical, go back home and satisfy your sexual needs.”

“You are so beautiful that I cannot listen to you.”

“During a discussion on government policy against terrorism, a male colleague asked me ‘Why would a lady like you with such charm wish to discuss such important issues?'"

Seriously? Elected MPs are derailing conversations about terrorism to flirt?

It’s not difficult to understand why some male politicians refuse to get behind policies that protect women from violence and abuse: they themselves are some of the abusers.

The problem is that when that abuse takes place in parliaments, it’s not just women and their families who suffer -- it’s democracy and it’s citizens.

“Unfortunately, the study points to a sad reality. The #MeToo movement has not spared the world of politics,” said Liliane Maury Pasquier, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE). “As long as inequality between women and men persists, no woman will be safe from violence and harassment.”

In addition to the obvious trauma, emotional stress and suffering and other costs to the health of women who are harassed and assaulted, what does this mean for their careers?

There are only 20 women in the entire world who serve as head of state or head of government. The disturbing results of the IPU study might reasonably make one conclude that a culture of abuse is at least partially to blame.

One of the reasons why the world may still be short of female presidents and prime ministers is because women are subjected to gender-based violence every step of the way.

We need to stop framing women’s lack of advancement in terms of a “glass ceiling”. Doing so masks the barriers to women’s advancement in mystery and suggests that there isn’t a group of people (i.e., men who are sexist) keeping them in place. It also invites a rather useless brand of apolitical, lean-in feminism that signals to politicians who don’t care that women’s lack of advancement is due to poor self-esteem. They can then leave it to the career coaches to solve, thus washing their hands of any responsibility…and freeing them to harass their female colleagues.

When the vast majority of women in Parliament have been subjected to some form of gender-based violence, it becomes clear that it is both absurd -- and dangerous -- to counsel women to adapt to a work environment that grants abusive men impunity to harass.

And yet, women have been adapting for years. In addition to citing damage to their health, a third of the respondents said that as a result of gender-based violence, they became more guarded and cautious and sometimes went off social media -- even when that meant losing an outlet to debate their ideas. It’s not just individual women. Democracy suffers, too.

So, what can be done about it?

The IPU offers a number of wide-reaching recommendations, but ordinary citizens need to get involved, too.

Vote for women. More women MPs increases the likelihood of strong women’s caucuses that can put pressure on your country’s parliament to adopt better rules and practices (not to mention feminist-friendly policies). Run for office for that same reason. Speak out when you hear the press or politicians using sexist language. Ask the men in your life to do the same.

Sexism isn’t just bad for the women who experience it. It stifles political progress and it’s bad for democracy.

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