Author:Krook, Mona Lena


Following rising reports of assault, intimidation, and abuse directed at politically active women, violence against women in politics is increasingly recognized around the world as a significant barrier to women's political participation. As international relations (IR) scholars and feminist activists both acknowledge, identifying and naming a problem is a crucial first step in mobilizing for change. While IR research is relatively agnostic as to the individual-or group-based nature of this definitional work, feminist praxis tends to view consciousness-raising as a largely collective enterprise. (1,2) In the case of violence against women in politics, feminist collaborations at and across the national, regional, and global levels have been essential in defining the problem, mapping its manifestations, and developing solutions.

A broad and varied network of politicians, activists, practitioners, and academics has contributed in various ways to work on violence against women in politics. (3) Exploring the roots of this concept reveals multiple, parallel origins across the Global South, which together inspired initiatives by practitioners at the regional and global levels, who worked on the ground and with each other to raise awareness and devise interventions. Efforts to establish violence against women in politics as a global problem gained further momentum through prominent cases of political sexism and misogyny in the West, as well as the rise of the #MeToo movement. Despite some lingering ambiguities, collective feminist theorizing has led to growing awareness of this phenomenon in global politics, as well as its progressive anchoring in new and existing national and international normative frameworks. (4)


A necessary first step in instigating political change involves naming a problem. These processes are not neutral, as not only are there multiple ways of representing an issue, (5) but some ways of framing a problem may be more successful than others in gaining broader support. (6) In research on international policy diffusion, the actors engaged in this interpretive work are known as norm entrepreneurs. They seek to promote new global standards of behavior, and "call attention to issues or even 'create' issues by using language that names, interprets, and dramatizes them." (7) Transnational advocacy networks are often crucial in developing and spreading these new concepts, bound together by shared values and dense exchanges of information. (8)

The lack of adequate language to describe women's experiences has long been noted by feminist activists, stretching at least as far back as Betty Friedan's discussion in The Feminine Mystique of the "problem with no name." (9) Structural inequalities tend to normalize these harms. As Robin L. West writes: "An injury uniquely sustained by a disempowered group will lack a name, a history, and in general a linguistic reality." (10) Discovering a language by which to interpret women's experiences is a vital step in developing a feminist consciousness, linking recognition of inequality or mistreatment to collective resolve to take action. (11)

The global campaign to end violence against women illustrates these dynamics. Prior to the late 1980s and early 1990s, activists around the world engaged in distinct campaigns to end specific practices, such as rape in the United States and Europe, female genital mutilation in Africa, and dowry death in India. As a result of growing global feminist organizing, however, new networks of activists began to connect these diverse manifestations as part of a broader overarching concept of "violence against women." (12) This work led to an expansion of international human rights discourse to include violence occurring in the private sphere and to recognize more broadly that women's rights are human rights. (13)


Global debates on violence against women in politics cannot be traced back to a single source. Rather, they appear to have emerged from three localized initiatives taking place in parallel across different parts of the global South: efforts by locally elected women in Bolivia in the late 1990s to theorize their experiences as "political harassment and violence against women;" networking by elected women across Asia, with support from global actors, to map and condemn manifestations of "violence against women in politics" in the mid-2000s; and initiatives in Kenya to recognize and tackle "electoral gender-based violence" in the late 2000s. Taking women's lived experiences as a shared starting point, these three campaigns named the problem in different ways, but overlapped in their concerns to condemn the use of violence as a method to deter women's political participation.

Bolivia: Political Harassment and Violence Against Women

Women in Bolivia first began to talk about political harassment and violence against women following the formation of the Association of Locally Elected Women of Bolivia (ACOBOL) in 1999. Soon after its creation, ACOBOL began receiving reports of violent incidents against female councilors and mayors. After realizing that the attacks were not isolated events, they began to systematize these reports and later, began to distribute surveys at ACOBOL meetings to gain a better sense of the manifestations and frequency of these acts. (14) In 2000, they organized a seminar with the Vice Minister of Gender Affairs and the Family with local councilwomen in the lower house of parliament, followed a few months later by a public hearing hosted by the Commission of Decentralization and Popular Participation.

In 2001, ACOBOL started working with a variety of state and civil society institutions to draft a national bill on political harassment and violence for reasons of gender. Drawing from the various cases they had received, ACOBOL took the first steps towards defining the problem and classifying its various forms. (15) The bill was discussed in parliament on several occasions in 2005 and 2006, and it was ultimately sent to a joint committee to resolve some technical issues. By 2007, the topic made it onto the agenda of the Tenth Regional Conference on Women in Quito, Ecuador, organized by the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean. The resulting Consensus of Quito contained the first international call to member states "to adopt legislative measures and institutional reforms to prevent, sanction, and eradicate political and administrative harassment against women to accede to elected and appointed decision-making positions." (16)

In 2011 the campaign gained new life with support from women in parliament, the Vice Minister of Equality of Opportunities, an alliance of more than 15 women's organizations, and the UN Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women). The bill was brought up again in the 2011-2012 session and reworked in light of the new Constitution approved in 2009. Key changes included expanding its remit to encompass women in all political-public functions, and not just elected women, and changing the language to focus on acts committed against women (rather than acts committed "for reasons of gender"). (17) Passed in May 2012, the bill defines harassment and violence, establishes legal sanctions, and enumerates a series of factors that might magnify these penalties. Article Seven defines political harassment as "acts of pressure, persecution, harassment, or threats" and political violence as "physical, psychological, and sexual actions, behaviors, and/or aggressions" aimed at restricting the exercise of women's political rights. Article Eight contains a long and wide-ranging list of examples of harassment and violence, reflecting the inductive groundwork performed by ACOBOL. (18)

South Asia: Violence against Women in Politics

Discussions of violence against women in politics in South Asia began in 2006 as part of a project set up by South Asia Partnership (SAP) International, with financial support from Oxfam Novib. It was inspired by findings from a study conducted in 2003 on women's participation in governance in South Asia, which revealed widespread discrimination, exploitation, oppression, and violence against women in politics. The first gathering organized by the program was held in August 2006, with women involved in national and provincial level politics, as well as female activists, representatives of the media, and staff from SAP offices in Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Based on the testimonies given, participants proposed that violence against women in politics was a problem present across South Asia, with female politicians enduring not only physical attacks but also mental trauma and other offenses to discourage them from entering or continuing in politics. Women faced this violence within and outside political parties, as well as in the home and in society at large. (19)

Subsequent regional conferences were organized in 2007, 2008, and 2009. Noting that many victims hesitated to speak openly about this problem, the 2007 conference in Kathmandu, Nepal sought to "break the silence on the culture of feminized violence in politics which till now remained invisible." (20) With financial support from a wide range of international actors, including the UN Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), (i) the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), participants elaborated a more extensive typology of different forms of psychological and physical violence faced by female politicians. The 2008 conference in Kathmandu, supported by Oxfam, UNFPA, CARE Nepal, and International IDEA, focused on laws and policies for reducing violence against women in politics, as well as on showcasing best practices from women...

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