Violence against Women in Politics. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.
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Women have made significant inroads into politics in recent years, but in many parts of the world, their increased engagement has spurred physical attacks, intimidation, and harassment intended to deter their participation. This book provides the first comprehensive account of this phenomenon, exploring how women came to give these experiences a name – violence against women in politics – and lobbied for its increased recognition by citizens, states, and international organizations. Tracing how this concept emerged inductively on the global stage, the volume draws on research in multiple disciplines to resolve lingering ambiguities regarding its contours. It argues that this phenomenon is not simply a gendered extension of existing definitions of political violence privileging physical aggressions against political rivals. Rather, violence against women in politics is a distinct phenomenon involving a broad range of harms to attack and undermine women as political actors. Drawing on a wide range of country examples, the book illustrates what this violence looks like in practice, as well as catalogues emerging solutions around the world. Issuing a call to action, it considers how to document this phenomenon more effectively, as well as understand the political and social implications of allowing violence against women in politics to continue unabated. Highlighting the threats it poses to democracy, human rights, and gender equality, the volume concludes that tackling violence against women in politics requires ongoing dialogue and collaboration to ensure women’s equal rights to participate – freely and safely – in political life around the globe.
1. A 'Problem with No Name'
This chapter introduces the concept of violence against women in politics. It considers why violence against women in politics has remained hidden for so long. Testimonies from politically active women point to four reasons. Some women normalize violence as part of the political game and thus simply do not perceive it as a “problem” (a cognitive gap). Others recognize that violence is not an acceptable cost of political engagement, but nonetheless remain quiet to protect their political careers and/or their political parties (a political gap), or to avoid scorn or blame from others for purportedly bringing the abuse upon themselves (a receptivity gap). A final group would speak out but feels there is no one to tell or no adequate language to describe their experiences (a resources gap). The chapter also provides an overview of the volume.
An Emerging Concept
2. A Global Genealogy
This chapter traces the global emergence of the concept of violence against women in politics. The first efforts to name the problem of violence against women in politics emerged in parallel across different parts of the global South. Working inductively, locally elected women in Bolivia theorized their experiences as “political harassment and violence against women” the late 1990s; networks of elected women across South Asia, with support from global organizations, mapped and condemned manifestations of “violence against women in politics” in the mid-2000s; and state and non-state actors in Kenya recognized and sought to tackle “electoral gender-based violence” in the late 2000s. The inductive theorizing planted important seeds subsequently taken up by a wide range of international practitioners, who in the late 2000 and early 2010s actively worked to craft a global concept of “violence against women in politics.”
3. Parallel and Related Trends
Inductive development of the concept of violence against women in politics has largely proceeded from an activist and practitioner space focused on the global South. This chapter identifies incidents of political sexism and misogyny in other regions that helped propel recognition of violence against women in politics as a global phenomenon. It summarizes debates involving politically active women in other regions – including the global North – showing that this problem affects women across a range of different countries. One of these was the #MeToo movement that swept around the world in late 2017, which drew attention to sexual harassment within political institutions and highlighted that gender-based violence was not restricted to election-related events. These episodes have largely been folded into the work done by practitioners in the violence against women in politics field, helping to strengthen its recognition as a universal phenomenon.
4. An Expanded Vision
This chapter notes that the concept of violence against women in politics, as it has emerged, has largely been restricted to actions perpetrated against women in elections and/or within formal political institutions. During this same period, however, parallel campaigns have emerged to draw attention to violence committed against women human rights defenders and against female journalists, respectively. These efforts take up highly similar issues concerning violence as a barrier to women’s participation in the political field. The chapter advocates joining these various streams to forge a more comprehensive concept of violence against women in politics, underscoring continuities across challenges faced by politically active women of all types.
5. International Recognition
This chapter traces how the discussions outlined in previous chapters have become embedded in a growing number of international normative frameworks. The architecture surrounding the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) has provided one entry point. The CEDAW Committee raised the issue in a number of country reviews and issued several General Recommendations alluding to violence in the political sphere. A second pathway has been via the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, who issued two reports on this topic in 2018. A third involves UN General Assembly resolutions, including a recent resolution identifying sexual harassment as a form of violence against women referencing violence in politics. The new International Labor Organization Convention Concerning the Elimination of Violence and Harassment in the World of Work serves as a fourth venue, filling important gaps related to sexual and online harassment in political spaces.
6. A ‘New’ Phenomenon?
This chapter explores whether violence against women in politics is in fact a “new” phenomenon. Existing evidence points to at least three scenarios: it is a new expression of an old problem, it stems from technological advances and rising levels of incivility in world politics, and it constitutes a backlash against women’s increased presence in politics. While the lack of prior research complicates the task of testing these various explanations, the chapter ultimately argues that the search for a definitive answer may be misplaced: rather than constituting competing hypotheses, these accounts more likely collectively capture distinct elements driving this phenomenon.
7. Debates and Controversies
This chapter applies more critical, comparative lens to the developments discussed in previous chapters. It outlines a series of debates and controversies emerging from practitioner work, which have been subject at times to tense academic engagement. These disagreements include disputes over terminology; violence against women or gender-based violence as the defining feature of this phenomenon; differing typologies and classifications of specific forms of violence; views on targets and perpetrators of violence; the presence of intersecting forms of violence based on race, class, age, and other identities; and contextual factors and their role in shaping incidents of violence. The discussion stakes out the position of this book in relation to each of these debates, providing a short summary of the ideas subsequently elaborated at length in the next part of the volume.
A Theoretical Framework
8. Politics as a Hostile Space
This chapter addresses arguments suggesting politics is simple a hostile space, drawing on examples from both the theory and practice of politics. It then turns to several bodies of work problematizing these assumptions. The literature on political and electoral violence, for example, contends that using force to achieve political ends poses a threat to democracy and, as such, is illegitimate. More recent efforts in both activism and research focus on violence against three types of political actors: politicians, activists, and journalists. Despite running largely in parallel to one another, these debates converge in arguing that violence not only harms democracy – but also violates personal integrity, undermining human rights.
9. A Distinct Phenomenon
This chapter argues that violence against women in politics is not simply a gendered version of already-recognized forms of political violence. Rather, it constitutes a distinct phenomenon that specifically aims to exclude women as women from the political sphere. Rather than being an incidental feature, gender is central to the logic of violence, shaping its origins, manifestations, and outcomes. The chapter elaborates on this distinction by proposing that violence against women in politics originates in structural violence against women, is manifested through cultural violence against women, and results in symbolic violence against women. This distinction means that violence against women in politics poses threats to democracy, human rights, and gender equality.
10. A Bias Event Approach
This chapter develops an approach for identifying empirical cases of violence against women in politics. It begins by outlining methodological challenges related to under-reporting, comparisons, and intersectionality. The chapter then argues that work on hate crimes offers a way forward, as it explicitly seeks to develop tools to ascertain whether bias against particular groups was a motivating factor behind a given crime. Because not all acts of violence against women in politics constitute crimes, the chapter proposes to focus instead on “bias events,” actions of both a criminal and non-criminal nature driven by bias against women in political roles. It then builds on existing legal guidance to propose six criteria for determining whether an incident was potentially motivated by bias.
11. A Continuum of Violence
This chapter outlines competing views on defining “violence.” A minimalist conception of violence as force focuses on the deliberate infliction of physical injury, highlighting the intentions of agents committing acts of violence at single moments in time. In contrast, a more comprehensive view of violence as violation recognizes a wider range of transgressions, privileging the experiences of victims and the “ripples of violence” affecting survivors, their families, and their communities over time. The chapter argues in favor of adopting a comprehensive approach, limited not to the use of force but drawing attention to violations of personal integrity more broadly. It draws on feminist work theorizing a continuum of violence against women to highlight why identifying a more complete spectrum of violent acts is vital, as manifestations of violence not only shade into one another but also inform and reinforce one another.
A Typology of Violence
12. Physical Violence
This chapter provides an overview of physical forms of violence against women in politics. Physical violence encompasses a wide range of bodily harms involving unwanted contact and confinement resulting in death or injury. The tangible nature of these acts makes them the most widely recognized and least contested forms of violence against women. They tend to be relatively rare, however, with offenders opting for “less costly” means of violence before escalating to physical attacks. While legal redress may be a solution for at least some forms of physical violence, politically active women have developed a number of grassroots strategies to respond to and anticipate physical violence. At the same time, individual women and state actors have devised new preventive security arrangements, seeking to avert or mitigate the effects of physical attacks.
13. Psychological Violence
This chapter provides an overview of psychological forms of violence against women in politics. Psychological violence inflicts trauma on individuals’ mental state or emotional well-being. It seeks to disempower targets by degrading, demoralizing, or shaming them – often through efforts to instill fear, cause stress, or harm their credibility. These acts may occur inside and outside official political settings and be carried out in person, by telephone, or via digital means like email and social media. Experiencing it firsthand, targets (and their allies) have taken the lead in devising and sharing coping strategies, empowering individuals and mobilizing groups to call out psychological violence and counteract its pernicious effects.
14. Sexual Violence
This chapter provides an overview of sexual forms of violence against women in politics. Sexual violence comprises a host of unwanted behaviors targeting a person’s sexuality and sexual characteristics, ranging from non-consensual physical contact to unwelcome verbal conduct of a sexual nature. Whether involving a single incident or a pattern of behavior, sexual violence violates human dignity, communicating a message of domination and disrespect. Employed to display, gain, or maintain power, sexual violence can also create a hostile work environment, interrupting and potentially undermining women’s labors and contributions. Recent interventions around the world, especially in the wake of the #MeToo movement, seek to deepen emerging understandings that sexual violence is pervasive but unacceptable in the political realm by working to raise awareness, pursue sanctions, and devise preventative measures to expose and combat sexual violence in its various forms.
15. Economic Violence
This chapter provides an overview of economic forms of violence against women in politics. Economic violence employs economic hardship and deprivation as a means of control, most often by destroying a person’s property or harming their financial livelihood as a form of intimidation. Forms of economic violence include vandalism, property destruction, theft, extortion, raids to remove property, withholding of funds and resources, threats to terminate employment, withdrawal of financial support, and restrictions on access to funding. Despite direct links between economic violence and the ability of women to perform political functions, it remains a largely invisible phenomenon. Few women, indeed, appear willing to speak on the record about their experiences for fear of negative effects on their personal and professional livelihoods. Relative silence on these dynamic, in turn, means that few measures exist to address economic violence, with civil society largely filling to gap to provide emergency grants and accounting oversight.
16. Semiotic Violence
This chapter provides an overview of semiotic forms of violence against women in politics. These dynamics involve mobilizing semiotic resources – words, images, and even body language – to injure, discipline, and subjugate women. Unlike other forms of violence against women, these acts are less about attacking particular women directly than about shaping public perceptions about the validity of women’s political participation more broadly. Analyzed inductively, women’s experiences in the politics suggest two main modes of semiotic violence: rendering women invisible, attempting to “symbolically annihilate” women in the public sphere, and rendering women incompetent, emphasizing “role incongruity” between being a woman and being a leader. Emerging solutions seek to counteract these dynamics by revising or reversing prevailing semiotic frames, forging new semiotic tools to defend women’s right to participate and create a more inclusive public sphere.
A Call to Action
17. Cross-Cutting Solutions
This chapter builds on previous chapters, which focused on solutions for individual categories of violence, by cataloguing solutions that cut across multiple forms of violence. Collective efforts to understand this problem highlight the multi-faceted and overlapping nature of its manifestations, thus single-pronged solutions may not suffice, on their own, to address the fuller spectrum of acts of violence against women in politics. Pioneered in various parts of the globe, cross-cutting solutions fall into three categories: awareness-raising initiatives, legal reforms, and safety and support frameworks. As a group, they tackle this problem at various stages, seeking to prevent, sanction, and provide redress for acts of violence against women in politics.
18. Documentation and Data Collection
This chapter surveys and evaluates existing attempts to collect data on violence against women in politics. These efforts either modify existing datasets and approaches or develop new sources and methods of data collection. This work has been crucial in raising public awareness, establishing that the problem of violence against women in politics exists – as well as motivating action to address it. At this nascent stage, however, studies share a tendency to elide the theoretical distinction between violence in politics and violence against women in politics. Neither comparing the experiences of women and men, nor centering women’s lives, provides a clear cut methodological solution. A bias event approach offers a potential means forward. Focused on collecting and evaluating evidence on the presence or absence of gender bias in particular incidents, it can assist both qualitative and quantitative researchers in distinguishing these phenomena in future work.
19. Political and Social Implications
This chapter considers the political and social consequences of violence against women in politics. The implications of these acts reach far beyond their effects on individual victims, however, harming political institutions as well as to society at large. First, attempting to exclude women as women from participating in political life undermines democracy, negating political rights and disturbing the political process. Second, tolerating mistreatment due to a person’s ascriptive characteristics infringes on their human rights, damaging their personal integrity as well as the perceived social value of their group. Third, normalizing women’s exclusion from political participation relegates women to second class citizenship, threatening principles of gender equality. Naming the problem of violence against women in politics thus has important repercussions along multiple dimensions, making the defense of women’s rights integral to the protection of political and human rights for all.
20. Concluding Thoughts
This chapter concludes the volume with some final thoughts. It addresses concerns, in particular, that raising awareness about violence against women in politics may potentially depress the political ambitions of other women by highlighting the dangers inherent in engaging in public life. The chapter argues that speaking out about these experiences can also be empowering, pointing to research showing that – while fear may be demobilizing – anger can be mobilizing, producing positive, rather than negative, effects on political participation. Thus, although some may be deterred, many women may instead be galvanized to continue – or begin – their political work.
About the Author
Mona Lena Krook
Mona Lena Krook is Professor of Political Science and Chair of the Women & Politics Ph.D. Program at Rutgers University (New Jersey, USA). Since 2015, she has collaborated with the National Democratic Institute on its #NotTheCost campaign to stop violence against women in politics. Research for the book was funded by a National Science Foundation CAREER Award and an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship.