Physical violence targeting women in politics is increasing in most regions of the world, creating additional—and at times deadly—obstacles to women’s participation.
Amid a well-documented deluge of online abuse, new data and research from the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) show that physical violence targeting women in politics is also increasing in most regions of the world, creating additional—and at times deadly—obstacles to women’s participation in political processes. This may be driven by a backlash against the unprecedented numbers of women who have engaged in elections in recent years—both by seeking office, such as in Kenya and Iraq, and by voting, such as in India—setting new records in countries around the world. With these more public and visible roles, their risk of experiencing physical violence is heightened.
What Does Violence Targeting Women in Politics Look Like Around the World?
Since 2020, some of the most violent countries for women in politics include Mexico, Colombia, China, India, Brazil, Burundi, Myanmar, Afghanistan, the Philippines and Cuba. These countries represent widely varying political environments.
In Mexico, women candidates for office face increased risk, especially at the hands of anonymous armed agents, including gangs and cartels. For example, armed men shot at the woman candidate for local deputy for the Green Ecologist Party of Mexico (PVEM) in District 22 on May 26, 2021, in Tocuaro, Guanajuato while she was holding a rally. These actors often target candidates who they think might pose a threat to their lucrative criminal activity, like drug trafficking.
In China, meanwhile, women activists and human rights defenders (known as ‘petitioners’) face the greatest risk, and are often the victims of forced disappearances by Chinese police. For example, a woman human rights defender was arrested from her home in Shanghai by police on March 20, 2019, and subsequently was held incommunicado for more than six months on charges of the “subversion of state power.”
In India and Burundi, women political party supporters face the highest proportion of violence, often targeted by violent mobs with links to rival political parties in India, or by the ruling party’s pro-government militia, the Imbonerakure, in Burundi. For example, in India, members of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) attacked members of the women’s wing of the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC) on July 22, 2021, on the outskirts of Cooch Behar town. Meanwhile, in Burundi, members of the pro-government Imbonerakure raped and beat up a woman member of the National Congress for Liberation (CNL) party in Kirambi on March 28, 2020.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban, as well as anonymous armed agents (some with likely links to the Taliban) has posed the greatest threat to women in politics, especially to women government officials, such as judges. For example, two Afghan women judges working for the Supreme Court were shot dead in Kabul by gunmen on January 17, 2021. With the fall of Kabul last summer, this threat will likely only increase in 2022.
These examples demonstrate the wide variation in risks faced by women in politics. Women engage in politics in different ways—whether it’s running for office, versus voting, versus activism—and each face different threats. The risks of different types of violence vary as well, from sexual violence to forced disappearances, as do the range of perpetrators, from state police to militias and violent mobs. Local politics and contentious periods, such as election years, also influence—and often exacerbate—these trends.
The Importance of Tracking the Variation in Violence Targeting Women in Politics
Understanding the full spectrum of risks—and how they diverge from the risks faced by the wider population—is an important step toward identifying effective strategies to protect women from the particular threats that affect their security. Recognizing these unique threats is crucial if half of the world’s population is to engage freely and safely in politics. In the absence of data-driven and context-specific initiatives aimed at establishing real security equality, the gains being made by women’s increased participation in political processes could be lost.
Innovative data collection efforts are integral to supporting academic, policy, and practitioner initiatives aimed at safeguarding these gains. With numerous elections scheduled for 2022 around the world—India, Brazil and the Philippines, to name a few—this year may see an even greater surge in violence against women engaging in political processes. Not only can this violence serve to stifle women’s participation in these elections, it can also serve to prevent other women from becoming more involved in politics—in turn undermining democracy more largely.
Robust, context-specific, and data-driven protections must be put into place to hold states accountable for the security of women in politics, to end impunity for the perpetrators of such violence, and to ultimately guarantee women’s safe political participation.