The good news is, more women are taking seats in African parliaments. The bad news is that being political powerhouses hasn’t stopped them from experiencing harassment and gender-based violence (GBV) at work.
Unfortunately, even though the number of women in African parliaments is slowly increasing, they are facing a major problem.
According to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the African Parliamentary Union (APU), women in parliaments across Africa are experiencing GBV, harassment, and sexism — both affecting their ability to do their job and discouraging young women from pursuing careers in politics
"All women in politics, whether at the national or international level, must be empowered to tackle the culture of silence against gender-based violence, to speak up and report such violence to appropriate national and international mechanisms, in order to hold the perpetrators accountable,” said Dubravka Šimonović, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on violence against women.
"Only then can we achieve equality between women and men in political and public life and eradicate gender-based violence against women," she continued.
A study in 2021, carried out by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), looked at levels of women's political participation across Africa. According to the study, which looked at 19 countries across the continent, women make only 24% of Africa's parliamentarians.
The study highlighted a gender gap in governments across Africa that mirrors the state of women's political participation globally — with just 25% of all national parliamentarians being women, according to UN Women. Yet women's participation in governments is vital because decisions made at government level impact entire populations — and if women's voices, ideas, and decisions aren't included, women broadly and the issues that impact them are too often forgotten.
"We know that women's participation in politics makes a difference. Women bring different views, talents, and perspectives in politics which help shape the political and democratic agenda," said Delphine Serumaga, UN Women Country Representative to Zimbabwe.
"The positive impact of the presence of women in parliaments, such as prioritisation of issues and policies, gender sensitivity in all aspects of governing — including budgeting — and the introduction of new legislation and changes to existing laws cannot be overemphasised. We must therefore collectively fight for women's effective representations in politics and decision-making positions," she continued
With such essential benefits for having women in politics, women must also be able to do their jobs without fear of discrimination, harassment, and violence.
Here are some shocking facts you should know, highlighted in the IPU and APU study, about the abuse and discrimination faced by women in parliaments across Africa. It's important to note that these trends aren't specific to parliaments in African countries alone. You can learn more about the widespread violence faced by women in parliaments globally, and why it's a threat both to democracy and to women's access to leadership, here.
1. 40% of Women Parliamentarians Had Been Sexually Harassed
A shocking 40% of the women who participated in the study had been sexually harassed at some point while doing their jobs. This ranged from comments and jokes of a sexual nature to physical sexual assault, and took place in parliament, during political meetings, and on social media.
"Most respondents consider sexual harassment to be widespread in political life,” the report reads, “particularly advances, comments, and jokes of a sexual nature. 40% of respondents have been sexually harassed over the course of their mandate, by male colleagues from opposing political parties in 49% of cases, or from the same party in 41% of cases."
"Some report that these frequently occurring sexual remarks and advances are not usually considered as sexual harassment and that the concept itself does not exist or is not well understood in the political world," the report added.
2. Marginalized Women Were Most Affected
According to the IPU study, women who are under 40, unmarried, with disabilities, or from a minority community face a higher level of gender-based violence — an indication of intersectional oppression. According to American civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term, intersectionality is “a prism for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other." You can learn more about intersectionality here.
"The percentages suggest that women parliamentarians living with disabilities are most seriously affected: all the percentages for the different forms of violence are considerably higher for women living with disabilities than for the respondents as a whole," the study reads.
Data relating to women parliamentarians under 40 years old also shows a rate of violence that is considerably higher than for the study’s participants as a whole, particularly in relation to sexual violence and physical violence. Similarly, those who belong to minority groups are more likely to experience psychological and sexual violence.
3. Women Parliamentarians Aren't Safe Online
Social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram can be a useful tool for many people in government. They can be used to organise campaigns, communicate with constituents, and garner support. Unfortunately, women in parliaments in Africa are not able to do that safely.
"Across the continent, women politicians experience trolling, image-based abuse (also referred to as non-consensual sharing of intimate images), doxxing, impersonation through parody accounts, and rape and death threats. Similar forms of abuse hinder women leaders in other parts of the world," said Garnett Achieng, a data and digital rights researcher.
4. 80% of Women Parliamentarians Had Suffered Psychological Violence
A whopping 80% of women parliamentarians who participated in the study indicated that they had suffered psychological violence. This included sexist remarks, threats, and acts of intimidation by their colleagues, citizens, terrorist groups, and anonymous people.
The effects of psychological abuse in the workplace include anxiety, depression, emotional exhaustion, and reduced satisfaction in life. For many women in parliaments across Africa, this is their reality.
"Generally speaking, women parliamentarians who took part in the survey believe that the main message conveyed by these sexist remarks is a desire to eject women from political life. Many women deplore the way in which their male colleagues heckle them," the study reads.
"Their male colleagues claim that politics is a domain reserved for men, that women are not welcome there or that they are unfit to take part," it continues. "This main message is based on a series of negative stereotypes, insults, and practices aiming to ignore, diminish, ridicule, and degrade women in politics or to judge their physical appearance."
5. Most Women in Parliaments Who Experience Violence Don't Report It
For many women who experience GBV, reporting the violence that occurs means social stigma, shame, and fear of retaliation by the perpetrator. This is the case for a lot of women in parliaments in Africa who have experienced violence while at work.
According to the study, only 7% of the respondents who had been sexually harassed reported to the parliamentary authorities, and 22% of women who had experienced one or more incidences of violence reported that they had never told anyone about it before the study.
"Women parliamentarians who have survived an act of physical violence are more likely to report it (especially when a weapon was used)," the report reads. "Similarly, threats to physical integrity are more often reported. This is probably due to the fact that these acts are better recognised in national criminal legislation and that physical violence is generally considered to cause more suffering to victims."
It added: "In Africa, sexist online attacks, sexist remarks, and especially sexual harassment tend to be reported less by women parliamentarians."