#MeToo in Academia: A Panel Discussion Report

Alice Iannantuoni, a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, reports on a panel discussion held on campus on sexual harassment and violence in academia. 
#MeToo and Academia, and how to make campuses safer?
In October 2018, a groundbreaking New York Times article detailed sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Shortly thereafter, actress Alyssa Milano re-launched what became known as the #MeToo movement, with a phrase originally used by activist Tarana Burke over a decade prior to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual violence in society: me too. What followed has been a year in which many different societies, industries, and sectors around the world have had to wrestle with the widespread mistreatment, abuse, and sex-based discrimination of the least powerful individuals within their ranks––often, although not always, women.
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Yesterday, on October 17, 2018, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign held the first of a series of panel discussions on #MeToo in academia. Colleen Murphy, director of the university’s Women and Gender in Global Perspectives program and professor of law, philosophy, and political science, hosted the panel. The four panelists were professors Lesley Wexler and Suja Thomas from the College of Law; Andrea Miller from the Department of Psychology; and Ran Hao from the Institute of Legal Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.
Why is it important to think of the impact of the #MeToo movement specifically in the context of academia, both in the United States and abroad? Three relevant themes emerged from the very well-attended panel.
1. Power Dynamics on Campus 
The power dynamics on a university campus make it an environment that is uniquely prone to breeding discrimination and harassment. Professors and high-level university officials are often in the position to greatly affect their students’, junior colleagues’, or assistants’ lives: they are the ones who decide grades, write letters of recommendations, sit on tenure committees, and so on. Brining forth an allegation against somebody who has the power to jeopardize your school experience or your career is a particularly intimidating proposition, made worse by the close-knit nature of many departments and academic circles.
2. Individual Experiences, Systemic Problems 
Even when there is the will to hold an abuser accountable, systemic problems often get in the way. In the United States, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 are in place to protect employees against discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, and religion; and against sex-based discrimination and harassment at educational institutions, respectively. However, professors Lesley Wexler and Suja Thomas highlighted the limitations of these protections: plaintiffs in these cases have to meet extremely high bars in terms of proving the severity and pervasiveness of the abusive conduct; and, in Title IX cases, universities must be shown to have “actual knowledge” of the incidents and to have been “deliberatively dismissive” of them. In addition, professor Thomas pointed out how universities seem to be more afraid of being sued by alleged abusers (and unfoundedly so) than they are concerned with protecting the abused. Similarly, professor Ran Hao offered an eye-opening overview of how the #MeToo movement has been playing out in China––a country in which the movement started and development first and foremost in academia, rather than the entertainment industry. Systemic, legal barriers have also been a issue in the Chinese context: closer to the civil law tradition, Chinese law requires perhaps even more precise definitions of what constitutes sexual misconduct, harassment, assault, and so on, as these cannot rely on precedent as in common law systems.
3. The Vicarious Experiences of Faculty Members
Lastly, professor Andrea Miller called attention to the vicarious experiences of faculty members who hear of their students’ experiences with harassment and assault. While there haven’t been large-scale studies of this phenomenon yet, anecdotal evidence suggests that women faculty (and specifically, women of color) are often among the first people whom students disclose the incident they have experienced first; they counsel affected students on how to proceed; gather resources for their students; and sometimes follow students throughout the process of reporting and resolving the incident. Data going back decades already supports the notion that women faculty and faculty of color tend to be stuck with more service work than their white male counterparts do; and not getting much recognition for it. In addition to this work being time-consuming, when it comes to dealing with students’ experiences with sexual harassment and assault it also becomes emotionally difficult and draining.
In recognizing these challenges, the panelists suggested some possible ways forward with the goal of making university campuses and the academic community safer for all of their members. First, universities should be mindful of their power structures, and think about how to spread power and responsibilities across individuals and units as opposed to concentrating them in the hands of a few. Second, systemic solutions should include creating a culture that does not tolerate lower-level incidents of harassing; moving beyond the current reliance on reporting and toward more training on how to recognize and react to inappropriate behaviors for faculty, students, and university employees; and moving the focus from protecting the reputation of universities and their most powerful members to protecting the most vulnerable students and employees on campus. Lastly, we cannot forget that incidents of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault do not affect only the direct victims; rather, they take a toll on the victims’ loved ones, classmates, colleagues, and professors too, creating additional emotional labor that most often falls on the laps of fellow women and minorities.
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In Solidarity, October 16, 2018

We, the Prajnya community, express our solidarity with the women who have spoken out across professions to share their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace, acknowledging the courage it takes and the pain that this involves.

We acknowledge too that this is the beginning and that countless others are still silent or unheard; that many workplaces remain unexamined; and moreover, that violence pervades our lives well beyond the workplace. The sexual harassment and sexual violence revelations of the last week have once more illustrated what we have always known—that violence and misogyny are deeply embedded in our society.

There is a role for each of us, wherever we are located, to play in the road ahead.

As human beings, we must bring empathy and compassion to our listening and as citizens, prioritise justice and fairness in our response. One in three women are said to experience violent abuse in their lifetime and only one in four of these women speak about it. To raise questions about the delay in reporting and the timing of these testimonials is to lie to ourselves that the world has always been a sympathetic and supportive place and that our institutions are committed to equality. Let us accept our complicity in silencing survivors, now, as then.

Both the Vishaka Guidelines and the Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013, identify workplace sexual harassment as a violation of the fundamental right to equality. Non-compliance is thus tantamount to a violation of an employee’s fundamental right. We therefore urge organisations that have yet to comply with the 2013 law to put in place zero-tolerance policies, set up Internal Complaints Committees (ICCs) and conduct sensitisation programmes for their entire team, including ICC members.

For its part, the government too has been a laggard in setting up the mechanisms required to support compliance with the law. In most districts, the administration has not set up Local Complaints Committees (LCCs) and in their absence, women working in the informal and unorganised sector, women working in shops and small organisations and self-employed women, including professionals, have nowhere to turn for justice. State governments must ensure that district administrations immediately set up LCCs; ensure their competence through training; and make known to the public how they can be reached.

Further, the enforcement infrastructure required by the law must also be a priority for the government. The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace Act, 2013, requires annual reporting but the government has neither set up nor announced to which office these reports must be sent and who will monitor and penalise non-compliance. We hope this tidal wave of revelations will move all levels of a lackadaisical Indian state to seriously create and provide resources for this infrastructure.

Political parties and their leaders must make a simple commitment that will have a lasting impact on gender inequality in India. They must promise never to nominate or endorse those who make misogynistic statements and those who have been charge-sheeted for sexual and gender-based violence, including street sexual harassment.

The government and political class have so far ignored our collective anguish and anger in the hope that they will pass. They will not. We will stand our ground.    

At Prajnya, we reiterate our commitment to facilitate conversations around gender-based violence including workplace sexual harassment and to encourage and support organisations in their journey, beginning with legal compliance but going beyond it towards equal, inclusive and safe workplaces.

The Prajnya Community
October 16, 2018

#16D17: Children depict Human Rights

On the last SSR_9133day of the 2017 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence, we went to the Roshni Matriculation School in Guduvanchery where in partnership with the school, we had arranged a poster competition for children from schools in the area. 72 children from Class V to Class X participated, and the results were stunning. We selected six posters from two age categories for special recognition but all the posters spoke volumes for the awareness level of the children–and the efforts of teachers and parents!

We had identified eight themes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, all of which related to gender equality (and therefore, ending gender violence).

We present a digital exhibition of the posters herewith.

Theme 1: You are born free and equal in rights to every other human being.

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Theme 2: Everyone has human rights no matter what race, skin colour, sex, language, religion, opinions, family background, class or nationality.

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Theme 3: Nobody has the right to torture, harm or humiliate you.

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Theme 4: You have a right to be protected and treated equally by the law without discrimination of any kind.

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Theme 5: Each and every person who is legally old enough has the right to marry and have a family.

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Theme 6: Nobody should force you to get married.

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Theme 7: You have the right to have a healthy and comfortable life.

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Theme 8: Mothers and children should receive special care and help.

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Please respect the intellectual property of the children, although they have not signed their work, and do not copy the images.

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: USA

USA: Because she was a woman

by Amy Shamroe

I remember huddling around my friend’s laptop with several friends on November 4, 2008. We were hopeful, but didn’t really believe a black man could become President of the United States. Not yet. When he did, we literally took to the streets of our small town singing “God Bless, America.” Hope had won.

When it became apparent in summer 2016 that Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic nominee for President, I was conflicted. I had been wrong about America’s ability to elect a black man, but as a woman living in this country I knew in subtle and not so subtle forms that sexism and misogyny is alive and well here. Still, hope had one victory, so I allowed myself to get excited that a woman might finally lead America. We saw how that turned out.

So, how did a former Senator and Secretary of State lose to a bankrupt reality TV star? Hundreds, if not thousands, of think pieces have been written about this subject since last November. Many, especially those written by men, look at the campaign’s lack of ground game. Fair point, but Trump didn’t even have organizers in every state. When you strip it all away, it comes down to the fact she was a woman.

From the get-go, as a former Secretary of State, Senator, architect of a healthcare plan, and successful lawyer Hillary Clinton still wasn’t good enough. In comments and conversation, she was a “bitch” or worse for being involved in politics, for making the tough decisions men are supposed to make. Trump called for her to be locked up for doing her job as Secretary of State and made it a platform during the campaign, ignoring the long history in our country of peaceful transitions without abuse of power to punish challengers. His supporters latched on the “Lock her up!” battle cry, including soon to be National Security advisor Michael Flynn (now under investigation). Demeaning and undermining her accomplishments has always been par for the course, and American politics have not only allowed it, they have made it the status quo.

It pains me to start with this, but merely getting dressed has always been all the media and critics have needed to attack Hillary Clinton. When she was First Lady, a completely allowable attack was her headbands and scrunchies. Journalists of all stripes commented on the “trend” while she was working to try and reform health care during her husband’s first term. Senator Hillary Clinton’s “boring” pantsuit was a sign of her not being feminine enough. Well, until 2007 at least, when she wore a shirt under one suit was noted to show cleavage. “There wasn’t an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.” The Washington Post, a newspaper of note, reported at the time. Numerous articles were written about the suits. Television talk shows spent hours discussing them. As women often do, Clinton eventually leaned into it and even went on David Letterman’s show and made jokes about them herself.

In 2015, when the 2016 Presidential election was already making headlines, pundits once again focused on her clothing. A secret Facebook group called Pantsuit Nation eventually sprang up to take ownership of the obsession with Clinton’s wardrobe. It is easy to downplay and minimize this behaviour, but it is a small but meaningful way women are demeaned and marginalized.

While pundits like to put blame for the vitriol, if they even see any, of the 2016 elections on Trump and his supporters, it is far more institutionalized. Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy released a study after last year’s elections that showed the media focused more on Clinton’s “controversies,” as the study referred to the negative events, than Trump’s in the election. While the percentage difference was only 4%, the coverage mattered. The narrative for Clinton almost solely focused on “the emails” while Trump’s multitude of controversies were briefly discussed until the next one came along to overshadow the last. From the study, “Clinton’s badgering had a laser-like focus. She was alleged to be scandal-prone. Clinton’s alleged scandals accounted for 16 percent of her coverage—four times the amount of press attention paid to Trump’s treatment of women and sixteen times the amount of news coverage given to Clinton’s most heavily covered policy position.” The media chose to report on an “the emails,” even after countless of GOP led hearings yielded nothing- all while Trump’s blatantly sexist comments and terrible treatment of women were passing stories and not viewed with the same intensity. This was the media as whole, including the allegedly liberal bias publications, giving a man who was caught on tape make lewd comments and had multiple accusers speak out about his actions a free pass.

Looking back a year later, seeing the havoc Trump is already wreaking, the narrative has sadly not changed. When Clinton dared to share her experiences as a woman in international politics the same media turned up to tear her apart again. Numerous Op-Eds questioning how she could dare to share her thoughts flooded social media and chat shows. Bernie Sanders released a book the week after the election and was met with no push-back. Clinton publishes a memoir a year later and she is branded as a sore loser and/or someone who should not even consider being part of the conversation anymore.

Amy Shamroe, publishing professional and Traverse City City Commissioner (elected), Michigian, USA. 

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Colombia

Colombia: Institutional violence versus political equality

by Sofi Ospina

Sixty years ago, 41% of women voted for the first time on the first plebiscite for peace that gave legitimacy to the ‘National Front’, in which the liberal and the conservative parties agreed upon to share power, as an attempt to put an end to the fratricide bloodshed of the “Violence” period.  On 1st December Colombia will be commemorating the 60th anniversary of women’s vote but this relative long history of participation as voters has not yet translated into political equality. Elected women represents only 20% in the National Parliament, less than 10% as provincial governors and less than 15% as mayors in the municipalities and as city councillors.[i] This low representation contrasts with other Latin American countries for example Bolivia (47,2% in the Senate and 53% in the Low Chamber). Even though there exist some legislation to promote women’s political participation, as the quota law and the Law 1475/2011 that rules political parties, there remain many barriers that prevents their participation mostly nurtured by the sexism embedded in political parties male-dominated leadership: lack of training for female militants, lack of funding to their political campaigns, not access to media, etc.

A study released in March 2017, undertaken among elected women, showed that 63% of the respondents (N=166) were victims of political violence. The major reported form of political violence is psychological, mostly exerted by their male peers, even from their same political party. The acts reported were in the form of dismissal of their arguments, threats against their children or relatives, rumours of infidelity, physic and verbal abuse. The most frequent was to restrict their voices, including by turning off the microphones while they were addressing the floor. These acts of violence were considered by themselves as ‘the natural price they have to pay for being elected women. As result of these acts some of them resigned from office or abandoned politics for ever. [ii]

This year with the implementation of the peace agreement with the FARC insurgency, the level of political violence against human rights defenders, social activists and demobilized ex-combatants have increased as the territories formerly controlled by the FARC have been taken over by right-wing militias and the State is not yet ensuring security in those areas as has been agreed. Between 2016 to September 2017, 200 social leaders and human rights defenders have been killed in Colombia.[iii]   In our region, South-West Colombia, many social leaders (both women and men) have been killed in 2017 mostly among Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples. Last month, threats of political violence were reported by the Executive Director of the Union Patriotica, who received death threats by right-wing militias both to herself and the members of her party, if the UP were to contest the 2018 elections.[iv]  The second chapter of the peace agreement encompasses measures by the State to the protection of social activists, human rights defenders and opposition leaders and to neutralised right-wing militias.

This second chapter focuses on political participation and includes a political reform. It establishes 16 special circumscriptions for peace to represent the rural citizens of 170 municipalities (15 million people) that have been affected by the armed-conflict. This is a window of opportunity to political equality, as each list to contest these post-conflict seats should be composed by a man and a woman whose names should be put forward by mid-December. The chances for a woman to be elected in these constituencies will be slim due to the rampant machismo; however, as women political activists, we are vigilant and working hard to ensure there will be some rural women elected on 11 March 2017. For this political reform, women political activists proposed to the special electoral mission the adoption of the zipper system (50% women and 50% men alternately in party lists) for the forthcoming elections 2018 /2019. Unfortunately, the national parliament postponed this proposal to be enacted in 2026. This is another form of institutional violence against women politicians and activists working towards political equality in the electoral law just ad-portas of the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of women’s vote in Colombia.

Sofi Ospina, Red Nacional de Mujeres Valle del Cauca, Colectivo de Mujeres Pazíficas Cali, Comisión de Igualdad de Genero y Empoderamiento de las Mujeres Partido Alianza Verde.

[i] http://lasillavacia.com/silla-llena/red-de-las-mujeres/historia/y-de-la-paridad-que-63377

[ii] http://colombia.nimd.org/publications/mujeres-y-participacion-politica-en-colombia-el-fenomeno-de-la-violencia-contra-las-mujeres-en-politica/ and https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/politica/el-63-de-las-mujeres-que-hacen-politica-en-colombia-son-victimas-de-violencia-de-genero-articulo-684343

[iii] https://www.elespectador.com/noticias/investigacion/la-lista-roja-de-defensores-de-derechos-humanos-articulo-713488

[iv] During the late 80s and 90s about 3.500 leaders and militants of the UP, composed mainly by different ex-combatants of the insurgency, were killed by right-militias and the military.

 

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico: Women in politics: New rules for equality

by Amárilis Pagán-Jiménez

Some people say that whoever pays for the bills, states the rules. And if we look at the political world of Puerto Rico and compare it with our economic statistics we know that it is almost impossible for women to be in a position of command today or in the next week. We are the group with the highest percentage of families under the poverty level. When it comes to have access to positions of power, it is also evident that not only the educational level that we reached is considered. Our biological sex determines social expectations around us, what stereotypes are used to judge us, what excuses are used to sexually assault us, and how likely is that our couple will abuse or murder us. Violence against women is much more than being hit, it is also a social platform apparatus that deprives us of opportunities for development and basic human rights.

When we lack basic human rights, like the right to the housing, to food, to education, health or work, our capacity for action is limited by a routine for survival that rarely leaves space for access to public and political spaces of the countries where we live. “What will give food to my family? Where will we live next week? How do I get to my work? What can I do with my children if schools are closed? How can I find a doctor to diagnose my symptoms? Where can I find a job that pays enough to cover the needs of my family?” These are just some of the questions that populate the heads of a high percentage of women in Puerto Rico.

Even women who have attained a higher educational level and employment, have dilemmas that need to be resolved before aspiring to public office. In Puerto Rico we lack a structure of social or governmental support to facilitate the raising of our children through quality care centres or schools with schedules that recognize the reality of working mothers. We are still pretty far from having family structures where the fair division of household chores is a reality.

As a woman, you have to be in a very particular economic and social niche to say with confidence that you are ready and have the necessary conditions to make the leap from the domestic space to the political arena. Even from that space, which we see as one of privilege, it is not easy to overcome obstacles and violence that represents a constant menace for women in the public world. Our morale, intelligence, leadership and even our form of dressing is always questioned and criticized.

Although women are 50% of humanity, our presence is scarce in political bodies, governments and economic leadership of the planet. On average, we are no more than 25% of the legislative bodies of the planet. According to UN Women, only 7.2% of women are head of state in the world. In Puerto Rico, 14 of 80 legislators are women (17.5%).  If we look again and evaluate each of the fourteen women legislators we have today from a gender perspective and in the light of their history of working for other women, we would have to conclude that women in Puerto Rico do not have representation in the legislature. I say this because in assessing the participation of women in politics and the public sphere, it is not enough to look at their biological sex, we have to look at their commitment to equality and their understanding about what is gender perspective.

When we talk about women in the political field, there are two important elements that collide with each other. On the one hand, we are a group consistently studied by advertising agencies to learn how to sell us political parties and their candidates. On the other hand, beyond wanting to win our vote, for many of those political parties there is no real interest in advancing an agenda of equality for us. We are the most desirable voters and at the same time, the group most despised at the time of distributing rights.

It is necessary, however, to look beyond what has been considered “politics”. Feminism and the LGBT activism have given us some good lessons because they have been able to work beyond partisan politics tied to electoral processes and have worked politically influencing social processes to advance their own agendas. To the horror of conservative groups who hate to see the women gaining the space they deserve and LGBT people reclaiming their humanity against the discrimination, our work has been paying off.

In the case of women, to reach 2016 elections in Puerto Rico with candidates and parties which fully supported our rights was not coincidence. At the beginning of the 20th century, we had to fight for the mere right to vote. In the 70’s, we had to work a reform of the Civil Code to achieve equal rights in marriage. In the 80’s we achieved legislation to prohibit domestic violence and sexual assault in marriages. In the 2000’s, economic development began to acquire importance on our agenda: with poverty in the center of our lives, there is no way to have equality. We have also achieved important rights related to sexual orientation and gender identity. All that work was political and, in this new decade, we are now ready to cross the borders of the electoral world and go into the spaces of power where decisions that affect not only women, but their families and their communities are made. If we are 50% of the population, we must also be 50% of those who make the decisions.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, in the election of 2016, we only had a 20% nominations of women versus 80% of men. In the case of the LGBT communities, as in past elections, we had candidates who have been open about their sexual orientation and that it is a breakthrough.

If we take a closer look at this picture and study platforms, proposals and the history of some parties and candidates of 2016, we can conclude that there was a real opportunity to change numbers and alter the proportion of representation of women and LGBT communities in our Government. Unfortunately, candidates who have attacked our rights prevailed. In part, because they have big-budget campaigns and it was difficult to overcome gender stereotypes. Many people still think that women must be at home and not leading in public spaces. We are still subject to a harsher evaluation than men and it is a disadvantage in politics where double standards cost votes. In the case of LGBT candidates another challenge is the direct attack of anti LGBT groups and religious fundamentalisms.

Is the political world a space of violence for women? Definitely yes. Not only is there violence in the double standards used to evaluate us that I have just mentioned. There is evidence and we know cases in which the manifestations of violence directly affect women candidates or that occupy public spaces from government offices, social movements or media. This does not mean that we should give up to a reality that we can and we must transform.

In a discussion on this topic held by the Organization Proyecto Matria in 2015, activists, students and workers identified some of the forms of violence suffered by women in public spaces and proposed concrete actions to counteract this violence. Some of them have already been mentioned in this column, but worth noting how the attacks on reputation, the fear of losing economic spaces and threats from private individuals or Government officials represent major concerns for every woman that wants to aspire to public office in Puerto Rico. These fears are not unfounded. In the past years we have seen the publication of private photos of public officials, election campaigns that make reference to sexual orientation or morals of candidates, defamatory campaigns in social networks and the persecution of activists by Government officials who have been confronted because of their incompetence or human rights violations. Coping with these challenges which add to the ones we already have in our lives long before considering a political career is hard enough and a good reason to think it twice.

Some of the proposals made by discussion group of Matria, and others found in a research on the subject, give us some keys that can be considered for future actions aimed to change and improve the situation of women in the public and political world of Puerto Rico. These same recommendations are probably good for other countries. For example, using tactics of reframing was one recommendation. What is it? To alter the meaning of a fact or situation by changing or clarifying its context and proposing a reinterpretation. Other proposals include the work of a common agenda of rights for women in the country and promote it directly with women candidates so they take them beyond the borders of their parties and generate a discourse that strengthens its presence in public spaces. It is also recommended to have a communication strategy that allows the continuous monitoring of media and social networks to achieve coordinated responses beyond the immediate circle of the candidate or of women occupying public positions. It is important to send the message that they are not alone or an easy prey for the machinery that tries to put us again in domestic and apolitical spaces.

Human rights include the right to participate in the decisions that affect our lives and our families. That is politics. That is equality and development for us all.

Amárilis Pagán-Jiménez, Executive Director of Proyecto Matria

NB: Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the United States.

References:

Women in Politics, 2017; UN Women; http://www.unwomen.org/-/media/headquarters/attachments/sections/library/publications/2017/femmesenpolitique_2017_english_web.pdf?la=en&vs=1123

Women’s leadership and political participation, UN Women; http://www.unwomen.org/en/what-we-do/leadership-and-political-participation

Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 19 December 2011 [on the report of the Third Committee (A/66/455 and Corr.1)] 66/130. Women and political participation; http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=A/RES/66/130

Women in Politics: Why We Need More Women in Office; Soraya Chemaly, Huffpost 2012;https://www.huffingtonpost.com/soraya-chemaly/women-in-politics_b_1307586.html

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka: What’s stopping her?

by Lakmini Jayathilake

1931: Women gain the right to vote

1960:  The world’s first female Prime Minister, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, elected

1994:  The country’s first female president, Chandrika Kumaratunga, elected

Present:  Lowest female representation in politics in South Asia

Sri Lankan women gained the right to vote 17 years before the country gained independence from the British. The country elected the world’s first female Prime Minister and the fifth President of country was female. Women have made rapid advances in education, healthcare and their participation in the paid economy has been immense; however, little or no progress has been made with respect to their representation in the national legislature.

It is alarming how women go unrecognized in the most important decision making processes in the country. The Asian region has some of the lowest levels of women’s participation in national parliament, amongst them Sri Lanka is one of the lowest. Timor-Leste has 32.3% of women in parliament, Nepal 29.6% and Bangladesh 20.3% while Sri Lanka is at 5.3% and the nomination list has never increased beyond 6% for women.[i] Thus Civil Society Organizations (CSO) especially women’s rights activist from across the country have campaigned since the 1990s for a quota system for women in all political institutions.[ii] Although there wasn’t a backlash from the government or political parties towards these CSOs and women’s rights activist, quota system proposals consistently faced a dead-end.

The quota and what it entails

Following persistent lobbying and campaigning with every government, opposition party and political parties since the 1990s, the women’s movement in Sri Lanka marked a monumental milestone on 7th July 2017, when the Government of Sri Lanka gazetted the Provincial Councils Elections (Amendment) Bill to increase the number of female representatives in Provincial Councils. As the first step, the Government amended the Local Authorities Election Act to include 25% quota for women at the local government elections.[iii] Thus for the first time, a prospective 2000 women will contest in the upcoming local government election in January-February 2018 alongside their male counterparts. To influence local legislature, dismantled gender stereotypes and finally start seeing women as equals.

What’s stopping her?  

Sri Lankan women share many common barriers with women in other South Asian countries which prevent them from entering into their country’s formal political spheres. These include: cultural values, the perceptions of politics as a male domain and women’s double or triple burden of work, lack of family support and balancing responsibilities as a mother and wife all stand as obstacles. The most significant factor however restricting women from entering politics in Sri Lanka is Sexual and Gender Based Violence (SGBV).

Sexism is so deeply rooted within the political structure and society making it almost impossible for women to break through glass ceiling and emerge as true leaders and furthermore be accepted as politicians. Upon entering politics women encounter harassment, intimidation, threats, financial pressure and in some cases sexual bribery to even include her name in the nomination list. Negative campaign material targeting women are commonly spread through various forms of mainstream and social media to undermine and sabotage her participation, of which character assassination and objectification of female candidates are the most common. This further disempowers and discourages grassroots level women leaders from entering politics as lack of funding and increase in care burdens becomes trivial compared to the SGBV she will face when getting into politics. Many female leaders fear they may lose their current social status within the community if they enter politics as it will create further space to target her and tarnish her reputation. The aforementioned ground level realities prevent female community leaders and activists from making an entrance to local political bodies.

The existing patriarchal social structure puts unfair pressure not just on prospective candidates but female politicians alike. They are constantly criticised and their political careers are always evaluated as a justification tool used to validate or dismiss the need for women in the political arena while their male counterparts face no such pressure. Apart from family commitments, lack of financial support and increase in women’s care responsibilities one of the key factors restricting female leaders from all socio-economic backgrounds is the SGBV they face upon entering politics which not only affects her but her entire family and social circle. This significantly hinders women’s participation and feeds into the stereotype that politics is a man’s domain.

The way forward

Sri Lanka currently stands at a pivotal juncture, taking one of the first steps towards encouraging the increase of women’s participation in the political arena. While making policies to promote women’s representation in politics is extremely important it would not be effective if an enabling environment wasn’t created in parallel. It will be ineffective if the country’s political climate, attitude of its citizens and the overall absence of an enabling environment are not favourable and safe for women to come to the political forefront.

Lakmini Jayathilake, development sector professional, Colombo, Sri Lanka

[i] Women in National Parliaments (1st September 2017), http://archive.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm

[ii] Swarna Sumanasekera, Women in Public life (2016), National Committee on Women.

[iii] Disna Mudalige, Bill to increase female representation in Provincial Councils gazetted, Daily News (11th July 2017), http://dailynews.lk/2017/07/11/local/121641/bill-increase-female-representation-provincial-councils-gazetted

 

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: Maldives

Maldives: Roughed up and Repressed

by Farah Faizal

I was arrested on 19th March 2012 while I was at the Maldivian Democratic Party Office by two police women. They just came and handcuffed me behind and the cuffs were very tight. They took me first to the police HQ and then they transferred me to Dhoonidhoo Island. I was handcuffed. They made me give a urine sample in front of them. They then took me to another room and made me take off my clothes and did a body check. I was kept in a police cell there at the detention centre and released the next day.” A. Muna

On 19th March 2012 I was near the MDP Office when the police came and grabbed me. I said, “Don’t hurt me please. If you want to handcuff me and I will go willing with you; please don’t hurt me.” And the police replied “We will do it.” One of the civilians there told the police that I had just had a small baby and not to take me. The police responded, “We will take her and we will kill her.” They then beat me and one of them grabbed my breasts. The police them sprayed by mouth and eyes with pepper spray.” I lost consciousness and when I regained it, I was inside the police jeep. …I told them don’t beat me. It wasn’t long ago I had a baby by Caesarian section. When I said that the police hit me on my stomach where I had my C-section with their fist. I cried out in pain.” – Y. Hussain

These are just a couple of extracts from the cases submitted to the UN in 2012 regarding what took place during an opposition protest in 2012.

The February coup of 2012 which led to the overthrow of the first democratically elected government led to a galvanising of female political activism in the country. Day after day women came out onto the streets of the capital to protest against the overthrow of the government as well as the diminishing of democratic political space. However, it also led to Maldivian women political activists facing the rough end of police brutality as they had never witnessed in the past.

Women protesters were repeatedly pepper sprayed, tear gassed, sprayed by water cannon and taken into custody. While this did not appear to stop women from participating in protests in the wake of the coup, since the elections of 2013, the government has repeatedly refused to allow protests and demonstrations from taking place at all. Those who have dared to participate have often been harshly punished. One such case is that of Nasira, a mother of two who threw an empty plastic bottle at a police cordon during one such protest and was jailed for five years. She was subsequently released after being in prison for over two years.

Women’s representation in politics and top government posts is very low in the Maldives with only five female MPs in the 85-member parliament and only three female cabinet ministers. A 2015 survey by the NGO, Transparency Maldives found that Maldivians believe that men make better political leaders than women. However, the survey also showed that compared to a survey in 2013, more people disagreed that men make better leaders, depicting a slight change in attitudes.

Despite low political participation, the survey showed that support for women in politics, especially as parliamentarians, cabinet ministers and councillors remained high. Of those surveyed, 84 percent supported women being parliamentarians, 79 % for cabinet ministers and 82 per cent for councillors. While attitudes for female political participation and activism appeared strong, the discrepancy between attitudes and actual participation indicates that there are other factors hindering women’s participation in politics. When asked why there were so few female MPs, 30 % stated that society does not want women as political leaders.

While political participation at the top level remains low, women continue to play a role in political parties mainly at grassroots level in the form of organizing campaign rallies, attending meetings and assisting in door-to-door activities. Women often explain their involvement at grassroots level as being easier for them as it is sporadic and does not demand full time involvement.

The change in attitudes, if any, and the level of women’s involvement in formal politics of Maldives will be evident in the next couple of years as Maldives faces a general election in 2018 and a parliamentary election in 2019. At the same time, there is also the risk of political repression and imprisonment of those who dare oppose the current regime, both that may result in once again women being pushed to the periphery of politics.

Dr. Farah Faizal, Former Ambassador, now Human Rights Defender, Maldives

#VAWIP Blog Symposium: India

India:  Strength—And Safety—In Numbers

by Vibhuti Patel

How safe are women activists in the public sphere?

In the public sphere, wherever and whenever, the women activists are backed by organisational strength and are a part of collective, they have been effect in their efforts and have a safety net. But if the women activist is isolated, there is threat of backlash, she is verbally abused, socially boycotted and physically-emotionally-psychologically harmed and faces continuous witch-hunting from the community. Women’s movement’s slogan, “Women United Will Never be defeated” and “There is Strength in Numbers”. Hence we must promote “cluster approach” in fighting for women’s rights.

How significant is the presence of women in formal politics in your country?

If women’s agenda has to be centre-stage, women’s presence is a MUST in formal politics. All important laws, government rulings, policies, programmes, schemes, translations of gender commitments into financial commitments is not possible without formal representations of women who have proved themselves by working for women’s causes. Activists of the women’s movement have just remained foot-soldiers of the formal politics and those with ornamental/token presence are projected as the figure-heads. This is harming women’s concerns. Moreover, one or two women in powerful position can be easily bypassed, silenced and marginalised. Hence we need “critical minimum” of at least 1/3 representation of women in the formal politics, though our goal must be 50: 50 in the long run.

Is the threat of violence against women candidates and voters significant enough to affect women’s participation?

It’s threat of money and muscle power that discourage committed women from participating in the mainstream politics. Historically, women’s voices have been suppressed, women have been confined to domesticity and women’s concerns have been neglected. Most of the women face tremendous opposition from family, community and the male political leaders if they decide to enter electoral politics or public life. The present political leadership of any hue, in spite of its populist rhetoric, wants to keep women out of the political arena. Indian women’s lower educational level, inferior social status and lack of autonomy are reflected in their lower participation in politics. Increasing criminalisation, corruption and compromises required to sustain one’s political career also deter women from entering mainstream politics. To provide level playing field to women against this historical neglect and adverse socio-political and cultural forces, reservation of seats for women in legislature and parliament is a MUST to ensure a more participate and inclusive, a more egalitarian and sensitive citizenship for all.

What about other forms of violence faced by women in the public sphere–for instance, journalists or writers?

Women in public spheres face three types of violence: First and the most prevalent form of psychological violence is character assassination through whisper campaign, blank calls, scary SMSes and MMSes, cyber-stalking and IT-based torture, morphed images used to tarnish her personality. Second type of violence is threatening her family members to pressurize her to withdraw her article, book, film and to stop her from her future work as a writer or journalist or film maker. Third is physical harm- killing or acid attack or maiming her set an example so that fear-psychosis prevents other journalists/writers/film makers not to speak out on sensitive/uncomfortable issues to the political vested interests.

What has been the experience of women human rights defenders in your country?

Women human rights defenders have been at the receiving end of the communities in case of “honour-related crimes”, accused rapists, accused dowry murderers, accused child sexual abusers and accused members of domestic violence in all parts of the country. Individual whistle blowers have been silence using the above mentioned 3 tactics. Women human rights defenders who are part of women’s groups, national and global networks have been able to save themselves as a result of safety nets provided by their colleagues locally and globally and also due to timely media coverage. They do not have to die an anonymous deaths or are not silenced. Hence, the need for women’s rights movement.

Dr. Vibhuti Patel, feminist economist, SNDT University, Mumbai, India, co-authored Political Feminism in India, 2016.

Violence against Women in Politics: A Blog Symposium #StopVAWIP #WHRD

Prajnya’s initial plans for its gender equality work were to document the work of women in the South Asian public sphere—as activists, politicians, bureaucrats, social workers and those who document this history as historians, writers, film-makers or journalists. We realised too that the biggest obstacle in women’s journeys towards the public spotlight was the threat of violence. This is why we began organising the 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. With this blog symposium on Violence against Women in Politics, we come full-circle to where we started.

We posit women’s participation in the public sphere both as an intrinsic good and as a right. But what are the costs that women face in order to pursue political careers? Indeed, there are two dimensions of this work—there is work that women might do within the mainstream and there is the work that they do on the margins of a mainstream space where rights are violated with rising impunity. We are placing here on a single spectrum the two categories of ‘violence against women in politics’ and threats faced by Women Human Rights Defenders, because the roots of the problem (the will to exclude) and its expression (violence) seem to be similar.

The NDI guidebook, “Not the Cost,” identifies four roles in which women stepping into the public sphere face violence: as activists, as voters, as candidates and as parliamentarians. This study classifies threats as psychological, physical, sexual and economic, while a report by the Centre for Social Research and UN Women classifies them as structural, institutional and functional. There is a growing academic literature on this question, annotated last year as part of the 2016 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign.

This year’s blog symposium has a simpler objective—to simply be a window to the world in which political women work. What is it like from their point of view? Why is it so hard for women to enter and stay the course in politics? What is the relationship between the women’s movement and mainstream politics? And of course, what are the threats that women face when they take up human rights work or enter the mainstream?

We are fortunate to have perspectives from six countries: India, Maldives, Sri Lanka, Puerto Rico (which is an American-held territory), Colombia and the US itself. Each of these are written by people who care profoundly about their contexts. Through the six, what emerges is what women can achieve when they work together—anything, from a quota for women’s reservation to a peace pact.

  1. India
  2. Maldives
  3. Sri Lanka
  4. Puerto Rico
  5. Colombia
  6. USA