How to Thwart Political Violence Targeting Women to Stabilize Societies
This month, the New York Times profiled Zarifa Ghafari, one of the few female mayors in Afghanistan. The article’s headline was sobering: “Afghan Town’s First Female Mayor Awaits Her Assassination.” In the interview, Ghafari admitted, “I know I will be assassinated,” before outlining her Clean City Green City anti-littering campaign. Ghafari is one of thousands of women around the world who put their lives on the line to participate in political processes. The political participation of women, especially in conflict-affected countries, is an official foreign policy priority for the United States. Going forward, new efforts in this area should take into account the widespread and insidious political violence that undermines the ability of women to participate meaningfully in all political processes, including peace negotiations, post-conflict reconstruction efforts, and civil society activism.
No systematic data collection existed to monitor this trend across countries in real time. This is why the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) — an NGO one of us represents — launched an initiative to do so in partnership with the Strauss Center at the University of Texas at Austin. The data point to how women around the world are facing growing levels of political violence. They are targets of such violence both within and outside of conflict-affected countries, underlining the universality of this issue. However, this targeted violence can have particularly devastating consequences in conflict-affected countries, where female voices are critical in bringing stability and reestablishing democratic institutions. The meaningful participation of women in political processes like peace negotiations and post-conflict transitions is a core pillar of American policy on women, peace, and security. The Department of State, Department of Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development are working to create inclusive institutions and open entry points for women in peace and security processes. And, as we discuss in more detail below, these agencies ought to ensure that budgets, trainings, indicators, and data collection account for the growing danger posed by targeted political violence.
The U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security launched by the White House in June of this year largely parallels the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017 by continuing the law’s strong emphasis on women’s participation in peace and security processes. In fact, two of the strategy’s four lines of effort concern women’s increased participation in decision-making processes and institutions. And indeed, research shows that women’s meaningful participation in peace and security processes improves outcomes — leading to more durable agreements and more stable communities. But as the strategy is turned into policy and practice at the agency level, it is a critical time to assess the risks associated with meaningful participation for women.
Given the variety of ways in which women participate in the political sphere, it is no surprise that political violence targeting women comes in a variety of forms and at the hands of a diverse set of actors. For many women around the world, political violence is a fact of life — a fact borne out by the data. Each week, the ACLED dataset is updated with dozens more examples, from countries affected by conflict and extremism to those facing comparatively low levels of organized violence. Data are public and updated weekly. As ACLED expands to new areas, the data only confirm the prevalence of the threat facing women across cultures and regions. Below are just some of the events recorded this year alone, in countries affected by conflict or extremism, illustrating the prevalence of this violence around the world.
The most literal understanding of women’s political participation is seeking office, and women running for office often face targeted violence. In the Philippines, a candidate for congress was shot and killed by unidentified assailants in Manila. In Colombia, a female doctor and activist for women’s rights, who was planning to run for upcoming local elections, was shot dead by unidentified armed men, according to information from ACLED’s partner organization, Front Line Defenders. And such targeting doesn’t stop once candidates assume office. In Mexico, a book sent to a female senator exploded when she opened it. According to one of ACLED’s local partner organizations in Somalia, a car bomb wounded a Somali female parliamentarian and killed her bodyguard.
Targeting extends also to political party members and supporters, even if they do not hold formal office. In Yemen, a Houthi leader accompanied by gunmen attacked and broke into the house of the head of the General People’s Congress, women sector. In Burundi, a female Congress for Freedom member was beaten and detained by the Imbonerakure (the armed wing of the ruling party), and was taken to prison and held for switching political parties.
Women may also engage in voting as a means of direct political participation — and can face violence as a result. In the Congo, an armed group attacked a village in Masisi, accusing the residents of voting for the wrong candidates, raping at least two women while killing others. In Nigeria, unknown gunmen snatched election materials and killed a female voter in Rivers state during the elections held in February (information comes from reports submitted by citizen election observers as part of Niger Delta Watch 2019, an independent civil society election observation project).
While tensions between political parties may exacerbate contentious contexts, even those women who are not directly involved in a single ‘side’ can be targeted — such as polling staff. In India, Maoist-Naxalites, long-engaged in violent conflict in India’s Red Corridor, planted a landmine in front of the vehicle of a polling party member; the exploding landmine, coupled with direct firing as part of the attack, resulted in the death of the female poll official.
Women holding other government-related positions are also caught in the crosshairs. In Afghanistan, Front Line Defenders reported that unidentified militants killed a female adviser to the Afghan government. In the Philippines, four gunmen shot at a car carrying two female officials of the Bureau of Customs, wounding them both.
Outside of the formal ways in which women can participate in politics — running for office or being a part of political parties, supporting election processes, or holding government positions — women can participate through more indirect means as well. One example is through engagement in demonstrations — where they can still face targeted violence. In Mozambique, members of the opposition Mozambican National Resistance carried out a march; police intervened with force, raping a woman and beating others. In Sudan, the military, alongside the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces, targeted protesters engaging in a sit-in, killing over 100, injuring several hundred more, and raping at least 70 women; a number of women remain missing.
Activists too face heightened risk. In Mexico, Front Line Defenders reported an attack against a woman activist and social leader who was leading a cause to defend land rights, resulting in her death. In Colombia, an attack killed a social leader and women’s rights activist. In Egypt, police stopped a vehicle carrying a journalist to require a vote for the referendum. When she refused, she was arrested, and her whereabouts remain unknown.
This type of violence is not only a security risk for individual women willing to stand up and raise their voices, it can have a chilling effect on women’s participation broadly. Targeted political violence against women often consists of behaviors that, as Mona Lena Krook writes, “specifically target women as women to leave politics.” It can be a “message crime,” intended to categorically intimidate women from participating. And it can extend beyond ‘women in politics’ to thwart the participation of women in the public, political space at large.
Though little research to date tracks the influence of political violence on women’s choices to participate in politics, anecdotal evidence and existing surveys sound an alarm. A study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that one in five female parliamentarians have experienced physical violence and over 80 percent of their sample of women parliamentarians experienced psychological intimidation, especially online. According to the National Democratic Institute incidents of political violence contribute to women serving, on average, fewer terms in office than their male counterparts in Asia and Latin America. The International Foundation for Electoral Systems finds that “73 percent of women online have been exposed to or experienced some type of cyberviolence… [this violence] is intended to silence women’s voices and prevent them from exercising their civic and political rights.” Violence can also keep women from envisioning a future role in politics: a survey in Australia finds almost 60 percent of women respondents aged 18 to 21 said seeing how female politicians were treated made them hesitant to run for office. And a study of more than 10,000 young women across 19 countries finds that nine in ten believe they would be treated unfairly and face sexual harassment if they pursue leadership opportunities.
Without female participation, peace processes and post-conflict transitions are likelier to fail. To achieve the ambitious goals laid out in the U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, political violence targeting women should receive greater attention and resources. The Departments of State and Defense, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, should ensure recognition of security risks as part of strategy implementation plans, including by earmarking sufficient budgets in political participation programs to account for the security needs of participants. U.S. missions to multilateral bodies should advocate that political violence targeting women be incorporated as a specific rights violation in normative frameworks, such as future U.N. Security Council resolutions on women, peace, and security.
The State Department should create a specific indicator to track political violence targeting women, and use it to inform women, peace, and security, and conflict stabilization programming, including early-warning monitoring. Training and other democracy assistance work supported by the State Department, the U.S. Agency for International Development, and the National Endowment for Democracy should appreciate the gendered ways in which violence can affect women’s political participation in conflict-affected settings — especially as certain types of violence, such as sexual violence, mob violence, and abductions and forced disappearances, disproportionally occur in violence that targets women. And such training and assistance should cooperate with election observers, party leaders, police, civil society, and candidates to prevent and respond to incidents.
ACLED’s new data pull back the curtain on political violence targeting women and offer an important tool for exploring these trends quantitatively and monitoring them in real-time, but such initiatives need to be supported if data collection and threat monitoring is to be sustainable in the long-term. Especially important in the data collection process is working with local organizations in conflict-affected countries — not only to ensure reliable information, but also to support organizations that can in turn support women on the ground. Increasing funding efforts for sustainable data and research should go hand in hand with increasing funding for grassroots civil society partners.
Political violence targeting women is a conscious political strategy that actors engage in with impunity, and ought to be treated seriously as a barrier to their full and meaningful participation, and the implementation of U.S. policy on women, peace, and security.
Dr. Roudabeh Kishi is the Research Director of the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED). Rebecca Turkington is the Assistant Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.
Image: USAID Afghanistan