New Study Uncovers Widespread Sexual Violence against Women in Europe’s Parliaments

Akanimo Sampson

Akanimo Sampson

In parliaments across Europe, acts of sexism, abuse and violence against women are widespread, A new study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) shows.

This regional study seeks to take the initial findings of a2016 IPU report further, focusing specifically on the situation in parliaments in Europe.

It is the result of close collaboration between IPU and PACE, and is the first in a series of regional studies that the IPU wishes to conduct on the subject.  The study also broadens the scope of the research to include harassment and violence against female parliamentary staff.

Based on interviews with 123 female member of parliaments (MPs) and parliamentary staff in Council of Europe member states, the survey continues the work already carried out to provide figures and document a range of sexist and violent behaviour against women in parliaments.

It also seeks to assess the extent and highlight the particular forms of such abuse in Europe. The study, therefore, aims to break the silence and persistent taboos and to contribute to the fight against gender-based behaviour and violence wherever they occur.

Many women around the world still lack basic human rights and face discrimination and gender-based violence. The world’s parliaments are no exception. With a global average of 25 per cent women, most parliaments remain male-dominated, and women MPs are often under-represented on decision-making bodies.

IPU is one of the leading organisations for the empowerment of women, recognizing the link between strong democracies and gender equality in parliaments.

Itswork focuses on three main objectives: increasing the number of women in parliament through well-designed quotas and parliamentary caucuses; supporting women in parliament; and transforming parliaments into gender-sensitive institutions that deliver on women’s rights.

To achieve these objectives, IPU has a wealth of data and tools: ‘’We are the authority on the percentage of women in national parliaments, including comparative analyses between countries and annual studies that look at historical trends over decades.

‘’We have published landmark reports on sexism and gender-based violence in parliament, looking at both female MPs and female parliamentary staff.

‘’Our self-assessment toolkit for gender-sensitive parliaments is an essential reference that has been used by dozens of parliaments around the world’’, it says.

Practising what it preaches, IPU has adopted groundbreaking practices ourselves to ensure gender equality in its assemblies, committees and staff.

However, the findings reveal that 85 per cent of women MPs have suffered from psychological violence in parliament; women MPs under-40 are more likely to be harassed; female parliamentary staff endure more sexual violence than female MPs; and that the majority of parliaments don’t have mechanisms to enable women to speak out.

The IPU/PACE study is based on extensive interviews with 123 women from 45 European countries. Of the sample, 81 of the women were MPs and 42 were members of the parliamentary staff. This report follows up and confirms the results of the IPU’s landmark 2016 study, which revealed widespread gender-based harassment in parliaments.

This new report is the first in a series of IPU regional studies that will help build a global picture of sexism, harassment and violence against women in parliaments.

IPU President, Gabriela Cuevas, said “our study has concluded that acts of sexism, abuse and violence against women are widespread in parliaments across Europe, and must be eradicated through the promotion of gender culture, and the implementation of effective institutional mechanisms that allow women to speak out.

‘’Not only is harassment a severe infringement of women’s rights, it is also bad for democracy. We need to acknowledge the perverse effect that this can have on the freedom of action of women MPs, not only from Europe but from other regions of the world.”

PACE President, Liliane Maury Pasquier, said “unfortunately, the study points to a sad reality. The #MeToo movement has not spared the world of politics. As long as inequality between women and men persists, no woman will be safe from violence and harassment.

‘’We, women and men in politics, do however have a lever that can turn us into movers of change: the Istanbul Convention—a legal instrument aimed at preventing, protecting, prosecuting and, above all, breaking the sexist pattern.”

For IPU Secretary General and International Gender Champion, Martin Chungong, “there should be zero tolerance for any form of sexual harassment in democracy’s core institution. It’s the responsibility of all in parliament, both men and women, to take urgent action to put in place mechanisms to protect all women who work there and to become more gender sensitive.”

Of the women interviewed, 47 per cent said they had received threats of death, rape or beating; 68 per cent had been the target of sexist comments relating to their physical appearance and gender role stereotypes while 25 per cent said they had endured sexual violence.

Social media remained the main channel for threats and harassment with 58 per cent saying they had been the target of online sexist attacks on social networks.

European women MPs active in the fight against gender inequality and violence against women were often singled out for attack.

The IPU/PACE study shows that being a young woman MP is an aggravating factor. Women MPs under 40 are targeted more by certain forms of violence.

Of these women, 76 per cent had experienced degrading treatment and abuse in the media and on social networks (18 per cent more than all women MPs surveyed); and 36 per cent had been sexually harassed (12 per cent more than all women MPs surveyed).

The perpetrators were either political opponents, or colleagues from the women’s own party, or ordinary citizens.

The IPU/PACE study also shows that it’s not just female MPs who experience violence and abuse but also female parliamentary staff in Europe.

Some 40.5 per cent of female parliamentary staff interviewed said that they had undergone acts of sexual violence in their work (compared with 25 per cent for female MPs), suggesting that they are more vulnerable than female MPs and that power relation also play a part. In 69 per cent of cases, the perpetrators were male MPs.

An interviewee detailed what had happened to one of her colleagues. “An MP was harassing an assistant. On a business trip, he tried to force his way into her room. He would send her texts with sexual connotations and threaten her with dismissal if she didn’t comply. She reported him. However, she was the one who had to quit, while he kept his job. And what’s more, he’s still an MP.”

The study found that few women speak out against the abuse. Only 23.5 per cent of women MPs and 6 per cent of women members of parliamentary staff who had been sexually harassed had reported the incident. Several of the interviewees deplored the fact that there is no mechanism in their parliament to report cases of harassment or violence.

The IPU/PACE report contains a number of practical measures to combat sexism and violence against women in parliaments. These actions include making it clear that sexist behaviour, harassment and gender-based violence in parliament are totally unacceptable; putting in place a confidential complaint and investigation mechanism; and disciplinary sanctions against the perpetrators.

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