How political violence impacts women
There are several types of political violence that women face far more than men, namely verbal harassment, cyberbullying, family barriers, and physical threats.
Women face verbal harassment that is often personal and gendered. Because of religious and social customs, politics is viewed as a male domain inappropriate for women’s participation. Consequently, impugning the character of a woman who is interested in politics is often an effective tool for driving her from the political arena.
According to IFES’ Electoral Violence Education and Resolution (EVER) report in 2017, psychological violence in the form of intimidation and verbal harassment accounts for 42% of all incidents of violence against women, and women are three times more likely to be victims of intimidation than men. The study also finds that women party leaders, supporters, and candidates are the largest category of female victims of political violence and that psychological violence constitutes 90% of this violence.
The internet has created a new medium for political violence against women. Cyberbullying on social media is another form of violence against women politicians from the national and local levels. In interviews, women from Bangladesh's two major political parties expressed frustration and helplessness against online harassment, which can come from both inside and outside the party.
A nation-level woman leader from an opposition party said- “…the opponents create squads to bully political women who are not only running for a nomination or election but also women who have potential.... Unfortunately, this is not only from the opposition parties; Many times, it’s from her own party—male and even female competitors”.
Family pressure is also a problem. In Bangladesh, family support is essential for women’s advancement in all sectors but particularly politics, which is often considered taboo. In many cases, however, families pressure women to avoid or withdraw from having a political career. In interviews, several women political leaders have shared many instances in which a husband has threatened to divorce his wife for being active in politics.
Physical violence and threats of violence also occur. Rape and death threats are common. Women politicians and activists face hate speech and various threats to themselves and their family members. For example, on September 7, 2022, a female Zila Parishad candidate was returning from an election campaign event when she was waylaid by five men and raped at gunpoint in Bagmara upazila's Mahmingram village. The victim told a newspaper after, "They raped me to stop me from competing in the election".
While these types of political violence against women are well known and documented, there are few studies that examine the full extent of the problem.
Preventing electoral violence against women
Because political violence against women is a social as well as a legal problem, it is difficult to fix. The government has passed legislation to prevent teasing and sexual harassment of women and Bangladesh’s Digital Security Act, despite its controversies, can be used to protect women from online harassment.
Although the Bangladesh government is committed to women’s empowerment, the current laws and policies so far seem inadequate for increasing women’s participation on the frontline of politics. More can be done by the state and society. Political parties should meet their legal obligation of 33% women constituting all levels of political parties. Civil society and NGOs can promote women’s participation and skills training and raise awareness among men about women’s role in politics. Finally, Bangladeshis—in their homes and communities—shouldn’t punish women for having political aspirations, they should cultivate them.
With these steps, Bangladesh can begin to slow the tide of political violence against women and foster a new generation of women leaders.
* Ruaksana Haque is an advocacy specialist with the International Republican Institute (IRI)