Psychological abuse against women in politics on the rise

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By Irene Kalulu

The political arena, which has over the years been regarded as a man’s space, has seen an increasing number of women contesting for political offices. But it has not been easy for women politicians as the journey is full of numerous gender-oriented obstacles including societal norms and perceptions.

Some women politicians have been able to overcome the obstacles while others have given up on their dreams as they could not take the trauma that comes with the political races.

Women in politics are subjected to more political violence or abuse compared to their male counterparts who are in most cases the perpetrators.

Political scientists like Della Porta, have defined political violence as the use of force or threatened use of force to achieve political ends. Violence can be physical or psychological and more emphasis has been placed on the physical aspects of political violence. Yet more women are suffering from psychological violence or abuse when they seek for public office worldwide.

Article 2 of the 1993 UN Declaration on the Elimination of Violence against Women names physical and psychological violence as some of the abuses that women have to be protected against.

Examples of psychological violence include intimidation, threats of rape or death and this can happen in person or online. This causes trauma and affects a person’s mental state and emotional well-being.

For Idirashe Dongo, ZANU PF Councillor for ward 30 in Zibagwe, Kwekwe, being a politician has always been a dream. She desired to be in public office so that she could serve and make a difference in her community.

When she finally decided to pursue her vision she was unprepared for the mental onslaught awaiting her. She was the only female in the primary elections racing against four men, two are war veterans, one a prominent business man and the other a young man.

“They would taunt me, telling me I had no experience and nothing to offer anyone, that’s why I was not married. I was told that what I wanted to pursue was for men and as a woman I should go and sell clothes like other women. I was labelled a prostitute throughout my campaign, all because I wanted to lead,” she said.

Dr Nemache Mawere, a Psychiatrist based in Zimbabwe says that psychological or emotional abuse is more common than physical abuse. It is subtle and not easy to identify and involves saying bad words to others, criticising them regardless of the situation.

The effects of psychological violence are more profound and involve a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Councillor Dongo, says that in as much as she continued to chase her dream there were times she would get home and wonder if she could continue to the end.

“Sometimes you would like you are strong but inside it would be so emotionally painful,” she said.

She was able to draw strength from her religious beliefs that gave her the courage and tenacity to endure all that was thrown at her.

Social media platforms are no exception in as far as targeting women politicians.  Women politicians are body shamed, regarded as loose and their families put under scrutiny.  Online trolls harass and threaten women politicians using sexualised and gender-based insults.

Advocate Fadzayi Mahere, Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) Alliance Spokesperson has been a target as well as LEAD President, Linda Masarire and many other women in politics.

On one of her posts Masarire says that sexual harassment of female candidates seems acceptable especially on social media and a lot needs to be done to create peaceful environments online and in constituencies.

Dr. Mandiedza Parichi, Chairperson for Peace Studies Department at the Midlands State University says that online spaces mirror what is happening in societies.

“Instead of looking at the capacity of a female candidate, social media focuses on appearances, race; they stereotype and frame women in ways they don’t frame males because society regards politics as a male domain. The attacks online are not just from men but because it’s now embedded in our societies you also find some women who are socialised to think that men are better leaders than women also attacking female politicians and preferring to vote for a male than a female eve if the woman is better candidate,” Dr. Parichi said.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) through a global study of sexism, violence, and harassment against female members of parliament uncovered that globally, nearly all female MPs have suffered some form of psychological violence.

The study showed that in Malawi in 2009, 425 women ran for office and 225 quit before the elections were over because of harassment and intimidation. In Afghanistan, nearly all female candidates interviewed in the 2010 elections had received threatening phone calls.

On the international stage, Bolivia was the first state to respond with legal reforms criminalizing political violence and harassment against women in 2012.

In Zimbabwe, the Constitution has sections that touch on the rights of women and girls but there are no specific laws that protect women politicians against political violence.

Dr Parichi says that culturally, the political space has been dominated by males and the coming in of female politicians has disturbed the status quo and men dislike this as it denotes the shift in terms of power and influence.  She said all these aspects are influenced by colonialism, capitalism and ideologies like the Victorian age principle that portrayed women as irrational and men as rational. Therefore women were supposed to be submissive and overtime this is naturalised in us.

“That is why most women in terms of power tend to be found in civil society organisations and philanthropic work rather than politics as politics is deemed a male domain,” she said.

Mertha Mo Nyamande, a Psychotherapist and Psychological Trauma Specialist says that women are perceived to be softer targets with less retaliation that is why they are attacked more. She adds that Africa remains rather paternalistic and as such women remain expected to play more motherly roles and less aggressive roles like what politics require.

“We need to change how these systems are built and their pretext, there is a need to push for more equitable treatment away from the paternalistic and avoidant culture that we have always maintained. We can never change practises unless we change the foundations that they stand on,” she said.

Another woman politician who has suffered from psychological violence is Judith Tobaiwa from the MDC Alliance. She is the National Deputy Treasurer and the Kwekwe Central MP candidate for MDC.

When she expressed interest in vying for a national position within her party she met with not just resistance but threats from some of her male colleagues.  This intensified when she then contested in primary elections so that she could represent her party as MP candidate for Kwekwe Central.

“I started getting anonymous calls where someone would just call me obscene names and hang up. Others would threaten me with physical violence for allegedly taking on a man’s job, they said I should withdraw my candidature or face unspecified punishment. Some women would call me a prostitute to my face,” she said.

Female politicians said that support that they continue to receive from family and friends has made it bearable for them to continue soldiering on and following their chosen careers.  But for some their potential is never realised because they are afraid to go all the way in the political system.

Dr. Mawere says that there are a lot of mental health problems nowadays and people may not be aware of this and treat the mental health issues as physical problems. Coping mechanisms for those suffering from psychological trauma can be positive and negative.

The negative include alcohol and drug use as well as confrontations. He said that positive coping mechanisms are rarely followed like getting help from professionals, family and friends.

“A safer space for women politicians can be attained if there are more women involved in politics. Society needs to accept opposing views from women,” he said.

This view was reiterated by Dr. Parichi who agrees that there is a need for policies that allow for more women inclusion in political spaces. She also highlighted that there is a need for a shift in how the government handles abuse of women because some of the institutions like the courts have been socialised to believe that it’s natural for women to be abused if they get into politics.

“Policies are very important because when they are crafted they give an idea about what becomes important in our societies. Policies and cultures have to change by empowering societies on the importance of inclusion of women in politics.

The most important aspect in transformative politics or peace is to have an inclusive government in terms of representation. When people are represented in terms of their gender they tend to be content and have less conflict because they feel their needs are catered for,” she said.

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