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For Women in Politics Globally, the Job Can Mean Abuse, Jail or Death

Senator Leila de Lima of the Philippines has been stuck in jail since 2017, after opening an investigation into the murders of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users under the Duterte administration. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In the early afternoon of May 13, 2020, Joana Mamombe, a member of parliament in Zimbabwe, was seized by security officers after she participated in a pop-up protest, demanding aid for the poor during the Covid pandemic. She and two other rights advocates were accused of violating a lockdown, an act intended to demonstrate the urgency of the issue, according to Mamombe’s account.

For this civil violation, the result was brutal.

“Before they could be formally charged, they were taken to an undisclosed destination, where they were subjected to intense torture and degrading treatment,” an Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) report said about the case. “According to the complainant, the three suffered serious sexual abuse. . . .”

About 30 hours later, on May 14, the three were released at another location by their captors. At 2 a.m. on May 15, they were finally found, abused and abandoned, by a team of family members and lawyers. Mamombe told the IPU that she has been rearrested several times since then.

Half a world away in the Philippines, Senator Leila de Lima, chair of the Senate committee on justice and human rights, has been stifled in detention since 2017. She had opened a committee investigation into the killings of thousands of alleged drug dealers and users during the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who took office in June 2016.

De Lima, a former justice minister in a pre-Duterte government, has been “the target of acts of intimidation and denigration, including by President Duterte himself,” the parliamentary group’s documents say, adding that she was first arrested in 2017, accused of taking drug money to finance her Senate campaign. More indictments and stalled trials have followed. In detention, she is not allowed access to television, radio or the Internet.

A message from de Lima to PassBlue dated Dec 31, 2020 was delivered by email through an intermediary in the Philippines. In it, the senator, jailed in a Philippine National Police Custodial Center, said that the wave of misogyny that interrupted her political leadership was a widespread threat.

“The hard-earned gains of the women’s movement over the years in terms of empowerment and equality — particularly in the areas of political participation and leadership in government — are being continuously challenged, if not outrightly thwarted, by a persistent culture that views women through misogynistic lens,” she wrote in her message.

“In the Philippines, the Duterte regime blatantly resorts to weaponizing the law — from the summary executions of drug suspects in the streets to persecuting the critics and the democratic opposition,” she added. “It’s the age of lawfare, and Filipino women are being hit hard — mothers, wives, women activists, women journalists, women parliamentarians.”

Joana Momambe, a parliamentarian in Zimbabwe, was arrested and beaten by security officials in May 2020 after she participated in a street protest. The Inter-Parliamentary Union reports increasing attacks on lawmakers globally, with women suffering more disproportionately than men.

The cases in Zimbabwe and the Philippines are among scores documented by the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Committee on the Human Rights of Parliamentarians. The committee report, published in December, detailed a rise in attacks on legislators globally, “with women suffering more disproportionately” than men.

The committee found 552 members of parliaments, men and women, in 42 countries whose rights were allegedly violated in 2020. Eighty-three of the legislators, from 13 countries, were new this year. In 2019, the 40-year-old committee counted 533 cases worldwide.

The region with the most cases was the Americas, with Venezuela leading. In late 2020, the IPU was monitoring 178 cases in the region, of which 134 were located in Venezuela under President Nicolás Maduro. Europe had the fewest cases, with 60 under investigation. No cases are listed for the United States, which withdrew from the Inter-Parliamentary Union in 1999 through the growing influence of conservative Republicans in Congress.

“The figures reveal that women MPs are significantly more exposed to torture, ill treatment and acts of violence, with 34 percent of women parliamentarians considered by the IPU affected, compared with 18 percent of male colleagues,” the 2020 report said. Ninety-eight cases of violations against women were examined in 2020, up from 85 in 2019. (See a video clip below of women in the Turkish National Assembly protesting for women’s rights.)

Women in politics in today’s world speak amid recent history when assessing the rise in human-rights abuses, which include intimidation and injustices as well as physical attacks. When the Cold War ended decades ago, there was euphoria as new democracies emerged and young women were among the protesters risking their lives to demand more democratic institutions and their equal rights to join political activities and seek elected office.

These women are not the heirs to power by virtue of birth to famous political leaders. Indira Gandhi in India, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan and Aung San Suu Kyi (still in office in Myanmar/Burma) are examples of that generation. Younger women are more likely now to be self-motivated, self-made political leaders more in the mold of Angela Merkel in Germany, Michelle Bachelet in Chile or numerous women of all ages leading governments in the Nordic countries.

What followed the hopeful burst of inclusive democracies in the late years of the 20th century, however, was soon followed by the spread of nationalistic movements and ultraconservative governments, mostly run by autocratic men. Misogyny began to resurface and flourish.

In Eastern Europe, academic women’s studies program have been eliminated or curtailed. In the US, Donald Trump has been exemplary at getting away with abuses, some physical, for years. Women in power, particularly in US states run by Democrats, have been regularly insulted and disparaged by the outgoing Republican president.

Being associated with the political opposition is a significant risk factor, as data show. De Lima both exemplifies and emphasizes this fact in her message to PassBlue. In the US, Gretchen Whitmer, the Democratic governor of Michigan, an important American state politically, was regularly belittled by Trump, who called her “that woman,” instead of addressing her by name or as governor.

Possibly taking their cue from the prevailing political climate, a radical, self-styled right-wing militia in Michigan threatened in October 2020 to kidnap Whitmer, try her in the group’s illegal “court” and possibly execute her. The Federal Bureau of Investigation moved in quickly to arrest more than a dozen plotters.

From her current life in detention in the Philippines, Senator de Lima wrote:

“My case gained international attention not only because I am the only sitting Senator detained because of political beliefs and aspirations that dare challenge the consensus, but I have been particularly targeted as a dissenting female parliamentarian who refuses to go along with the murderous and authoritarian project of a macho-fascist President.

“The normalization and tolerance of sexism and misogyny against women parliamentarians should be constantly met with fierce vigilance and condemnation because of its chilling effect especially among women who are still suffering in silence and submission,” she said. “As women parliamentarians struggle for full participation in the policy and decision-making processes of their governments, ordinary women are struggling to improve their way of life amid poverty, discrimination, and the same gender stereotypes that we, women in politics, face whenever we articulate our views.

“The list of persecuted women in the Philippines is getting longer but so does the number of women who are pushing back,” De Lima wrote. “We are being harassed, red-tagged, jailed, or even killed for our convictions, but we will continue to collectively and relentlessly fight to reclaim our rightful place in a just, humane and democratic society.”

Tragedies persist. Sometimes all it takes is a woman’s eagerness to become a political activist to put her in mortal danger, especially if she fights for women’s rights. On Dec. 24, 2020, Freshta Kohistani, a 29-year-old pro-democracy and women’s rights advocate, was shot dead in a village in Kapisa Province in northeast Afghanistan. She had campaigned for Abdullah Abdullah, a presidential candidate in 2019 who is now a leading negotiator in the Afghanistan peace talks.

Kohistani was an adept user of social media, according to press reports in the region and internationally. The online news magazine India Today reported that she tweeted this despairing message in November: “Afghanistan is not a place to live in. There is no hope for peace. Tell the tailor to take your measurement [for a funeral shroud]. Tomorrow it could be your turn.”

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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