After four hours of torture, Flora Igoki Terah arrived at Nairobi Women’s Hospital on Sept. 7, 2007, with smashed bones, a shaven head and clumps of human feces jammed in her throat. Months before the attack, Terah’s torturers sent her many warnings, demanding that she withdraw her candidacy for a parliamentary seat in Kenya’s election that year.
Terah refused, and the violence took a deadly turn. Six months after her beating, on March 11, 2008, Terah’s 19-year-old son Mark was murdered, along with her political aspirations. The perpetrators of both incidents have never been identified or held to account.
“That child was everything. That’s why I wanted change in my country,” Terah, 56, told PassBlue in a phone interview from Toronto, Canada, where she now lives. “I wanted him to have children who would live in a country they would never regret. l was doing that as a mother.”
While less common, Terah’s experience reveals a pervasive culture of violence experienced by women parliamentarians, or MPs, and women parliamentary staff across Africa, according to a recent joint report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, or IPU, and the African Parliamentary Union, or APU. After interviewing 137 women MPs from 50 African countries and one subregional parliamentary assembly, the report identified psychological, physical, sexual and economic abuse as the most common forms of intimidation and harassment experienced by the participants.
Specifically, 80 percent of women MPs said they experienced psychological violence, 67 percent have been subjected to sexist remarks, 42 percent received death, rape and abduction threats, 40 percent reported sexual harassment and 23 percent experienced physical violence.
The report further revealed that most of the abuse was instigated by male parliamentarians from rival parties and occurred on and off the parliamentary floor and through social media.
In a word, Brigitte Filion, the author of the report, described these results to PassBlue as “shocking.” Filion is also a consultant based in La Rochelle, France, for the IPU’s Gender Partnership Program, which helps develop gender-sensitive parliaments through research and training.
Through her work, Filion identified violence, harassment and intimidation as intentional strategies that men use to deter women from pursuing a political career, which consequently impairs the growth and development of democracy everywhere, she said. “Parliaments are not really safe places for women,” Filion noted. “It’s a reality that cannot be denied and concerns all of us.”
In October 2018, the IPU published a study, also written by Filion, examining abuse in European parliaments. Compared with the 2021 report on Africa, the results suggested that women MPs across continents share similar experiences. In both reports, the MPs who were interviewed identified psychological violence as the most common threat faced in parliament (85 percent of participants in Europe versus 80 percent in Africa).
The slightly higher rate in Europe could be attributed to worldwide disparities in Internet access, given that psychological violence can occur online and in person. In 2019, women’s Internet-use rates in Africa were the lowest worldwide at 20 percent, while Europe had the highest rate for women globally, at 80 percent.
Across the remaining three categories of abuse tracked in both reports, Africa reported higher instances of sexual violence (39 percent versus 25 percent in Europe), physical violence (23 percent compared with 15 percent in Europe), and economic violence (29 percent versus 14 percent). The variances are most likely linked to the specific political, economic, social, cultural and religious contexts affecting women MPs when the research was done. Regions with overall higher rates of violence, whether related to armed conflict or widespread domestic abuse, can make physical and sexual violence acceptable in politics, the report said.
According to a 2020 report from the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, women experienced a higher rate of intimate-partner violence in sub-Saharan Africa, at 22 percent, compared with the global average of 18 percent and Europe’s average of 6 percent. Additionally, since 2018, the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (Acled) showed the highest number of conflict-related sexual violence events occurred in Africa, followed by South Asia.
Interestingly, incidents of violence, harassment and intimidation in both Africa and Europe increased for women MPs under age 40; women who are single or widowed; women living with disabilities; and women from minority groups.
“We also know that women who have feminist policy ideas also attract a lot more abuse,” said Mona Lena Krook, a professor of political science at Rutgers University, in New Brunswick, N.J. “We have interviews with politicians who will say it’s literally the day they made a speech to parliament or appeared on a TV talk show and mentioned a feminist policy issue like gender-based violence or women’s reproductive rights that they get this huge flood of abuse and intimidating phone calls.” Krook, who produces a website compiling research on violence against women in politics, told PassBlue that she thinks these issues affect more women MPs than is known. “The fact that it’s so widespread really tells us this is a crisis.”
Like Krook, Veneranda Nyirahirwa, an MP in Rwanda’s parliament and president of the bureau of the African Parliamentary Union’s Committee of Women Parliamentarians in Rwanda, noted the immediate need to address violence against women MPs in Africa. In a Zoom interview with PassBlue, she described the situation as “dangerous.” However, she said change could only be possible when countries and parliaments create legislative reforms that make violence against women a crime and hold perpetrators accountable.
In Rwanda — where 61 percent of its MPs are women, currently the highest rate globally — an amendment to the Constitution in 2015 prohibited all forms of discrimination against women, and the Prevention and Punishment of Gender-Based Violence law, or GBV, passed in 2008, ushered in a zero-tolerance policy for gender-based violence and introduced legal sanctions for perpetrators. But from years of experience, Nyirahirwa said that laws and policies cannot stand up on their own. “If there is no political will, the laws can be enacted, the institution can be established, but the implementation will always be a problem,” she noted.
Along with legislative reform, the November 2021 report calls on parliaments to implement human-rights-based training to educate women and men on the effects and results of sexism and harassment. The women MPs interviewed in the study added that they wanted offsite private counseling services in addition to independent complaint mechanisms designed to protect women from any backlash. But overall, most MPs agreed that the solution lies in raising men’s awareness of the problem.
Laxman Belbase, the global co-director of MenEngage Alliance, a worldwide network based in Washington, D.C., that promotes gender equality, told PassBlue in a phone interview that he’s noticing a promising shift in how men and boys view violence against women. “I think there is a general consensus now that violence is not O.K., whether they are groomed or socialized to think it is,” Belbase said. “If men and boys can learn to stop using and accepting violence against women in their immediate circle then that will continuously expand” — potentially affecting parliaments worldwide.
However, Flora Igoki Terah, who moved to Canada after her son was murdered in 2008, doesn’t see that shift happening back in Kenya. Today, from afar, she said she was worried about women planning to run for office in the country’s 2022 general elections, scheduled to occur on Aug. 9.
“I don’t really care who wins, but what I care most is how many Floras are they going to create?” she said.