Violence against Women in Politics*

Six months after the murder of Councilwoman Marielle Franco, the causes behind the act and those responsible for the crime remain unknown. A young black woman born on the outskirts of Rio de Janeiro, she was gaining prominence in Brazil’s political landscape, identifying herself with the defense of human rights. Her presence generated the same gender tensions that arise whenever a woman occupies a position of power in the public space.

Recent history shows that violence is often the response to women who step into the political spotlight, a space culturally reserved for (mostly white) men. The aggressions may be physical, as happened with Marielle Franco, or symbolic, as occurred in the impeachment process of Dilma Rousseff, which was full of explicit demonstrations of machismo and sexism by politicians, the media and social networks, just to name a few.

There are so many ways to try to keep women away from public life, that academic research and international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS) have been working with the concept of Violence against Women in Politics as a way to investigate and solve the problem.

Five types of violence are used to keep women away from politics: Physical, sexual, psychological, symbolic, and economic. It happens inside the home, between family members, or in the public space, such as when it happens in the Senate. This violence is conveyed by threats, slander, aggression, harassment, stigmatization, exposure of the individual’s sexual and affective life, restrictions on the performance and voice of women, and unequal treatment by political parties, including an unequal distribution of economic resources and media time for political campaigning.

Violence makes it even harder for women in public offices to remain in their positions. Furthermore, it conveys a clear message: In the 21st century democracy, politics is far from being a receptive place for women. In the 2018 elections in Brazil, the scenario does not show signs of significant change. The number of women candidates who will run for positions is only 31.6%, far below the percentage of women in the population: 51.5%. The proportion of women in the contest is almost the same as in the 2014 election.

It is worth mentioning that, for the first time, the Special Fund for Campaign Financing determined that 30% of the campaign budget should be allocated to women candidates, in an attempt to stimulate the presence of women in politics. The data referring to the percentage of women that compete in this election show that so far, the measure has not had the desired effect.

In the run for the Presidency, the number of women candidates not only decreased (from 3 to 2), but women also lost prominence. In the previous elections (2014), three women ran for president. Two of them were among the favorites – Dilma Rousseff and Marina Silva. In 2018, Marina Silva’s voice echoes alone among the men in the televised debates – presidential candidates and journalists.

Not surprisingly, Brazil is in a dishonorable 156th position in the ranking of countries by the number of women in parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. In Latin America, we are ahead of only Belize and Haiti. With just 10.7% of women in the Chamber of Deputies, and 14.8% in the Senate, men make most of the laws in Brazil. In this regard, we are behind countries like Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan.

Beyond the numbers, the rise in popularity of ultraconservative politicians, who include sexist arguments in their campaign proposals, is a warning about the importance of developing mechanisms, actions, and strategies to ensure women not only have access to political positions, but also to guarantee governability and security. These are essential for elected women to be able to exercise their functions.

Marielle Franco’s murder is far from being an isolated case of persecution of women in politics. This is a very serious example, but it is important to highlight that many other women in public offices, and their families, have suffered – and continue to suffer – harassment. In Brazil, in 2003, a male federal representative told the federal representative Maria do Rosário, in front of TV cameras: “I would never rape you because you do not deserve it”. He also called her a slut. Eleven years later, he repeated the offense to the same representative.

In Bolivia, the Councilwoman Juana Quispe assisted women politicians in filing complaints of sexual harassment, physical and psychological violence. She was murdered after refusing to resign. She was being pressured by the mayor of Ancoraimes and his supporters. Six years later, the crime remains unsolved. The death of the Bolivian Councilwoman was decisive for the country to become, in 2012, the first in Latin America to approve a Law on Harassment and Political Violence against Women.

In 2015, the Follow-up Mechanism to the Belém do Pará Convention (MESECVI, OAS) adopted the Declaration on Political Harassment and Violence against Women and, in 2018, launched the Inter-American Model Law on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women in Political Life. Brazil does not have specific legislation on the subject, but as a member of the OAS, it should follow the guidelines of the inter-American document.

Exactly six months after Marielle Franco’s death, her mother, the lawyer Marinete da Silva, published an article in Time magazine in which she states: “I ask myself what an elected city councilor and well-known human rights defender can have done to generate so much violence. I still have no answers.[1]” The adoption of measures to combat violence against women in politics is a fundamental step not only for society to know the answer to the question “Who killed Marielle?”, but also to ensure the presence of more women in politics, a very significant step for the advancement of democracy.


*Adriana Jacob. Journalist has a BA in Social Communication and a Master’s degree in Culture and Society. Currently, she is working on her PhD dissertation about the gender tensions in Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment in Brazil.


[1]SILVA, Marinete da. My Daughter Was a Rising Politician in Brazil. Six Months After Her Murder, Why Are Her Killers Still Free?Time, September, 14, 2018. Available in:




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