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Are We Doing Enough To Protect Our Female Politicians?

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International Women’s Day is upon us, and now more than ever we are putting a spotlight on the issues women face in achieving full gender equality. Just as we should celebrate all of the amazing things we have because of women, we should also acknowledge what else there is that needs to be done. Whether it’s the fact that two women per week are killed because of domestic violence, that women in developing countries are still subject to FGM, or that women in parliament only make up 32% of MPs- there are still a number of injustices to fight.

As we fight these battles, the latter example of the number of women in parliament is particularly important, to help us implement the changes we need. We expect more of those 32% of MPss, because as women we assume they have more reason to fight for the female agenda – that may not be fair, but it’s how many people think – and yet as we have seen in the past few months, they face obstacles greater than just legislative barriers.

Sexual harassment in Westminster has proven to be wide-ranging, and as political parties now fight to implement legislation to prevent the culture of intimidation and bullying, all we can do is sit and watch the people who ignored such harassment for decades, decide how best to deal with it. The working group, put together by the government to report how parliament should deal with harassment, released its findings last month and promised to implement punishments for those found guilty of accusations in the form of being recalled or expelled. It also suggests a new complaints procedure, an independent investigation mechanism and that consent training should be mandatory after the next general election.

However, it also included a clause about anonymity, which prevents the public from seeing the names of the accused unless proven guilty. While the group argued this would protect anyone falsely accused, many others made the point that the number of guilty men wrongly found innocent versus the number of false accusations is so disproportionate that moving from a survivor-led approach to one that catered for vexatious complaints is highly inappropriate.

It seems that protecting survivors, and by extension protecting all women from harassment and intimidation in politics, was somewhat forgotten in this clause. And it’s not the only way the government fails to protect female politicians.

Paola Diana is a women’s right activist and best-selling author, whose book 'Saving the world, Women: the XXI’s Century Factor for Change’ explores the global status of women in political, social and economic sectors, is adamant that the UK could do much more to ensure women in parliament feel safe and respected. In fact, she’s of the opinion that we haven’t even heard the worst of sexual harassment in Westminster.

‘I think there are many more sexual harassment [problems] that victims aren’t even talking about, what we’re seeing now is just the tip of the iceberg. This is normal across all violence against women, when you have 39% of women who declare they are victims, you really have to double it in order to have a realistic statistic.’

That 39% was the confirmed figure from the working groups report, but of course, that only refers to the survivors confident enough to come forward. It’s a scary thought, and is why Paola refers to our parliament as being ‘full of predators’. What we need therefore, instead of the current working groups report, is a zero-tolerance approach. Specifically, Paola is a proponent for naming and shaming MPs.

‘I know the name and shame technique works because, unfortunately, I was a victim of domestic violence myself. I clearly remember saying to my father when I was 14, “if you don’t stop I will call this number and everyone will know about what you’re doing”, and as my father was very respected outside the house he was completely frozen, and since that day he stopped because he couldn’t even think about being shamed in front of the public.

‘We saw that with the MeToo campaign during the past month, it’s very effective and in this specific case it’s very easy to be transparent, we could have the names of all the politicians and MPs who are accused.

‘Violence in parliament would stop from one day to the other, I promise you. This is the most powerful thing they could do and this is the first thing that comes to my mind.’

And when it comes to false accusations, ‘there will be one in 100’, she tells me, ‘and the other accusations are quite real.’

In fact, according to Paola, it is the very least we should demand from our government. After all, they are providing us a service, and ‘we’re paying them good money with our taxes’.

‘This is what we’ve forgot. MPs are there to serve the community and the community is us. The community is half men, half women so why can’t we ask them to be more transparent?’

The question of expectations is an interesting one, do we ask for too little from our elected representatives? Or, are we so used to politicians talking around the facts that we dismiss the possibility of any real, drastic change?

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It is therefore, up to us, to demand more from our politicians, namely Theresa May, if Paola has anything to say about it.

‘I’m really sad about Theresa May, she should do more. She should show all women and girls in the UK that we can change things, that having a woman as prime minister can change more things and protect us.’

So, why doesn’t she? According to Paola, she’s either not brave enough or unwilling to sacrifice the possibility of re-election by being too divisive.

‘Unfortunately, she’s used to this kind of culture, so for her it’s difficult to break through. To break this culture, you need to be very brave and have a different vision. You need to think maybe I won’t be reelected, maybe they will hate me, but seriously I would rather have a politician like that,

‘For me politics is a service to community and that’s it, so she should serve all the community in the UK. I don’t like politicians when they only think about their career, she can’t do something in the middle, if they don’t want to name and shame politicians then it won’t be useful, if they only want to educate and train them, its laughable’.

Educating and training is quite the bone of contention for Paola, who argues that men ‘don’t need to be trained at that age,’ according to her, ‘they know exactly what they’re doing, they’re just taking advantage of young women and of their staff,

‘You can train people when their young, in primary and high school. You should train immigrants coming from countries where they don’t respect women’s rights, that’s ok because they don’t know how it works in this country. But seriously, we have to train our MPs on that? If that’s the case then maybe they’re in the wrong place? Maybe they shouldn’t have been voted in?’

This question comes up again and again, especially when MPs are accused of past harassment earlier in their career, and the age-old ‘that was a different time’ excuse comes out. For some, pardoning sexism as generational is valid, however it still does beg the question, if you’re sexist because you we’re brought up ‘in a different time’ then perhaps we should only be voting in MPs who weren’t brought up in that time? As we have seen from Donald Trump, age does not always mean wisdom, and in this particular case, it in fact means they’re less appropriate for positions of power.

Yet, we are years from another election, and so practically there are things we must do now to ensure women in parliament are being protected. Other than naming and shaming, Paola insists there must be technological answers to this problem.

‘It could be simple, you could give them some kind of camera or video camera they can put and hide somewhere and open it when they feel they’re being harassed. The problem is with these cases that the man and woman are usually alone somewhere with no witnesses and so it’s the word of a powerful man against the word of a woman, but if you record what he’s saying, or take a video of it, the man will be so scared of this technology he won’t do anything’

It’s a bold ask, and one we doubt the government would consider given the back-room nature of most political conversations, however when it comes to women’s rights, Paola insists it should before anything else.

‘We can’t put protecting secrets above women’s rights. Of course, they will say no but even just talking about it would be something new, we’re always thinking about the victims, why don’t we do it the opposite way around and address the aggressor?’

She suggests there could be a law against recording something unrelated, or even just having an alarm system would be helpful. Of course, there are laws against recording without permission, but for Paola that too must change in this specific case. Essentially, there is no amount of work too hard, or effort too much, that should come above protecting female politicians.

And while what she is suggesting may seem drastic, she has a valid point. For too long we have allowed politicians to put their own agenda above women’s rights, above protecting women from the hostile environment in Westminster. Now, as #MeToo begins to fade out of the news, we must fight to continue the conversation, and push our government beyond lukewarm reports and halfhearted legislation.

We can’t simply ask for what we deserve it, we must demand it. As Paola says, ‘you can’t ask a man who is a predator, “please can you stop being a predator?” It’s like little red riding hood asking the wolf “please can u stop being a wolf?”,

‘Lets’ stop being naïve to this house of wolves, it’s not the House of Parliament it’s the House of Wolves.

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