There are only three countries in the world where women make up at least 50 per cent of the parliament. Australia is not one of them.
This is why the Australian Workers’ Union wholeheartedly supports Emily’s List Australia’s Julia Gillard Next Generation Internship.
There is an urgent need to encourage more women into the political field here in Australia but there are many barriers – including the rise of violence towards female politicians which is being studied by this year’s intern Medha Majumdar.
Medha had planned to be in the UK this summer for her international part of her internship but COVID-19 has delayed her plans and she will now be heading to the UK next year.
In the meantime, she has been investigating the growing number of cases of harassment and violence towards women here in Australia – a country where women make up around a third of the parliament.
What made you apply for this internship?
I hoped that the internship would be an opportunity to develop my understanding of Australian politics, stronger leadership skills and a wider network. Importantly, I wanted to do the internship so that I could grow my confidence to become more active in politics. I had always been interested in Australian politics, but often felt that there was not a place for me to become involved. From the work of EMILY’s List, I felt that the organisation was making a real effort to include and nurture young women by equipping them with the resources and mentorship to help them thrive in politics.
I had also heard about Emily’s Lists’ relentless advocacy to achieve the Labor Party’s Affirmative Action quota rule, which enforces that half of ALP candidates must be women by 2025.
Why did you choose to focus on the issue of violence against women in politics?
I wanted to investigate violence against women in politics in Australia, because I had noticed a growing number of reports of harassment and abuse targeted at women parliamentarians. I was in high school when Julia Gillard became Prime Minister and I remembered the sexist attacks and commentary that she faced during her term. In recent years, reports that political parties had responded poorly to allegations of sexual harassment of staffers, and the experiences of sexist abuse faced by parliamentarians such as Julia Banks and Sarah Hansen-Young, had left an impression on me.
I had noticed that the threat of facing abuse, harassment or public degradation was discouraging my friends and the other women around me from seriously considering entering politics. However, there is limited research and attention on the issue in Australia.
I wanted to focus my internship report on violence against women in politics to measure its prevalence, uncover its causes, and better under its consequences. I plan to explore how violence against women in politics reflect on the progress of women’s leadership more broadly in Australia. I intend to use the report to make recommendations aiming to strengthen institutional and organisational responses to the issue.
As part of the research I am planning to run an online survey of people working in politics, about their experiences and observations of harassment and abuse in politics.
We understand you are planning to head to the UK for part of this internship when the COVID-19 restrictions end. What is on the agenda?
I wanted to travel to the UK because attention on violence and harassment towards women in politics has grown there, particularly after MP Jo Cox was murdered. A few years ago, a series of cabinet ministers and members of parliament resigned following disclosures of sexual harassment towards female politicians, staff members and journalists. This led to inquiries into abuse within both houses of the UK Parliament. While violence towards women in politics is prevalent in the UK, there is greater awareness of the issue and steps towards addressing it.
In the UK, I am planning to conduct expert interviews with academics and organisations advocating against violence towards women in politics. I am also excited to connect with researchers at the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London, of which Julia Gillard is the Chair.
The death of UK MP Jo Cox made global headlines. But is it that extreme or rare?
While her death is an extreme case, it is just the tip of the iceberg of incidents of violence against women in politics. The attack highlighted the harassment, intimidation and abuse women parliamentarians face while doing their work, and the dire consequences of when such behaviours continue unchallenged.
A 2016 global study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union found that 81.8 percent of women parliamentarians had experienced at least one form of political violence within their term in office. Psychological abuse is the most prevalent form of violence against women in politics across the world, with 72 percent of women parliamentarians having witnessed such attacks on their female colleagues. Women active in politics also experience physical and sexual violence at a rate of 25.5 percent and 21.8 percent, respectively.
Are we seeing any sort of violence or threats against female politicians here in Australia?
We have heard strong anecdotal accounts of violence and harassment against women parliamentarians and staffers in Australia. This has included threatening physical behaviour, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment. These accounts have also indicted that the prevalence of violence is growing, as threats and abuse towards women in politics is spreading online.
However, there is little research measuring the effect of political violence against women in Australia. With the Julia Gillard Next Generation Internship report, I hope to uncover and measure the prevalence of abuse and harassment towards women in politics. Investigating the extent of the issue is the first step toward challenging it.
What do you think are the factors causing this increase in violence towards female politicians?
While we are still far from having gender equality in politics, there are more women representatives than in previous decades. Some research has indicated that the increasing visibility of women in leadership positions is leading to backlash by those with traditional views about the role of women. The growing focus on feminist issues in our community could also be fuelling hatred towards women. Furthermore, greater use of social media has meant that perpetrators are able to target women parliamentarians with abuse and threats, without much accountability.
Alternatively, we might be seeing a growing focus on the harassment and abuse faced by women in politics because they are no longer being silenced. For too long, women have been told that facing abuse is part of being active in politics.