14th October 2020 Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina
“Women belong in all places where decisions are being made” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
The campaign for local elections in Bosnia and Herzegovina is about to begin. While there are many things we do not yet know about how those elections will run, we can be confident that women – as candidates, as decision-makers, and as voters – will be all too invisible in the campaign. And when they are to be seen, they will be presented in a more negative way than their male counterparts, they will be marginalised, abused, and their views dismissed.
We know this based on previous election campaigns in BiH, and the experience of women who participate in public or political life. When the Westminster Foundation for Democracy carried out its study of the experience of women in politics in BiH, it found consistent patterns of violence against them, including attacks, threats, and physical exclusion. This has real world consequences. Today women make up 50.9% of BiH’s population, but less than a quarter of state parliamentarians, just 18% of local councillors, and 5% of its mayors (the UK is not so much better, with 34% female parliamentarians). In this election campaign we will see fewer female than male candidates, on posters, on TV panels, in our newspapers, and on the ballot papers.
Election campaigns have long been a tough and often hostile environment, especially in the age of social media and anonymous online commentary. But as the research shows, the nature of attacks on women is consistently different, and in many ways worse, than for male peers. Female candidates are more likely to be judged on their physical appearance, both positively and negatively, to have their families (or lack of them) brought up, to face insinuations of being someone’s secret lover, or to be limited to questions about ‘household issues’. Along with direct threats, many of them sexual, these attacks are all aimed at telling women that they do not belong in public life, that they do not belong in politics, that they do not belong where decisions are being made. Go below the line to read online comments about any female politician – I defy anyone to read this litany of abuse and hate, and say it has any place in a healthy democratic society.
The invisibility of women in politics is fundamentally a matter of fairness. But there are downsides for everyone, including men, when women are under-represented in decision-making. According to a World Bank Group report, a more inclusive approach to budgetary decisions, including policies that enabled women to participate at the same level as men, could add 16% to BiH’s GDP. In her book Invisible Women, Caroline Criado Perez reels off dozens of examples of how the absence of women has led to inferior choices and design in healthcare, business, urban planning, public transport, education, road safety, peace processes, the military, and so much more.
How then to break this cycle here in BiH? I return to my point about visibility, and the number of times we will see female candidates during this campaign. Representation matters. There is a story, almost certainly too good to be true, of a young German boy asking his father if he thinks a man could ever become Chancellor of Germany…
In making these points about the portrayal of women in politics before, I have sometimes been told that such questions should wait until other, more important issues have been addressed. But I do not believe we can wait until corruption is ended, until politics has started focusing on the future, or until the economy has recovered, to tackle this. The exact opposite, in fact. I believe we will never successfully address those problems until we have more women in positions of power, inside the room where decisions are made – and there is extensive research to prove it.
In the election campaign to come, all of us have a role to play, not least the political parties themselves, the TV and newspaper editors, the people who put together panels of analysts, and ultimately the voters themselves. I hope for a campaign that is marked less by the violence and ugliness of its attacks, and more by the quality of its debate, including visible contributions from female candidates, with a real focus on the issues affecting all BiH citizens. I don’t see why any of us should settle for anything less.