Irena Hadžiabdić Discusses Reducing Election Violence Against Women

Publication Date: 
23 Mar 2016

News Type:

On behalf of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), Irena Hadžiabdić, an Election Commissioner for Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Central Election Commission and an IFES Board Director, was a special guest at the National Democratic Institute’s #NottheCost Conference, a marquee event that occurred on March 17, 2016 as part of the United Nations’ annual Commission on the Status of Women conference. Hadžiabdić was there to introduce IFES’ new “Reducing Election Violence Against Women” (REVAW) framework.

Hadžiabdić spoke about the important role election management bodies (EMBs) can play an in addressing and reducing election violence against women. “Around the world I have seen many ways in which EMBs act. It is important that the EMBs truly understand the challenge of election violence against women and address this issue. When we apply the gender lens to the issue of election violence, we realize there is a lot of work that must be done,” she noted.

She recalled her opportunity to observe the 2007 elections in the western part of Kenya in city of Kakamega, where there had been conflict during past elections. Memories of these elections have had an impact on women’s participation in elections that have followed, with some women opting out because of the memory of a violent electoral process. One woman told her, “There was still tension in 2013 in our community and surrounding region because of the 2007 post-election violence.”

She spoke about the role of EMBs in reducing electoral violence, but work is also needed to reduce fear. In many contexts, preserving the secrecy of the ballot is a particular challenge for women voters. This issue must be proactively addressed by EMBs. We hear stories from around the world about women’s lack of independence in decision-making. Often women need permission from husbands, relatives and other social institutions or colleagues from political parties to stand as candidates or to vote. Hadžiabdić mentioned an example from an IFES focus group discussion in Bangladesh, where one woman said, “Women are not free to vote unless their husbands give approval. The norm is to vote for who your husband chooses for you. Some husbands confiscate their wives national ID and on the day of voting, he goes with her up to the voting box and claims that his wife is illiterate so he has to help her to vote.”  

Hadžiabdić said that EMBs must be ready to understand that many factors influence women participation in electoral processes such as: whether she is from a rural or urban area; what ethnic or religious affiliation she might have; how old she is; or whether or not she is a person with disability or not. Hadžiabdić gave another example from Guatemala, where a young woman was trained to work as a poll worker. She was deaf and received specific training tailored to her needs to perform her duties on Election Day. However, on the morning of election, there was gun violence and her family prevented her from going out to cast her own vote. They feared she may not hear the gunfire. Her choice to participate, her mobility, and ultimately her vote were taken from her.

Hadžiabdić next presented IFES’ new REVAW framework. The primary motivation for this work is to better understand and address the ways in which electoral violence creates a barrier to women’s participation. IFES believes violence against women in elections threatens the integrity of the electoral process, as well as the commitment of governments to a free, fair and inclusive democratic process.

The REVAW framework represents the culmination of intensive research and fieldwork and is intended to improve the capacity of international and domestic practitioners to understand and reduce violence against women in elections. It presents the key findings and a new, expanded typology to better understand which types, forms, and circumstances are unique to violence against women in elections and which are shared across gender. The framework also includes an assessment tool, monitoring tool and violence against women in elections program recommendations. As a continuation of these efforts, IFES will pilot the assessment and monitoring tools in electoral events in 2016. These pilots will further inform the issues addressed in this document and allow IFES to fine-tune the REVAW framework.

Hadžiabdić ended her presentation by stating, “For me it is clear that the independence and integrity of an election management body depends on its ability to empower all citizens to have a voice. Many EMBs, such as the one I serve on, have adopted gender policies and gender action plans. Some have recruited gender advisers or gender units. Many encourage both female and male Commissioners to support gender equality and women’s empowerment in the electoral process. It is important that someone in the EMB initiates this issue. For example as the only woman with the Bosnia and Herzegovina Central Election Commission, it is important to have support of my six male colleagues to work together with me. Finally, we have to have in mind that a primary focus of EMBs is the delivering of elections. They have their limitations; therefore, they need to create new relationships, for example with gender-based violence service providers, and legal and security personnel to ensure a proper approach to respond to election violence.”