#Metoo in Belgian politics? Over 120 MPs sign open letter condemning sexism

#Metoo in Belgian politics? Over 120 MPs sign open letter condemning sexism
Vice-prime minister and minister of Civil Services and State-owned companies Petra De Sutter pictured during a plenary session of the Chamber at the Federal Parliament in Brussels on Thursday 27 October 2022. BELGA PHOTO JAMES ARTHUR GEKIERE

Belgian politics is on the brink of its #metoo movement after over 120 politicians signed an open letter condemning sexual misconduct. The signatories are fed up with sexist intimidation in politics and hope to kickstart a turning point in the country, reports De Standaard.

"We call on the political world to take responsibility for sexist, sexual and psychological violence by government officials," the letter states. "Many people are confronted with such violence on a daily basis. Its impact on health or private life can no longer be questioned. When this violence occurs in places where decisions are made, our democracy is at risk."

When Schaerbeek's councillor Michel de Herde was recently charged with attempted sexual assault, it appeared to be the final straw for women politicians. Some of the signatories include Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter (Green), Senate President Stephanie D'Hose (Open VLD), Brussels Minister Elke Van den Brandt (Green ) and Vooruit representative Katia Segers. Schaerbeek's Councillor for Equality Sihame Haddioui (Ecolo) had also accused De Herde of sexual harassment and was one of the key voices in setting up the letter.

Sexist culture

The signatories hope to ignite a #Metoo movement in Belgian politics as seen in culture and academia.

'The political world was designed by men and for men," the letter continues. "The professional culture itself is sexist, that has to change. We must prevent violence, protect the victims and be able to put the alleged perpetrators aside during proceedings."

The taboo about speaking out must be fixed, according to the signatories. "It is no good to criticise other sectors and then remain silent about what is happening in those places where democracy must be given full justice," said Lotte Stoops, a Brussels Member of Parliament (Groen), in De Standaard.

"It is important that bystanders speak up if someone crosses the line," said Flemish Member of Parliament and former party chairperson Meyrem Almaci (Groen), according to De Standaard.

"Anyone who goes too far must be pointed out immediately. Colleagues mistreating female interns, making inappropriate comments about women's appearance, making obscene insults: we've seen it all. Even when the cameras are rolling – remember what Katrien Partyka was told years ago."

In 2009, President of the House Patrick Dewael (Open VLD) told politician Katrien Partyka: "It is good that you are on your knees now and then, but that is not the right attitude in the parliament."

There are more examples of sexism in politics. More recently in 2019, Vlaams Belang MP Jan Penris called liberal politician Carina Van Cauter a 'bitch' repeatedly during a debate. His party consequently forced him to resign due to a drinking problem.

An independent overseer

To overhaul sexist culture in politics, the letter proposes creating "an independent body for sexist, sexual and psychological violence in politics. For President of the Senate Stephanie D'Hose, it is crucial that victims have somewhere to turn to that doesn't negatively impact their careers.

"Our ultimate bosses are the voters," said D'Hose in De Standaard. "At the same time, there are various power relations among politicians and political personnel. There is sometimes nowhere to turn to if you want to raise the issue of sexual misconduct. I've gotten enough inappropriate comments myself to know that the world of politics is no different than any other industry. This is a macho world, in which women can also display macho behaviour."

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