Deepening democracy by building gender equality

The conference on 'Women deepening democracy' held in New Delhi last week examined what can be done to tackle the gender-specific double standard encoded into the DNA of political liberalism
Anne Marie Goetz
18 January 2010

Women have been at the forefront of democratization struggles around the world, from the Southern Cone of Latin America in the 1980s to the Eastern European transitions of the 1990s, and from the Orange and Rose revolutions, to the establishment of democracy in post-conflict countries such as Timor Leste, Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Nepal.  Once democracies are established, efforts are often made to increase the numbers of women participating in competitive politics and holding elective office.  Doing so, it is hoped, will bring issues of women’s well-being onto public agendas, combat gender biases embedded in a range of public and private institutions, and improve social and economic outcomes for women.

Last week twenty two civil society groups from fourteen countries supported by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and the new United Nations Democracy Fund (UNDEF) shared their experience of trying to make democracy work for women at the ’Women Deepening Democracy: Transforming Politics for Gender Equality’ conference in New Delhi.  One question dominated discussions at the New Delhi meeting: how can democracy be made to deliver gender equality?  Democracy has often not delivered on its promise of better representation of, and outcomes for, women.  This shortcoming is rooted in a fundamental double standard encoded into the DNA of political liberalism: there is formal equality in the ‘public’ sphere, while in ‘private’ life customary or religious practices that codify women’s personal and sexual subordination to individual men are allowed to persist.  Many liberal democracies have found it unproblematic to endorse limited inheritance rights for women, to exempt from rape laws abuses committed within marriage, and to permit traditional authorities – to which state authority is in some cases delegated – to authorize and implement blatantly sexist policies.

In addition, while liberal democracies stress open competition between equals in a public sphere, they pay little heed to how private power distorts women’s political voice and their capacity to compete equally with men.  Without legally sanctioned compensation for these constraints on their political participation, women stand little chance of seriously challenging the foundations of male social and political dominance.

Women rarely vote as a distinct constituency, nor do they necessarily support candidates or parties that prioritize gender-equality policies.  In a patriarchal society women may not see electoral politics as the best means of advancing their interests.  A common complaint among feminists is that, unless they represent a substantial proportion of decision-makers or are embedded in a Scandinavian-style social democracy, women office-holders tend to perform less well in advancing gender equity.  State accountability institutions, moreover, rarely compensate for women’s limited political voice in holding public authorities to account for failing to protect their rights. 

Despite these shared problems, participants at the ‘Women Deepening Democracy’ conference agreed that democracies offer women the only viable means of gaining public authorization for the shared objective of gender equality.  In non-democratic settings, where women’s rights are often ‘granted’ unilaterally by state entities, outside of a competition for power, their legitimacy and sustainability remains fragile at best.  Despite significant differences in circumstances and strategies, participants were united in the belief that there is no realistic alternative to democracy as a means of fostering women’s empowerment and advancing gender-equality.  The women’s democracy projects assembled in New Delhi highlighted a range of efforts to galvanize women’s movements behind common aims, to increase numbers of women elected to public office, to reform national constitutions, to prompt states properly to implement gender-equality policies, and to challenge negative media stereotypes of women leaders.

Conference discussions identified two worrying trends.  The first is mounting levels of violence against women, linked by many of the participants to women’s growing electoral successes and the resentment this generates from men.  This violence compounds the constraints women already face in engaging in politics compared to men: a lower educational endowment, fewer resources (including time), and less extensive professional and political networks (including apprenticeship in party organizations).  The second trend is the rise of conservative forms of identity politics that seek – in keeping with religious doctrine or social custom – to curb women’s rights and circumscribe both their private and public roles.  Ironically, even overtly sexist movements have been able to attract significant numbers of women supporters, forcing the women’s movement to compete for their allegiance. A majority of the groups reported that they spend more time fighting to conserve past legislative and policy gains from erosion than they do advancing the gender equality agenda to new levels.  The representative from the Nigeria branch of Alliances for Africa spoke of having to fight against legislative attacks on same-sex relationships, or pushes from Parliament to police standards of ‘decent attire’ for women, rather than moving forward on a national quota policy, for instance.

Three recent events were invoked by participants to illustrate these trends.  First, in Afghanistan’s August 2009 parliamentary elections both government election officials and international sponsors experienced significant difficulties ensuring that women could exercise their franchise.  Over 600 polling stations for women closed due to shortages of women to staff them; some of those that stayed open witnessed violent attacks against women who turned out to vote. 

A second example came from Guinea, where on 28 September 2009 a peaceful opposition demonstration urging an accelerated election timetable was violently suppressed by the ruling military junta.  An International Commission of Inquiry determined that 156 people were killed or disappeared, and that there were at least 109 very public rapes, some followed by abduction to military barracks for a period of sexual slavery.  

Third, in November 2009, the wife and sisters of an opposition candidate in the Philippines’ Maguindanao province were murdered and sexually mutilated while en route to file registration papers with the election authorities.  More than fifty other supporters travelling with them died in the attack.

There is nothing new, of course, about resorting to coercion to deprive women of their political rights.  But the use of sexual violence for this purpose and the scale and brutality of this tactic indicate a disturbing expansion of the repertoire of political violence against women.  

Efforts to support women’s engagement in democratic politics must recognise and respond to these gender-specific costs of participation.  The UN Secretary-General recently issued a ‘Guidance Note on Democracy,’ which acknowledges that promoting women’s rights must form an integral part of any democracy assistance, ‘including through explicitly addressing gender discrimination that contributes to women’s exclusion and the marginalization of their concerns.’

In other words, providing funding for women’s civil society organizations, however innovative their work may be, is insufficient to counter the inherent gender biases built into liberal democracy.  Women’s organizations on their own cannot compel states to do their job of defending women’s rights.  Participants at the New Delhi conference highlighted many suggestions on how to make democracy assistance more gender-responsive, of which three are particularly noteworthy.

First, democracy assistance should strongly endorse the use of electoral quotas as a means of increasing the proportion of women holding public office. It is acknowledged that quotas are often ‘a shot in the dark’ in terms of their capacity to elect representatives who will prioritize gender equality policies and produce better outcomes for women (Phillips 1998:158).  Women in public office tend to represent party, class, ethnic, and other sectional interests, not necessarily those of their sex.  They (and indeed their male counterparts) act as champions of women’s interests only when women’s movements influence party platforms and hold them to account.  When women reach or exceed 30 percent of a deliberative or decision-making body, they are able more effectively to advocate a realignment of public spending priorities to favour gender equality.  At a minimum, more women in high-profile positions can have a striking role-model effect, encouraging women and girls to seek leadership roles.  Other affirmative action measures might include reform of campaign finance laws to provide special assistance to women candidates, or special protections barring ‘hate speech’ directed against women. 

Second, UN democracy assistance is ideally suited to encourage state-civil society partnerships to strengthen state accountability institutions, such as auditing agencies, human rights commissions, and legislative oversight committees.  A lack of transparency and legal autonomy are among the main reasons why these state institutions are unable effectively to check the power of other state institutions, particularly executive agencies.  This is precisely why civil society organizations are so important: they are uniquely positioned to answer the question, ‘Who will watch the watchman?’ 

In addition to their generic flaws, state accountability institutions function in gender-biased ways, failing to hold authorities accountable for abuses of power that specifically afflict women – for instance, rape in police custody and non-enforcement of women’s property rights.  UNDEF grantees have sought to address this problem in two ways: by lobbying for changes in the mandates, procedures and staffing of accountability institutions, and by establishing ‘parallel’ accountability mechanisms that mimic state oversight institutions and thereby demonstrate alternative governance possibilities.  The ‘Gender Equality Social Watch’ in Chile has held unofficial public hearings on violations of women workers’ rights.  The Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights (ECWR) is establishing, for the 2010 elections, a gender-sensitive monitoring system to ensure transparency in Egypt’s electoral process. 

But lobbying for change and enacting alternative models is not as effective as direct engagement with relevant state accountability institutions.  Were the EWRC able to deploy women’s rights observers alongside the Egyptian Election Commission’s official monitoring apparatus, the chances of improving women’s ability to engage in electoral politics – as voters, candidates, and shapers of public opinion – would be significantly enhanced.   

 Morocco’s Consultative Council on Human Rights (CCHR), is a good – if unusual – example of how civil society groups can participate directly in a state oversight institution.  CCHR is a quasi-governmental body in which fully vested civil society members can raise gender-specific concerns.  These have focused on, among other issues, redress for human rights abuses suffered by women during Morocco’s ‘period of political turmoil’ (1956–1999).  The CCHR’s work led to the distribution of individual and collective forms of reparations.  As another group participating in the Delhi conference, the Inter Press Service, which seeks to improve reporting on women in African politics, noted, the ‘UN’s stature and reach’ puts it in a critical position to leverage access to state accountability institutions for civil society organizations seeking to raise the alert about ,and support responses to, abuses of women’s rights.

The third recommendation for making democracy assistance more gender-responsive was to target violence against women as a pervasive and persistent constraint on women’s political effectiveness.  Special measures to address this problem should be a priority.  Not only must funding to combat violence be increased, but a range of preventive measures should also be promoted, many specified in the Secretary General’s campaign ‘UNITE to End Violence against Women’ such as building coalitions of male leaders defending women’s rights to security, and security sector reform that prioritize protection of women both in public and at home. 

The UN is organizationally suited to fighting violence against women through dialogue with member states and can engage with traditional leaders to support women’s’ own efforts to ensure that traditional, customary and religious precepts and practices do not violate international human rights norms. The Mindanao branch of the Philippines National Coalition of Rural Women, or Pambansang Koalisyon ng Kababaihan sa Kanayunan  (PKKK), successfully encouraged religious leaders to issue decrees and sermons on, for example, the need to ensure that women avoid early marriage.  The PKKK representatives reported that its association with the UN via its grant from the UN Democracy Fund provided them ‘additional organizational credibility’ in this process’.  The Brazilian Institute of Municipal Administration  also told the conference: ‘one of the advantages of partnering with the United Nations … is the leverage these agencies have …to help us create the much needed political space to engender public policy.’  The PKKK urged UN agencies to help ‘popularize enabling laws of human rights instruments’ and to ‘continue reminding state parties of their obligation to ensure substantive equality in democracy building’.

In many democracies, gender-equality advocates lack the capacity effectively to influence policy or to prod state accountability mechanisms to prioritize the abuses of power of greatest concern to women.  But we may be reaching the threshold of a new phase in the UN’s approach to democracy assistance with the acknowledgement that efforts to enhance women’s capacity to engage in democratic politics and in the operation of state accountability institutions will need to move beyond support for women’s civil society groups.  The UN would do well to explore ways of using its leverage with member states to advance the universal human rights of which it is the global custodian.

The conference was organised by UNIFEM in association with UNDEF and the UN Department of Political Affairs 



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