As a staff member of the Nobel Women’s Initiative, the path to Guatemala for NWI’s 2nd International Conference - Women Redefining Democracy - began long before my colleague Liz Bernstein and I boarded a plane in Ottawa on Tuesday morning. It began in meetings, conference calls and concept note drafts, and culminated in the big questions and reflections about the conversations we’ll be having here in Guatemala.
When it comes to democracy, what’s gender got to do with it? Is there something fundamentally anti-democratic about “democracies” that empower political parties, policies and practices that discriminate against the 51% of the population that is female? Are systemic sexism and anti-woman cultures impediments to democracy?
We tend to think of democracy as free, fair and regular elections, elected officials, and civilian leadership. By these measures, there are more people living in democracies than at any other time in history. If democracy is about the “will of the people” then, arguably, the democracies that elect discriminatory or misogynist leaders, and adopt sexist policies and laws, are following the “will of the people”.
But if democracy is about participation and accountability, then the forces that limit participation for some - namely formal and informal discrimination, poverty, and other human rights abuses - affect the quality of democracy. Regardless of how many people voted for it, a government can’t be democratic if it restricts peoples’ rights to participation. So long as discrimination persists - as it does in every corner of the planet - democracy will remain an aspiration towards which societies tend or not, not a state of affairs.
For women and other marginalized groups, the informal channels of participation - civil society organizations, protests, publication of analysis and information - are often more important than the formal processes, to which our access is restricted. The media, non-governmental organizations, unions and community associations play key roles in channeling and informing participation in society, and therefore in enriching democracies. But these bodies have their own internal and external struggles with democratic principles. The mainstream media, in particular, has become so centralized, and advertiser and profit-oriented that it is more of an impediment to democracy than a facilitator, and women in many parts of the world are producing our own media, socially and democratically.
In the coming days, we’ll be covering the local and the global, the theory and the practice, the formal and the informal of women and democracy. And we’ll no doubt leave with more questions than answers. We’ll pick up the threads on blogs, at lunchtime discussions, and hopefully, long after we leave this place. The best feminist conferences are the ones that jolt us out of acceptance of sexism in all corners of the globe, and remind us of the world we’re trying to build.
I can't wait to see which questions arise, which relationships emerge, and how we redefine democracy.