Gender and democracy: no shortcuts to power

Anne Marie Goetz
11 May 2009

I will make five points about democracy and gender equality.

1) Two steps forward, one back

The past year has been a record for gender equality in political competition, with women taking one out of every five seats in recent elections. Just a few weeks ago the South African Parliament leaped from ranking 17th in the World to 4th in the portion of seats won by women: 43% - only Rwanda (56%), Sweden (47%), Cuba (43.2%) are ahead. 24 countries now boast national assemblies that are 30% or more female. But the progress is halting. For every 60% of cases where women are doing better, 40% of electoral outcomes show some losses. This year in Ghana for instance women did worse than they had in the previous elections. There has also been an increase in targeted violence against women in public decision-making roles. Finally, the greater numbers of women in office in some contexts has not necessarily prevented some laws form being passed that erode the gender equality project. Notably in some contexts women’s rights are losing ground to traditional or customary governance systems, where national authorities in effect bargain control over women’s rights away in exchange for compliance from regionally restive groups.

2) Women need democracy more than democracy needs women

There has been a tendency to develop an instrumentalist case for persuading political leaders to promote women’s participation in politics: democracy needs women, the argument goes, because they bring qualities of tolerance, non-violence, integrity. This is directly linked to the essentialist argument that women are less corrupt than men. This expectation was lived out in the impressive anti-corruption efforts of President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, who famously sacked the entire staff of the Ministry of Finance on taking office in 2006. They were permitted to re-apply for their jobs but this signalled an intention to apply rigorous performance standards and some notoriously corrupt civil servants were kept away.

This determined sweeping out of public sector graft is unusual for any politician and there is still no systematic evidence that women make a difference in cleaning up public office. There is, as the World Bank pointed out in its publication Engendering Development (2001), a strong correlation between low levels of corruption and high levels of women in public office. However, a study cited in UNIFEM’s Progress of the World’s Women 2008/9 shows that both women in government and low corruption are in fact associated with liberal democracy. Democratic and transparent government enables more women to participate in politics, and it minimizes opportunities for widespread corruption too. Enabling more women to compete for public office is a democratic good in and of itself but would not on its own clean up government. Effective checks and balances on power are needed, whatever politicians’ gender.

The fact is that women need democracy - democracies have more women in public office, and gains for women in terms of enjoyment of basic rights are more sustainable than in socialist and authoritarian regimes. Many of women’s rights in socialist regimes, particularly to employment support and public services, crumbled on introduction of market economies, but the lack of civic freedoms had so inhibited women’s civil society presence that there was no mobilised force to prevent this happening.

Women need democracy in the home if they are to enjoy it in public life. It is physically impossible for women to devote the time and energy needed for political engagement if they are burdened with disproportionate care responsibilities in addition to employment outside the home. If men do not shoulder a greater share of domestic duties, women cannot compete effectively. Democracies, therefore, must invest in democratising the private sphere if they are committed to the never ending challenge of deepening democracy. We should stop asking what women can do for democracy but rather, in a reversal and paraphrase of Kennedy’s famous statement, we should ask what democracy can do for women. We could assess women’s views of the benefits of democracy and develop an index of democracy from a gender equality perspective. This would enrich existing measures of the depth and quality of democracy.

In the end, the proof of the effectiveness of any democracy in promoting women’s rights is found in the experiences of women going about their normal lives. Are they living lives free from fear of violence? Can they profit from their hard work? Can they access services that are responsive to their needs as women, mothers, workers, rural or urban residents? Are they free to make choices about how to live their lives - whom to marry, how many children to have, where to live, and how to make a living? It is the policy agenda of politicians, not their gender, that will give the answers to these questions.

3) Competition is not fair. But there is no alternative

Everyone knows that political competition does not happen on a level playing field - competition is biased towards those with money, extensive social networks, plenty of spare time, and masculinity and sheer physical height are advantages too.

It is precisely for this reason that women have struggled for so long and with considerable effect to level the playing field by introducing temporary special measures to give women a head start. Quotas, reserved seats, and other special measures such as free media time aim to compensate for party reluctance to front women and voter resistance to electing them.

The logic is summarized by a statement made by Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf for UNIFEM’s Progress of the World’s Women 2008/9:

‘The Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government’ (Article 21(3)). Half, even more than half, of ‘the people’ are women. Yet for far too long, women’s will, women’s voices, women’s interests, priorities, and needs have not been heard, have not determined who governs, have not guided how they govern, and to what ends. Since women are often amongst the least powerful of citizens, with the fewest social and economic resources on which to build political power, special efforts are often needed to elicit and amplify their voice.’

Paradoxically, however, these special efforts have not necessarily strengthened women’s capacity to govern on behalf of women. The most effective application of quotas, for instance, is in closed-list proportional representation (PR) systems, which undercut candidates' connection to constituencies and orients their popularity-generating efforts towards their fellow party members.

Competition has been so tough for women, and cost them so much, that understandably they have been attracted to less competitive options. Women have stepped into leadership vacuums in countries with some constraints on competition, for instance when parties and trade unions are banned or male leaders are in jail. But in some of these cases, women have unwittingly become part of a deepening authoritarianism - recruited to the legitimation project of leaders who are substituting women’s visibility for true democratic competitiveness.

Temporary special measures must always be seen as temporary - an opening of the door, but not the means of staying in the room. Building constituencies for gender equality is essential to translate a presence amongst decision-makers into changes in the conduct and outcome of politics.

4) Economic leverage is the key to changing public accountability systems.

Democracy is the handmaiden to capitalism. Money is part of democratic processes, and is the key to effective political leverage. From this perspective, democratic depth from a gender equality perspective is linked to the capacity of economies to support women’s employment particularly in the public sector and in service jobs that permit career flexibility for women.

Women still lag considerably behind men in market leadership let alone activity, yet economic leverage is the key to their own empowerment in the private and public spheres. But instead of building market leadership positions, women in the global economy have become the labour force most desired by deracinated capital seeking a labour force with few rights and little political voice.

This situation is compounded by the fact that there is an accelerating feminisation of the south-to-north brain drain, with more women than men with professional skills seeking employment abroad. This has worrying implications for women’s leadership in the economies of the South and, by extension, in governments.

Given historic and continued exclusion of women from senior management, and given that this will only be exacerbated by the current financial crisis, there is merit in applying temporary special measures to advance women’s market leadership. Norway provides a model: on January 1 2008 it became compulsory for Norwegian companies to have at least 40% female membership on management boards. Today women make up 38% of board members, well above the average of 9% across Europe. As with quotas for women in political competition, the notion of quotas for women in private sector leadership responds to the perception that without temporary artificial pressure on leadership selection processes, gender biases will continue to produce an overwhelmingly male-dominated leadership. Corporate board quotas temporarily unsettle this male dominance and, in the process it is hoped, enable women to develop the capacities needed - and overcome obstacles - to become market leaders.

5) No peace without peace for women, but no women make the peace

Some of the least democratic but most important decision-making processes today are peace negotiations. UNIFEM’s recent research demonstrates an astonishing absence of women in peace talks. Only 2.4% of signatories to a sample of peace agreements since 1996 were women; Women’s participation in negotiating delegations averaged 5.9% of the 10 cases for which such information was available. No women have been appointed Chief or Lead peace mediators in UN-sponsored peace talks, but in some talks sponsored by the African Union or other institutions women have joined a team of mediators. A recent positive case is the role of Graça Machel as one of the three mediators for the Kenya crisis in 2008. Women are certainly active in Track II processes and have managed to have their views heard by negotiating parties on a number of occasions. But their absence from the table means that key issues of concern to them are not addressed.

Most notable amongst these is the issue of sexual violence used to advance military or political objectives. Only five peace talks in history have ever mentioned sexual violence and then mostly in sections dealing with social protection measures, not in the ceasefire or security and justice chapters where it would be acknowledged as a matter requiring a peacekeeping, law enforcement and judicial response. Sexual violence has often been included in amnesties which adds up to, as Don Steinberg of the International Crisis Group has noted: ‘men forgiving men for what men have done to women’.

If women cannot make the peace, they cannot set the early recovery priorities. This has consequences for planning and financial allocations, with little directed at women’s recovery and empowerment needs. A recent UN Secretary General’s report on mediation takes note of this problem and commits to increasing the number of women mediators and participants in peace processes, and to supplying mediators and their teams with the gender expertise they need to be sure that women’s concerns are addressed in every part of a peace accord. A greater task however inheres in the challenge of developing a more powerful domestic constituency behind women’s demands post-conflict, so that they have more leverage on peace processes.

To conclude: there is no substitute for competition and to building leverage for women’s views to influence public decision-making. Women and men committed to gender equality must build constituencies that will not just vote for gender equality policies, but will track the behaviour of politicians and hold them accountable for promoting gender equality.

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