The gender of democracy matters

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu
7 April 2009

Democracy has become a truly universal value and pursuit. Yet although international instruments, norms and standards continually reinforce democratic principles, achieving them remains a daunting challenge across the world. The continued lack of gender equality is central to this fundamental and enduring project. If democracy is to be realised and practiced, an understanding of how it intersects with gender equality is essential.

Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu is senior programme officer at the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)

A democracy of equality

There is a lot of outward evidence of progress. Several landmark governmental resolutions, declarations, agreements and conventions arrived drawn up by various global and continental platforms provide comprehensive mandates to ensure that gender equality and women's empowerment are actively addressed as core democratic and development concerns. As a result, gender equality is now formally embodied in the democratic principles of most countries, and is broadly seen as an issue for all who want to realise "perfect democracy".

But the widespread rhetorical commitments to the principles of gender equality does not automatically translate into practice; and in fact, substantive gains remain uneven and incomplete across the world. What happens between the signing of progressive declarations and taking the international gains home? What are the missing links? Can democracy transform power-relations between women and men? Can a country's democratic credentials be judged by its record on gender equality? How can gender equality transform the face of democracy? These questions highlight the need to engage with and distil the most relevant current thinking across the areas of democracy and gender.

Also in the debate on democracy support co-hosted by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA) and openDemocracy:

Vidar Helgesen, "Democracy support: where now?" (17 November 2008)

Rein Müllerson, "Democracy: history, not destiny" (25 November 2008)

Monika Ericson & Mélida Jiménez, "Taking stock of democracy" (17 December 2008)

Kristen Sample, "No hay mujeres: Latin America women and gender equality" (4 February 2009)

Ingrid Wetterqvist, Raul Cordenillo, Halfdan L Ottosen, Susanne Lindahl & Therese Arnewing, "The European Union and democracy-building" (10 February 2009)

Daniel Archibugi, "Democracy for export: principles, practices, lessons" (5 March 2009)

Asef Bayat, "Democracy and the Muslim world: the post-Islamist turn" (6 March 2009)

openDemocracy, "American democracy promotion: an open letter to Barack Obama" (11 March 2009) - a document hosted by the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy(CSID)

Rodrigo de Almeida, "The inspectors of democracy" (13 March 2009)

Tarek Osman, "Democracy-support and the Arab world: after the fall" (17 March 2009)

Christopher Hobson & Milja Kurki, "Democracy and democracy-support: a new era" (20 March 2009)

Shadi Hamid, "Democracy's time: a reply to Tarek Osman" (6 April 2009)

The present ideal for democracy is that it should be inclusive, participatory, representative, accountable and transparent. However, arguments are still heard justifying the exclusion of sections of society - especially women, even though they constitute half of the world population. The most favoured excuse is that women are not competent as leaders (though who questions men's competency - maybe some measure of gender equality might be achieved when we have an equal number of incompetent male and female leaders?) In any event, can a nation be described as democratic if there is no equal participation and representation of women and men as and where democratic decisions are taken?

A transformative issue

There is a need for far-reaching interventions which deconstruct and transform rather than modernise gender relations. An essential underpinning is that gender equality has to be treated as an explicit goal for democracy-building processes and institutions. If gender is treated as an "add-on" then progress in achieving gender equality in democracy-building is unlikely. The implication is that an equal distribution of power and influence must be established - and if women are to have their fair share of these, this can only come about through interventions that encourage men to relinquish some of their economic, political and social power.

To give up power and privilege is something that only a few can willingly or gladly do. It could also be that the gender agenda may be threatening to the power and privilege of the "male stream" democracy. In the same vein, it is worth noting that men must not be solely regarded as impediments and obstacles to gender equality in democracy-building, but that men perform an important role in efforts to transform the gender of democracy.

Difficulties also arise when gender-equality goals are perceived as "self-implementing" along with real or feigned ignorance about the nature of gender disparities. It is not enough for the democracy community to state that gender equality is an important issue for sustainable democracy. Its importance must be demonstrated through strengthening accountability on gender, the allocation of resources, raising gender-equality issues in democracy-building instruments and mandates whose primary focus may not be gender, but to which gender is relevant.

Democracy and gender is also a conceptual issue; if driven by policies and democracy programmes not grounded in conceptual clarity and adequately tailored to address existing gender differentials, the interventions will tend to perpetuate and exacerbate inequalities. The absence of a true culture of gender equality is a great impediment to democracy.

A holistic approach

To strive for gender equality as a pillar in democracy requires transformative and visionary leadership. This is the type of leadership that is committed to use power not as an instrument of domination and exclusion but as a conduit for liberation, inclusion and equality. Otherwise, democracy remains a hollow concept, for its instruments are of the reach of ordinary men and women that serves the political interests of elites.

As a system for participation and representation, how can a nation be described as democratic if men and women do not participate equally in the decision making that shapes democracy? How can it be real democracy if at least half of the population is not represented to input their practical needs and strategic interests?

It is essential too to emphasise that democracy should transcend the contest for political power through elections, where the contest is almost always within the same gender.

While elections are an important ingredient of democracy, elections on their own do not make a democracy. When electoral democracy tends to receive more attention than the people themselves and fails to facilitate the "will of the people" (women and men alike) by facilitating real change in their lives, it loses credibility and becomes unsustainable. The kind of "election tourism" that focuses on announcing a "free-and-fair" outcome while ignoring the constituent elements that feed into electoral democracy is inadequate.

Democracy for democracy's sake is an exercise in futility. Democracy must be underpinned by popular vigilance. This has to be holistic: it encompasses the procedural and the substantive, formal institutions and semi-autonomous social fields, males and females, majorities and minorities, governments and non-state actors. Gender equality is an indispensable to this democracy "whole".

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