Making Democracy Meaningful for Women

Women’s participation in democratic governments continues to lag behind men’s despite UN Resolutions, national quotas, and other initiatives intended to ensure their full and equal engagement. On International Democracy Day, World Learning hosted a panel discussion with experts in the field to examine why women remain under-represented in democracies and how to address the issue with more effective and innovative programs on elections and political processes.

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Donald Steinberg (left) introduces the panel.

World Learning President and CEO Donald Steinberg moderated the Celebrating International Democracy Day: Making It Meaningful for Women panel, which featured Lisa Dickieson, senior vice president for programs at Freedom House; Laura Neuman, director of the Global Access to Information Program at the Carter Center; and Eileen Pennington, associate director of women’s empowerment at the Asia Foundation, discussing initiatives their organizations have undertaken to improve women’s democratic representation. World Learning organized the event in partnership with the other members of the new Advancing Democratic Elections and Political Transitions (ADEPT) consortium, The Asia Foundation, Freedom House, The Carter Center, IREX, and Democracy International.

Steinberg opened the discussion by noting the increasingly widespread support the issue has been receiving. “I think it’s clear we’ve reached a turning point in this area,” he said, citing evidence that countries with higher levels of women’s representation in government tend to be more stable, peaceful, and prosperous. He said progress could be seen in the fact that a majority of countries now have official quotas for women’s participation in the political process and Sweden’s recent announcement that it would implement the first “feminist foreign policy.”

Following Steinberg’s introduction, the panelists’ conversation focused on improving civil society networks, cultural issues, and access to information as a means to increase women’s political participation.

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Lisa Dickieson (right) discusses Freedom House’s initiatives on women’s inclusion.

Dickieson and Pennington discussed their organizations’ efforts to build civil society coalitions to represent women’s interests, provide leadership opportunities for women, and support women working in government and politics. Freedom House recently implemented programs aimed at building civil society advocacy networks in Jordan, where the groups addressed local issues in three conservative regions, and Zimbabwe, where they developed recommendations for gender sensitive norms for the new constitution. In the Philippines The Asia Foundation is working in Mindanao to ensure women have a voice in the region’s post-conflict government and local planning efforts. Pennington said the networks and coalitions being developed are an important part of public life and another place where women can engage with their community and effect change. She said it is important to think of political participation as “broader than whether or not women are elected.” Dickieson said cooperation between groups also serves to ensure that organizations are working “hand-in-hand” to achieve common goals and not at “cross purposes.”

The two also mentioned the need to address cultural norms and gender roles in order to ensure women’s contributions are valued and prevent gender-based violence so women have a safe space to participate in public life. Dickieson and Pennington both said they actively engaged men in the networks to develop male allies and ensure the issues addressed are representative of community needs. Pennington said it is “critical” to frame women’s political participation as a “win-win for everyone” and demonstrate to men that it will broaden choices and opportunities for all community members and improve society as a whole. They agreed working with young people is another important way to effect long-term societal change in the beliefs and behaviors that exclude women from the political sphere and contribute to violence.

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Laura Neuman (right) discusses women’s access to information.

Neuman said lack of access to information also contributes to excluding women from public life and preventing them from exercising their rights. While the right of access to information is included in the UN Declaration on Human Rights, studies conducted by The Carter Center in Bangladesh, Guatemala, and Liberia, found that in practice women face more obstacles than men in actually obtaining information. These include illiteracy, being afraid to ask for information, not knowing where to find information, poverty, and lack of time and mobility, among others. Based on these findings The Carter Center is now working with the governments and civil society leaders in Liberia and Guatemala to implement innovative solutions to the issues women face in accessing information, and will begin doing the same in Bangladesh soon.

The speakers said each of their projects have so far produced some positive outcomes. The three Jordanian regions impacted by the project now have more women involved as community leaders and advocates. In Zimbabwe, about 75 percent of the gender demands developed by the civil society network were included in the draft of the new constitution. There are increased numbers of women involved in the upcoming elections in Mindanao. Creative solutions are beginning to be developed to improve women’s access to information, including municipal information liaisons, use of community radio, and gender sensitization.

However, despite these gains, all three panelists acknowledged there is still much more work to be done. In Jordan a 25 percent quota for female representation in local governing councils recently expired. Zimbabwe’s current quota for female parliamentarians will end in 2023 and women continue to face threats of physical violence for political participation. Mindanao is still working to reintegrate men involved in the region’s conflict into their communities, without displacing women who have gained leadership roles. Governments around the world remain focused on producing public information focused on men’s needs and interests.

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Eileen Pennington speaks about the benefits of women in politics and government.

The panelists outlined a number of ways to continue advocating for women’s inclusion in democracies. Pennington said nongovernmental organizations need “to do a better job of articulating why it’s so important to have women’s voices be an active part of these dialogues,” to demonstrate the benefits women bring to politics and government. Dickieson mentioned the importance of supporting women currently in leadership roles to help them succeed. Neuman said governments need consider gender in policies and programs to assist women, noting that of the 100 countries with statutes related to access to information “not a single one” has been reviewed with a gendered lens. She added governments “can’t just follow the letter of the law” but need to “follow the spirit,” in order to make sure their policies actually have a positive impact on women’s lives.

The panel concluded by acknowledging that their own organizations also need to ensure they are mainstreaming gender issues across their programs. They noted the U.S. Agency for International Development has helped hasten these changes by providing gender analysis tools and requiring organizations to include gender impact assessments in proposals and integrate the findings into project designs. Steinberg, who was involved in instituting these reforms while deputy administrator at USAID, said agencies and organizations need to make a “conscious decision” to ensure that gender issues are taken into consideration across the board. Dickieson said she appreciates the agency’s commitment to addressing gender issues and thinks it has helped push NGOs “to be better.”

“It’s not second nature, but it becomes second nature,” she said.

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