The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting that concluded in late March was focused on the theme of “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life.” Importantly, at CSW, Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized the key connection between women’s leadership and strong democratic government: “The status of women is the status of democracy. The status of democracy also depends fundamentally on the empowerment of women, not only because the exclusion of women in decision-making is a marker of a flawed democracy, but because the participation of women strengthens democracy.”
Indeed, gender equality strengthens democracy. Research and on-the-ground experience shows that democratic institutions such as government ministries, elected decision-making bodies, political parties, and civil society organizations are stronger with gender equality. All must include women’s voices. But the world has a long way to go on this front. In national legislative bodies, 22 percent of parliamentarians, and 20 percent of parliamentary speakers, are women. Furthermore, women hold only 10 percent of political party leadership positions.
As Harris noted, women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy. This includes greater responsiveness to citizen needs and increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines. Women’s meaningful participation in politics affects the range of issues considered and the types of solutions proposed. Countries with high marks on civil rights and political liberties have higher proportions of women in national legislatures than countries with low marks. Higher numbers of women political leaders also correspond with higher standards of living, better outcomes in access to education, infrastructure and health, and more responsive government.
In addition to bringing their lived experiences to policymaking, women tend to work in less hierarchical, more participatory and more collaborative ways. Globally, women lawmakers are perceived as more honest and responsive than male counterparts, qualities that encourage confidence in institutions.
Gender Equality and Democratic Principles
There is a global movement to infuse foreign policy and national security with a gender lens. To date, feminist foreign and/or development policies have been adopted by the governments of Sweden, Norway, Canada, France, Luxembourg, and Mexico. Current feminist foreign policy discussions encompass many issues, including climate change, global health, and food security. Missing from much of this discussion is the importance of democratic institutions and governments.
There has been recent, growing advocacy in the U.S. on feminist foreign policy. Some practitioners are focused on incremental change, while others are more radical. The Biden administration has announced several policies and institutional changes which align with proposals from advocates: a White House Gender Policy Council, a commitment to diversity of political appointments, and robust civil society consultation. This emphasis on gender is in contrast to a focus on solely women and girls and a critical step toward institutionalizing structural change.
The following principles provide a framework for progress and are linked to a widening global conversation on feminist foreign policy. They are critical to advancing both gender equality and strong democratic governance.
- Representation in politics and public life. As noted above, women are vastly underrepresented in political office and democratic institutions. Yet, beyond increasing the number of women, more feminist voices—men and women—need to champion gender equality in public life. Not every woman is a feminist; not every person with a feminist voice is a woman. Last month, the Violence Against Women Act passed the U.S. House of Representatives with the support and sponsorship of both male and female House members.
- Participation and input from those affected by policies. Over the last decade, many governments have focused on responsiveness to citizens’ needs, but often these efforts have been gender-blind. Decision-makers must consider more feminist and women’s voices to better understand the impact of policies and how those policies are perceived. During the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis in West Africa, local women’s organizations identified community needs and informed elected leaders about the health situation in their districts and how best to respond.
- Accountability and transparency. A more open government can accelerate gender equality and close critical gaps in information, access, and participation when the experiences of women and girls are taken into account. Elected and appointed leaders, women and men, must prioritize the collection, reporting, and sharing of sex-disaggregated data at every level of government. Kenya’s public procurement policy, for example, reserves 30 percent of government contracts for women, youth, and persons with disabilities.
The overlapping of these joint principles has not always been acknowledged. Doing so would strengthen the movements for both gender equality and for democracy. Funders and implementers of democracy promotion should insist on gender equality as a core democratic principle, while those advocating for feminist foreign policy intentionally work for its implementation through democratic systems and institutions.
Feminist Foreign Policy and Democracy Promotion
In addition to the shared principles above, feminist foreign policy and democracy promotion programs both seek to address structural constraints to equality and correct power imbalances, but those working on the issues often do not see them as related or mutually reinforcing. This is an opportunity to make that connection. Women’s leadership is indeed critical to strong institutions, and electoral quotas have been used to increase women’s access to political decision-making. However, increasing women’s participation or leadership is no longer enough.
As we look forward to a Global Democracy Summit, a declared priority of the Biden administration, the summit’s agenda as well as democracy assistance programs must address gender equality, structural barriers, and power.
First, structural change is needed because civil society organizations, election management bodies, political parties, and governing institutions are unwelcoming to women in many aspects of their day-to-day operations, procedures, and internal cultures. Often, these institutions are structured and operated in a way that is intended, in fact, to protect male incumbents rather than to serve their members and citizens well. For instance, candidate qualifications, such as education level, while gender neutral, disproportionately disqualify women seeking to run. Also, current democracy assistance programming focuses almost exclusively on the training and capacity-building of individual women and the development or strengthening of entities such as legislative caucuses or women’s wings of political parties.
With both a democracy promotion and feminist foreign policy lens, structural changes would include an assessment of and changes to the formal and informal ways civil society organizations, election management bodies, political parties, and governing institutions function. That would include how they handle staffing, share information, and schedule meetings and votes.
Second, power imbalances between men and women, as well as between dominant decision-makers and other marginalized groups such as youth, ethnic and religious minorities, and rural citizens, must be addressed. Current democracy assistance programs almost exclusively include the easiest-to-reach and most eager individual participants, who often have attended many foreign government-funded workshops and meetings.
Conversely, applying both a democracy promotion and feminist foreign policy perspective, outreach and programming would focus on those who are most impacted by government policy (or the lack or abuse of it) and heard from the least. Further, grassroots organizations would receive long-term support to build sustainable movements, which is not current standard practice. The Equality Fund in Canada, a partnership between the government and the private sector, directly funds communities of activists to advance their own solutions to improve women’s rights and gender equality in their own contexts.
This is the time to bring together work on women’s empowerment, gender equality, and democracy promotion. A feminist foreign policy is a framework for transforming how the U.S. government supports democracy abroad and addresses power imbalances that serve as barriers to women’s leadership.
This column originally appeared in Just Security.