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Women in Contemporary Democratization



Over the past two decades authoritarian regimes in many parts of the developing world, as well as in East/Central Europe, have been replaced by democracies. This paper looks at the issue of democratization from a gender perspective. While many of the problems afflicting the “new democracies” (such as the elitist character of political parties, and the failure of the state to guarantee civil and political rights or make a significant dent in poverty) affect all citizens, they are manifested and experienced in gender-specific ways. Women’s persistent exclusion from formal politics, in particular, raises a number of specific questions about how to reform democratic institutions, since these institutions are not automatically gender-equitable.

In a democratic polity citizens are presumed to have equal rights, opportunities and voice in the governance of the public domain. All versions of liberal democracy link the right to vote with the right to stand for office. Yet women are hugely under-represented in national assemblies and governments. Women’s political invisibility is particularly striking in those countries where their political mobilization contributed to the demise of authoritarianism and the transition to democracy.

The suppression of the conventional political arena under authoritarian rule very often shifts the political centre of gravity to “movement-type activities” and gives prominence to women’s political mobilization. What very often unites the disparate groups constituting the women’s movement in these contexts is their commitment to bringing about a change in government. Nevertheless, social, political and ideological heterogeneity of women’s groups, tensions between the feminist and the feminine streams, and divisions over strategy foreshadow future difficulties in forging political coalitions and aggregating interests to effect change in more “normal” times.

The new wave of democratization has not had a feminizing affect on the parliaments and the governments of the new democracies. Deeply entrenched barriers exclude women from meaningful participation in political parties. In the post-transition period, the more established political parties in countries like Brazil and Chile have remained remarkably resistant to women’s participation. Newly formed parties of the left have been more accessible to women, though participation in these smaller parties may arguably produce more symbolic than real benefits. The masculine construction of political authority makes it extremely difficult for women to be elected into office without some form of electoral engineering, such as quotas or reserved seats. The adoption of quotas and reserved seats for women by the South African ANC and the Ugandan NRM, which dominate politics in their respective countries, has produced a significant increase in women’s political profile. But given the lack of any realistic political options for women outside these two parties, women’s political leverage vis-à-vis the party hierarchy remains strictly limited.

Besides the issue of political equality and democratic justice, the argument for increasing women’s representation in decision-making bodies also hinges very often on an implicit assumption that women can, more effectively than men, contribute to the formulation of woman-friendly policies because they are somehow better able to represent women’s interests. But this is a controversial assumption. Questions continue to be raised about how such a diverse group as “women” can find meaningful representation in the polity in the absence of procedures for establishing what the group wants or thinks, and in the absence of mechanisms for keeping the “representatives” accountable to their constituents. Questions have also been raised as to why the growing presence of women in politics (in some contexts) is not translating into substantive change toward policies capable of making a positive impact on the lives of ordinary women.

Given the limited success to date in feminizing political parties and getting women elected, it is not surprising that other strategies are also needed for bringing women’s interests into the policy-making process. One such strategy is to enter and work directly through the public administration. Democratic transitions, however restricted, represent propitious moments for making interventions because the state is potentially more fluid than at other times. But this space is often limited because of the top-down, elitist nature of the transition. Moreover, the ability of those working on the “inside” to push for change on a sustained basis depends less on having an institutional space per se, and much more on the relationships with autonomous women’s organizations on the “outside” that they are able to establish and exploit. But it is very often difficult to establish effective inside-outside relationships—popular women’s movements and groups, in particular, may feel alienated from the “women’s machineries” in the public administration and from the women who staff these units. They may also deliberately distance themselves from public authorities because of recent experiences of corruption and co-optation. Moreover, the creation and staffing of women’s spaces within the state may in itself weaken the women’s movements outside the state.

Although in some contexts the state has incorporated the participants and the banners of the women’s movements, it has been extremely difficult for those on the “inside” to translate even the watered-down goals of the movement into concrete policies capable of making a positive impact on the lives of female citizens. The efforts to induce change have been patchy and, in the realm of public expenditure decisions, extremely difficult. This is in part due to the lack of effective pressure from an organized women’s constituency (noted above) that can articulate a coherent set of issues and priorities for policy attention, and monitor its adoption and implementation by state agencies. It is also due to the disabling environment in which women bureaucrats find themselves. The deliberate attempt to create insulated technocracies, as is currently occurring in some countries and some areas of policy, has serious implications for democratic consolidation. While gender bureaucrats well-versed in economic analytical skills may be able to contribute to what goes on inside insulated technocracies (in ministries of finance, for example), this can hardly substitute for open public debate enabling women’s groups and networks, along with other social groups, to scrutinize economic decisions and policies that affect the well-being of their constituents.

But women’s machineries and women parliamentarians have had more significant impact in some critical areasraising the legitimacy of violence against women as a political issue; enhancing women’s awareness of their existing rights through civic education; and facilitating social legislation on highly significant issues such as divorce, child custody, domestic violence, and reproductive health and rights, which address very fundamental aspects of women’s oppression. But here again, success in raising these controversial issuesand maybe even legislating for themhas gone hand in hand with a failure of the state (the judiciary and the police, in particular) to guarantee such important individual civil rights across national territories and for all social strata.

One cross-cutting concern in the post-transition period is that the national women’s movements have been stripped of their most competent cadres, as leaders and key organizers have been drawn into the new state institutions representing gender issues, into political parties and into parliament. Another common concern is the “NGO-ization” of women’s movements, especially through donor-driven, poverty alleviation programmes. Together, it seems, they have contributed to the weakening of both national women’s movements and the cross-class alliances that some had managed to forge. The formalization provoked by the proliferation of NGOs and the competition for funds has several problematic implications. Self-reliance and self-help, which characterize this model of social provisioning, can be euphemisms for reliance on the unpaid work of women (who are recruited by NGOs in voluntary and secondary positions). Moreover, politically these projects seem to have taken away the advocacy and campaigning element of local participation.

The perennial issue of feminist autonomy continues to preoccupy members of women’s movements—whether “in” or “out” of the mainstream institutions. Given the dangers of co-optation by the state or party in power, there is a distinct need for maintaining some autonomous space for interest articulation and aggregation. But at the same time, by taking an autonomous path, women’s groups and movements also run the risk of becoming politically isolated—hence the need for a politics of engagement with the mainstream. Ultimately, the long-term viability and effectiveness of the women’s movement depends on its ability to work at different levels and in different arenas—both “inside” and “outside” the mainstream—forging strategic insider-outsider alliances. This message is sometimes lost on advocates of “mainstreaming” who see the process of institutional change as a purely technocratic exercise of tinkering with institutions in a political vacuum. To be effective and sustainable, the two sets of strategies need to go hand in hand.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Feb 2000
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 92-9085-024-8
    ISBN: 92-9085-024-8
    From: UNRISD