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close this bookGender Justice, Development and Rights: Substantiating Rights in a Disabling Environment. Report of the UNRISD Workshop, New York, 3 June 2000 (UNRISD, 2000, 12 p.)
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentIntroduction
View the documentNeeds, Rights and the Delivery of Welfare
View the documentWomen in Contemporary Democratization
View the documentMulticulturalism and Universalism
View the documentAgenda
View the documentContributions

Women in Contemporary Democratization

Rights of any kind depend on prior political conditions, and we might say that without political and civil rights there is no guarantee that other rights, even when they are inscribed in laws and constitutions, may be made effective. The absence of powers to make governments accountable and responsive to their citizens is one of the greatest obstacles to rights-based agendas, and those rights and powers are normally associated with democracy.

The second session of the workshop looked at democratization from a gender perspective an angle that has been given little consideration in the mainstream literature and debates on democracy. While many of the problems afflicting democracies such as the elitist character of political parties or the failure to guarantee civil rights or make a significant dent in poverty affect all citizens, they are often experienced in gender-differentiated ways. Women’s 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.

Democracy is about people’s rule, and in a democratic polity citizens are presumed to have equal rights, opportunities and voice in the governance of the public domain. The most obvious point of entry here for a gender analysis is the striking underrepresentation of women in national assemblies and governments. This is a serious flaw in the system of representative democracy, which is premised on the link between the right to vote and the right to stand for office. The fact that the gender composition of national assemblies and cabinets is so at odds with the gender composition of the population already signifies that something is seriously wrong.

The 1990s saw considerable advances for women in terms of political representation, albeit from a shame - fully low base. From representing a global average of six percent in parliaments in the 1980s, the figures more than doubled over the next decade. In many countries women’s organizations and female members of political parties have vigorously lobbied to increase women’s representation, notably through quotas. This pursuit of numerical representation (getting women in) does, of course, beg many further questions. Are the representatives accountable to their constituents? Who are their constituents: political parties? women within political parties? all women? Are the representatives effective in promoting gender-equitable change?

The presentation on Iran raised some salient issues in regard to the role of women’s movements in periods of regime change. In contemporary societies women have become active in many domains of public life, including politics, both at the grassroots and within institutional politics. Women’s political mobilization, whether in popular motherist or feminist forms, has contributed to the demise of authoritarianism in many parts of the world. Yet it has not always been easy for women’s groups to have their concerns and priorities taken up by the movements that are promoting democracy in political life.

In Iran there appears to be an intriguing paradox today, but a paradox that offers possibilities of exciting changes while also posing dangers and hazards. The country is witnessing the growing presence of a very strong reform movement, about which a great deal has been written, and at the same time, although not as internationally reported, a very important and strong women’s movement that is not centrally organized. It has many different faces and voices. The paradox is that given the strong movement for democracy and given this strong movement of women, women are hardly present in leadership positions in the democracy movement, and gender issues are curiously absent from its agenda. In other words, while a great deal of rethinking and realignment has been taking place on women’s issues among women activists of diverse outlooks in the 1990s, gender seems to be all but non-existent as a category of thinking among the emerging group of (male) dissident intellectuals struggling for a more democratic polity. Contributing to this process has been, with few notable exceptions, the absence of women, in particular Islamist women, from these presumably more general democracy debates. The implicit and problematic understanding seems to be that democracy is a gender-neutral category, and that struggles for citizenship rights are naturally inclusive of women.

The speaker also pointed out the pitfalls of searching for clear categories, pitting the good civil society against the bad theocratic state. Reality is much more complex, making it difficult to draw such clear lines. There is tremendous fluidity and overlap both at the level of personnel and at the level of issues. Some of the best civil libertarians can hold some very regressive views, especially when it comes to issues of gender justice and women’s rights. Those who seem very conservative (on economic issues, for example) can hold progressive views on social issues and women’s rights. The tendency to search for clarity that results in oversimplified classifications simply does not work in situations that are changing as rapidly as in contemporary Iran. While this definitional fluidity may be particularly accentuated in periods of regime change, it may also be relevant in more normal times and places.

Movements that are promoting greater democracy in political life must take account of women’s needs and concerns in order to grow in strength and vitality. To endorse political and civil liberties, yet without explicitly addressing women’s rights in the domestic/family arena and the social domain more broadly, creates a truncated, and ultimately unsustainable, democratic setup. Democracy is not just a question of how well the institutional arenas perform, but of the quality of democratic life more broadly. This depends crucially on the character of civil society itself, and the extent to which it embraces democratic principles and notions of gender justice.

That the nature and character of civil society are contingent was a theme that re-emerged in the presentation on South Africa. The African National Congress (ANC) as a political party has been far more progressive and proactive on gender issues than many organizations of civil society. Some of the gender equality concerns that the ANC has been promoting, for example, would not have been endorsed by many organizations of civil society, or by a popular referendum. Thanks to a generally favourable set of circumstances a number of gains have been made at the formal level, such as the provision for equality in the Constitution, the establishment of national machinery for women, and the creation of a statutory body, the Commission on Gender Equality. But these gains were won as a result of elite persuasion rather than by a mass movement of women (since such an electoral constituency of women is still not in place). These formal provisions can nevertheless facilitate the process of building such a constituency. The South African experience suggests that once formal provisions for gender equality are in place, such as the constitutional commitment to gender equality, they can become the touchstone for organizing. The kind of feminist politics that is often assumed must precede the setting up of formal provisions and institutions, can in fact come after the provisions have been put in place.

In South Africa, women have also achieved increased representation through activism in the ANC, the responsiveness of party leadership, and the support of an active women’s movement. In 1994, when South Africa became a democratic state, the concern of the women’s movement was to increase the number of women in parliament, even though within the ANC there was an appreciation that there had to be real representation of the interests of women and that those interests were divided. For strategic reasons, however, at this point in time the demand of the women’s movement was for the increase in the number of women elected to parliament; the concern for qualitative representation was always there but was somewhat suspended in the first election. After some debate in the ANC, the decision was taken to have a 30 per cent quota for women on electoral lists, with some knock-on effects on other political parties.

Quotas, sometimes seen merely as tokenism, have in practice served to genuinely enhance more effective representation of women’s interests in the policy process. The presentation on women and electoral politics in South Africa argued that while some women representatives may have neither the ability nor the inclination to address gender inequalities, their cumulative strength does have an impact on deliberations in national assemblies. Once women are elected, they tend to be called on by women’s groups, NGOs and other civil society organizations to channel women’s demands into the policy process. The relatively high level of female representation in the South African parliament has had a significant effect on the profile of gender issues. In the first democratic parliament three far-reaching pieces of legislation were passed: the Termination of Pregnancy Act of 1996, which provides women with access to abortion under broader and more favourable conditions than previously; the Domestic Violence Act of 1998, which provides protection against abuse for people who are in domestic relationships of various kinds; and the Maintenance Act of 1998, which substantially improves the position of mothers dependent on maintenance from former partners.

Even when political parties nominate women to satisfy a quota, it produces a dynamic that is far more complicated than the game of numbers. The women representatives tend to be called on by women’s organizations and NGOs to stand for women’s interests.

In other countries where women have registered electoral gains, the initial concern with women’s numerical representation has also matured into concerns about the quality of women’s representation, and about representatives accountability to women‘s interests. Increased representation, quotas and cross-party collaboration by women representatives in national parliaments in many regions of the world have secured important legislative gains for women, such as that concerning violence against women. However, little, if any, progress has been made with regard to making macroeconomic policies more responsive to women’s needs and interests here looms again the disabling macroeconomic environment.

In the first two years of democratic government in South Africa the notion of rights was extended through a range of legislative efforts aimed at facilitating people’s access to various state resources. The macroeconomic frame-work introduced in 1996 committed the government to fiscal restraint and public-private partnership, and it was unclear how the effort to extend rights could be continued and deepened. While the social sector still claimed the largest part of the budget, the extent to which those broad aims could actually be implemented was seriously in doubt. Moreover, many people felt that the macroeconomic framework had not been sufficiently discussed and negotiated; it was, in effect, placed outside the limits of debate.

Indeed, there is an increased risk that as macroeconomic decision making becomes more concentrated in ministries of finance and central banks, parliaments could lose their important capacity for policy oversight. This is particularly ominous for gender advocates, who are making inroads into national parliaments. Fortunately, in the South African case there is still a vibrant civil society and a commitment within the ANC to a deep sense of democracy one that embraces a broad notion of social justice and not just a concern for representation

It would be a bitter irony if, as women were finally entering parliaments in significant numbers, parliaments started losing their important oversight role on macroeconomic decisions that hugely affect the lives of men and women, and the quality of democratic governance. Women bureaucrats in ministries of finance, for example, equipped with economic analytical skills and innovative tools for scrutinizing national budgets through a gender lens, may be able to contribute to what goes on in these insulated technocracies. But this is no substitute for a more open public debate that enables the parliament, women’s groups and networks, along with other social groups, to scrutinize economic policies and decisions.

To see women’s exclusion from economic policy making simply in terms of the skills that they lack (and need to be equipped with) misses the larger question of whether the emerging political arrangements enable the public as a whole to review and exert an influence over the actions and decisions taken by the executive.

In general, participants felt that women’s accession to political power in recent decades had resulted from a particularly favourable set of circumstances, and the gains made may be more fragile than they appear. These gains can be reversed by a change in government or political leadership. The problems that limit women’s ability to serve in parliaments inadequate facilities, especially cres, lack of training, long working hours and the masculine culture persist, and make it very difficult to retain those women already serving there.