Women’s empowerment a rare bright spot in democracy landscape



In a global democracy landscape marked by considerable gloom, progress in women’s political empowerment is a rare bright spots of recent years, argues the Carnegie Endowment’s Thomas Carothers a leading authority on international democracy support and U.S. foreign policy relating to democracy and human rights.

With many emerging democracies experiencing stagnation or setbacks, providers of democracy support are struggling to tailor assistance strategies to highly varied transitional contexts. As a crucial area of international aid for democracy as well as for development more generally, efforts to bolster women’s political empowerment share this challenge, he writes in a new paper, commissioned by the Gender, Women, and Democracy team of the National Democratic Institute.

Strategic differentiation not only helps identify what types of programs may be most effective in advancing gender equality in politics but also reveals how this work can be a critical lever for broader change where attempted transitions have slipped into dysfunctional patterns, Carothers contends:

Supporting women’s political empowerment is a critically important part of international assistance, both for the democracy building side of the aid domain and the broader development enterprise. This is true both because democracy is incomplete when women are systematically underrepresented and discriminated against and because political empowerment of women is vital for improving all areas of women’s lives.

Nevertheless, the Guardian reported last week that only 0.5% of aid money allocated to promote gender equality ended up going to women’s rights organizations in developing countries, the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security notes:

Citing a forthcoming review from Gendernet, Liz Ford explains that though almost a third of the funds allocated to gender equality programming in 2014 was directed to civil society, most remained with NGOs in donor countries. Less than 10% was given to organizations in developing countries, and of that only a small part went to local women’s groups. Local women’s civil society organizations receive only a fraction of a fraction of an already small pot of funding allocated to gender equality goals, in spite of research that shows they are essential players in peace and security efforts.

The GIWPS report Women Leading Peace identifies women’s civil society networks as a key factor in helping women gain access to peace negotiations in diverse regional contexts. RTWT

Assistance for women’s political empowerment is noteworthy for an additional reason—one often overlooked in debates over democracy promotion, Carothers adds:

With democracy suffering a general international pattern of stagnation and even backsliding, the realm of women’s political empowerment stands in notable positive contrast: there is a clear upward trajectory in the role of women in politics in the developing world. Women are playing a growing and vital role in day-to-day political life at both local and national levels in dozens of countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East, helping not only to strengthen governmental policies that take account of women’s needs and interests but also to forge greater representativity of political institutions generally. One basic indication of this is that the average percentage of women in parliaments globally has doubled in the last twenty years.

“Of course, enormous problems remain relating to women’s political participation and gender relations and conditions in politics almost everywhere,” he concludes. “Nevertheless, in a global democracy landscape marked by considerable gloom, progress in women’s political empowerment is one of the few bright spots of recent years.”

The paper was written at the request and with the support of the Gender, Women, and Democracy team of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy.


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