Democracy and Gender Equality


Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, addresses a high-level roundtable discussion on ‘Democracy and Gender Equality.'
Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, at a high-level roundtable discussion on ‘Democracy and Gender Equality' joins with other UN officials to stress the importance of women's participation in democracies. (Photo: UN /Eskinder Debebe)

Speech delivered by Ms. Michelle Bachelet, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, at the Democracy and Gender Equality Roundtable, UN Headquarters, New York, on 4 May 2011.

[Check against delivery.]

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This year may well mark the beginning of the ‘fourth wave' of democracy. As we have seen from the dramatic events of the ‘Arab spring', women have been actively involved in the new wave of demands for political freedoms and dignity. In the streets of Tunis and Cairo and more recently in Sanaa, it has been difficult not to notice that women from all walks of life have joined the ranks of protestors in the streets to raise their voices for democracy and citizenship. As a result, we are already beginning to see gains for some women.

In April of this year, the political reformers of Tunisia achieved what had been unthinkable only months earlier; a draft electoral law calling for full parity in the political representation of the new Tunisian democracy. The law proposes that in the next parliamentary elections candidate lists will alternate between women's and men's names.

These events remind us of how fundamentally democracy has changed since its inception. Once considered to be the sole domain of landowning male elites, it is now impossible to think of democracy as anything but full and equal political citizenship for all. Of course this must be driven by leadership and commitment at the highest levels to ensure women's full and equal participation in democratic processes.

This morning I will focus on what we have learned from women's participation in democratic decision-making; that is, three key elements that must guide democracy assistance.

First, we need to address the obstacles women face in participation in the electoral process and their ability to exercise a real choice in elections. Second, we must consider whether spaces are created for women to articulate policy preferences or voice. Third, democratic public institutions must be accountable to women.

First allow me to start with the issues of choice. Over time democracy, as a political system, has developed mechanisms to integrate marginalized groups mechanisms such as quotas or regional arrangements to amplify the concerns of politically disenfranchised groups. Women are often in the majority of populations, yet they face a wide range of constraints to effective participation even in the most basic of democratic exercises, such as voting, or running for political office. Ironically, even in 2011 we do not have accurate data on the numbers of women compared to men who register to vote in many countries, or who actually exercise the vote. We have even less data on the extent to which women's independent choice is constrained by coercion within the household or practical problems like a lack of mobility or violence at the polls.

The consequences of constraints on participation are well-known. Women make up less than 20% of legislators and less than 5% of ministers. Women have found themselves consistently constrained by traditional gender roles in the exercise of their political rights even in the most robust of democracies.

The second constraint regards effective voice. Effective public participation depends on being able to articulate interests and form a constituency to advance those interests. We have to ask ourselves — do we put enough resources into women's civil society organizations so that women can pursue their interests? Do political parties reflect and respond to women's concerns? We must remember that democracies can deliver majorities that actually — in the name of a democratic process — can impose restrictions on women's rights. This can happen when there is not enough diversity and voice for women in politics.

If political party and government structures do not take into account women's needs and priorities, and the media and traditional and cultural practices consistently minimize women's value in political life, then democracies cannot deliver for women. What is more, the quality of democracy itself is weakened. Susan B Anthony, a famous campaigner for women's right to vote, said
There never will be complete equality until women themselves help to make laws and elect lawmakers.

And finally, we have to ask whether democratic institutions answer to women. True democracy is about more than just participation — it is about the checks and balances and accountability institutions that allow women to seek redress when their rights are abused and their needs are ignored.

The judiciary, parliamentary oversight processes, and public audit institutions, all need to ensure that their procedures and standards are designed to monitor women's rights violations and to enable women to call for inquiries and reviews. If these institutions are not in place and functioning, it sends a message to women that their citizenship rights are weaker than those of men, and indeed that their rights to security, to fair pay, or to property are subordinated to men's rights. If women cannot hold government accountable for promoting gender equality then women's citizenship is on fragile foundations.

Many of you here will remember the slogan of the 1970s: ‘the personal is political'. This slogan reflected the fact that inequality in the private sphere undermines equality in the public sphere. Public laws and institutions can reinforce those private inequalities. This can prevent institutions from truly answering to women. There is another women's slogan that came from my own country during our democratic transition: ‘democracy at home and in the state'. The logic is the same; a democratic state should be held accountable for abuses of women's rights. Full and true participation is not possible unless there is equality in everyday life. This extends not only to gender equality but to the need to address vast economic disparities as well — which pose extremely serious threats to democracy.

UN Women's programming addresses these issues of choice, voice, and accountability. Around the world UN Women has supported women's movements' efforts to get women to vote and to run for political office, supporting training for candidates and working with media to generate better quality reporting on women's campaigns.

In Tunisia and Egypt, UN Women is supporting women in civil society to identify their priorities for constitutional reform. In Egypt, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and in many other contexts, UN Women has supported country consultations between women's civil society organizations and political leaders in order to develop Women's Charters. These Charters list women's priorities for a gender responsive democracy, such as electoral gender quotas, consultations between gender equality constituencies and politicians, and building networks of elected women parliamentary caucuses, among others.

UN Women also supports initiatives to strengthen gender accountability in the public administration through gender-responsive budgeting and with programmes in Rwanda and Tajikistan that develop a feedback loop between public service providers and women citizens. UN Women has worked with the office of the High Commission on Human Rights to support countries to address violations of women's rights through support to Commissions of Inquiry and truth and reconciliation commissions. UN Women also supports countries around the world to put in place national legislative commitments to international policy and legal instruments such as the Beijing Platform for Action, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, the Africa Union protocol on the Rights of Women, and the Southern African Development Community protocol on gender.

To summarize, three basic requirements are critical for making democracy real for women. First, we have to remove the obstacles that keep women from participating effectively: mobility, finances, access to information, lack of public safety, and coercion, intimidation and violence.

Second, we must recognize that participation is one thing but real voice is another. Are women able to articulate and voice their rights, needs and preferences? How far are political parties internally democratic ? Have women in civil society had the opportunity to debate common positions on the constitution, electoral law, safety during campaigns, and other issues?

Third and finally, democratic institutions have to be held accountable to women, and held accountable for meeting commitments to women's rights.

If a democracy neglects women's participation, if it ignores women's voices, if it shirks accountability for women's rights, it is a democracy for only half its citizens.

I look forward to hearing the recommendations that come from the discussions today so that we can enhance our democracy assistance. I recognize in the list of speakers and this audience today, many important democracy activists. We are privileged that you are participating today. The great courage shown by women and men across the world in this dawning of a potential fourth wave of democracy calls on every one of us to make sure that gender equality is addressed in our efforts to make democracy real for all.

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