My work with National Democratic Institute has been rewarding in many ways. I started off with the Women’s Political Participation team at NDI, in August last year. Given my interest in the work that team was doing, my supervisor asked me to develop their theory of change. The WPP team supports the increased and meaningful participation of women in politics and believes that women’s meaningful political participation occurs when women can advocate on matters of policy, run for political office, be elected, govern effectively, and participate meaningfully in every facet of civic and political life. I started my assignment with identifying barriers to women’s meaningful political participation and came up with three sets of barriers that could hamper their participation: cultural barriers, institutional and structural barriers and individual barriers. these barriers need to be overcome to realize the goal of women’s political participation. Cultural norms and practices should support/enable/allow women to participate equally in society and political life, including the perception that women and men are equally capable and deserving of political leadership; institutional and structural environment should allow equal access to financial institutions, systems and income; a legal framework that recognizes and supports gender equality including personal and legal status; and a political framework that allows/enables/supports women’s meaningful participation; and lastly women’s individual confidence, capacity and connections should be fostered to equip them to participate effectively in politics.
The space where supportive socio-cultural conditions, structural and institutional arrangements/conditions and individual agency being exercised intersect is where women’s political participation is realised/actualized. Ignoring one set of conditions while working on the other two won’t bring about the change that NDI is striving to achieve. These three sets of variables needs to be addressed simultaneously to achieve the broader goal of women’s political participation.
The recognition of women’s right to vote, or to take an active part in political life, does not on its own make any fundamental change in the position of women who stand on the lowest rungs of society. As long as feudalistic, capitalistic and paternalistic systems persist, the votes of women will very often be used against the real interest of women. This highlights the importance of working on the socio-cultural and institutional/structural conditions.
Another dimension that needs to be seriously considered while working on these broader issues is that of intersectionality as the problems of women differ according to the class to which they belong. The lower a woman drops in the social scale, the worse the system typically works for her. However, this is just one aspect of intersectionality. Other aspects could include: ethnic identity, age, education, and geographic position (rural, urban).
Democracy can only be strengthened when women, who constitute 50% of world’s population, are treated as equal stakeholders in the process.
Individual agency needs to be considered and has yielded results. However, solely focusing on that won’t do much unless it is linked to and carried out within the framework of a just society which affords equal opportunities to all, based on their capacities and skills and not on the class or sex to which they belong.
Working on this theory with the women’s political participation team was extremely rewarding in terms of learning.