The 2021 International Women’s Day (IWD) commemoration is taking place in an unprecedented global context due to the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted in a “new normal” in relation to the various aspects of life, including changes in the strategies on political participation.
Disclaimer: Views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. This commentary is independent of specific national or political interests. Views expressed do not necessarily represent the institutional position of International IDEA, its Board of Advisers or its Council of Member States.
Equally important, the Covid-19 pandemic has exposed and exacerbated the pre-existing gender-based inequalities and other inequalities deeply entrenched at the global, national and community levels.
Despite the existence of comprehensive global frameworks on women’s empowerment, rights and gender equality and women’s increased engagement in public life, equality is far off. Women continue to encounter significant discrimination in fully exercising their right to participate and still face major barriers to access positions of power at all levels of decision making, even though they constitute half of the world’s population. One of the major drivers of the over-representation of men in public life and decision -making is patriarchy, which functions as a non-monetary resource /currency for men across the world. Hence, men with power often resist women’s leadership, even within political parties (UN 2020).
The global challenge is to step up and address the problem of the over-representation of men at all levels and in positions of power and decision making. The issue is not whether women are capable of performing an active role in development, democracy and peace building, because they have always and currently contribute at many levels in both the private and public spheres. Leave no one behind (LNOB) is the central, transformative promise of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Hence, SDG 5 on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls is an intrinsic enabler for sustainable development and representative democracy for each country and the world at large.
The complexity lies in uncovering and redressing the entrenched systemic and systematic discrimination and marginalisation of women and girls in order to translate women’s participation into critical influence and decision making in development and democracy building. The perceptions that women should not occupy public roles and political leadership positions, persistent socio-cultural norms and religious interpretations about gender roles and gender-based discrimination in law and in practice, violence against women and girls, the lack of and unequal access to and ownership of economic resources compound these challenges and devalue women’s effective participation in political leadership and public decision-making, thereby undermine substantive equality, democracy and sustainable development. The dominant masculine model of the exercise of power in public life builds on traditional attitudes that marginalise women and create “road blocks” at various levels that prevent women to enter into politics and public decision making at all levels. In addition, the media’s portrayal of women in politics reinforces gender-based stereotypes.
As women remain significantly underrepresented across all levels of power and of decision-making, violence against women in public life is also widespread. The resistance and opposition to women’s leadership which tends to be violent is part of the broader stereotypes that women “are not made for” or “should not meddle in” politics. Women engaged in or with the ambition to enter politics are consequently discouraged, their access to leadership positions and their ability to fulfil their mandate as elected officials are considerably hindered (IPU 2016).
The resistance and opposition to women’s full and effective participation and representation in decision making and public life are perpetuated by the deepening inequalities as exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic and the heightened democratic backsliding in all regions across the world. For instance, since the outbreak of Covid-19, reports of violence against women have increased in countries where ‘stay at home’ measures were put in place. Violence against women and girls- the so-called “ shadow pandemic” is likely to be a lasting legacy of Covid-19 (UN Women 2020).