Researching the politics of development

Political settlements and gender – What drives women's inclusion and gender equity initiatives?

Women’s participation in political institutions has been increasing in recent years. Women’s inclusion has resulted most directly from affirmative action measures, such as quotas. Whether these exist is strongly influenced by the political role played by women in the formation of the current political settlement. However, there is a gap between women’s inclusion and their influence. To date, political settlements analysis has been largely gender blind.
We look at two types of policy cases:

  • Legislation on domestic violence.
  • Policies aimed at promoting girl’s basic education.

Domestic  violence legislation
The decision by many countries to adopt legislation against domestic violence during the 2000s cannot be separated from the broader transnational movement to assert women’s right to be protected from domestic violence as the new global norm. The extent to which these norms gain traction within national political communities, and the precise timing of policy uptake in this area, is strongly shaped by national political factors. We find that dominant party settlements move more swiftly to adopt anti-domestic violence legislation in response to demands from women’s activists. However, there are differences between the two dominant settlements, with advocates in Rwanda able to work through largely formal channels, whereas in Uganda, presidential support was critical, in addition to very active coalition activists. The adoption of legislation in the two competitive cases took longer because of the nature of competitive clientelism.
Girls’ access to basic education
Improvements in all cases were closely linked to the dominant ideas and interests within each political settlement, but these drivers had relatively little to do with gender equity. Rather, increased access for girls was a happy by-product of the broader push to expand enrolment in primary schools. The case for expanding access was seen as non-controversial and fitted closely with political incentives of all ruling coalitions, in terms of securing legitimacy amongst voters and fitting in with well resourced global policy agendas.
The gendered nature of the ideas that were central to the maintenance and legitimacy of the ruling coalition influenced the nature of elite commitment to the promotion of women’s rights.
For the law enacted on domestic violence, only the ruling coalition in Rwanda revealed a strong ideological commitment towards changing gender power structures. In a post-genocide context, protecting women’s rights, particularly around bodily integrity, is perceived as part of the core ideas that provide legitimacy to the ruling coalition. In contrast, in Bangladesh, Ghana and Uganda, advocates deliberately framed the case for domestic violence legislation in a manner which did not disrupt traditional ideas. The adoption of the law had to be justified by demonstrating the anti-developmental impact of domestic violence, or that the law was a solution to a widespread problem. These framings helped to expedite the passing of the legislation, but led to compromises. Addressing domestic violence by challenging gender power structures did not align with the dominant coalition’s take on gender roles or women’s rights and neither was addressing domestic violence central to the interests or the survival of the ruling coalition in Uganda, Ghana and Bangladesh. This led to the enactment of the law as a tokenistic measure for temporary gains and with limited transformative potential.
For girls’ access to primary education, the ruling coalition’s vision of girls’ education could be easily tied to notions of modernity and nation building, core ideas that are constitutive of the political settlement in these countries. This generated strong elite commitment for the expansion agenda, once the policies were introduced.
The alignment of the policy coalitions – forming strategic alliances and compelling policy framings that aligned with the interests and ideas of the dominant actors within the political settlement – is key. Gender equity policies are likely to be rapidly adopted and implemented the furthest when they are in line with the interests and ideas of the ruling coalition.This includes whether the policy domain enables the distribution of patronage and/or helps to generate electoral legitimacy, and whether the policy ideas resonate with the ideas that are constitutive of the current political settlement.
Primary education in Uganda, Bangladesh and Ghana has a political role in maintaining the ruling coalition in power through distribution of patronage, such as teaching and building jobs, and strengthening the legitimacy of the regime. However, domestic violence law does not generate rents or patronage. The actions of the ruling elites in this sector are more influenced by the strength of mobilisation by the policy coalition and their strategies, along with international pressure. Having allies across different domains also facilitated the adoption of the law, along with the relationships between the women’s movement actors and the women’s ministry. The slower progress in Ghana reflected the low levels of feminist influence within key domains.
However, the strength of the policy coalition was not significant when it came to implementation of the law, in part because the key proponents – CSOs and MPs – lack a clear role in implementation.
For both policy domains, transnational ideas and actors played a critical role, with the global focus on access to education and gender parity and international women’s rights discourse.
Historical legacies matter. In Rwanda, space was created for the domestic violence law as more contentious policies and legal reforms were enacted before it.
Rwanda was the most advanced in terms of implementing domestic violence law, partly due to the fact that it adopted a clear implementation plan and other top-down drivers of implementation, such as a gender education unit for monitoring performance. Although countries without these top-down drivers have moved more slowly, more competitive settings can enable greater political space for bottom-up demands for legislation to be implemented once passed.