Globally, women’s participation in political institutions has increased. But gaps still exist between women’s inclusion and their influence over the adoption (and implementation) of policies that advance gender equality.
In order to further progress women’s rights and well-being, it’s important to understand when, how and why states adopt policies that empowerment women and promote gender equality.
We undertook a comparative approach, using a political settlements lens, and explore: who matters, in what way, and how with regards new policies to promote gender equality. We focused on two areas: legislation addressing domestic violence, and policies aimed at promoting girl’s basic education.
The decision by many countries to promote girl’s education is connected to global agendas such as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Similarly, the legislation against domestic violence during the 2000s was shaped by the broader transnational feminist movement to assert women’s right to be protected from domestic violence.
However, the speed and extent to which these international norms gain traction among political leaders is strongly shaped by national political factors.
Overall, political commitment to promote gender equity depends on whether women’s movements can frame specific policy agendas as being in alignment with elite interests and ideas. That is both in terms of political survival and legitimacy and ideas around women’s entitlements.
How quickly policies are adopted, and the extent to which policies empower women, depends on the nature of political settlement. We found that dominant political settlements moved more swiftly than their more competitive counterparts to adopt anti-domestic violence law. What was covered in the law to protect women also varied, with women’s movements having to make more compromises in competitive settings.
In all countries, we found improvements in education for girls were closely linked the interest of the political elite to expand access to primary education and the international support for this agenda. But these drivers had relatively little to do with women’s empowerment itself. Expanding access to girls was a non-controversial issue that did not challenge religious or cultural norms.
Increasing access to education for girls was not reversed over time because it allowed all political actors or coalitions who came to power to secure legitimacy amongst voters. It also fitted in with a well-resourced global policy agenda.
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For all countries we studied, whether women had a seat at the table was directly shaped by the transitions through which new political settlements had been formed.
In Rwanda, the sexual and gender-based violence experienced by women during 1994 genocide, and role of women in both the conflict and reconstruction, helped ensure a strong focus on women’s rights and political inclusion.
In South Africa, women were able to push expansive changes because of their role in anti-apartheid struggle. In contrast, the women’s movement in Ghana did not play a strong or autonomous role in the peaceful transition to multi-party politics in the early 1990s, and were unable to secure a quota for women in parliament within the new political settlement. The lack of a large caucus of female MPs led to a much slower process of policy adoption and limited progress on implementation.
The coalitions built by women’s movements were critical in all settings, but the nature of these coalitions differed between different types of political settlements. In dominant contexts such as Rwanda and Uganda, the most important alliances were those built with the ruling party and president.
In more competitive settlements, women’s groups struggled to build meaningful alliances with political parties and faced pressure from ‘veto-groups’ such as Islamist parties in Bangladesh. These problems were overcome by forging alliances with leading ‘femocrats’ and other senior figures within government.
In all the countries we studied, ‘working with grain’ – aligning with ideas and interests of elites and building strong coalitions – was not enough to ensure sufficient levels of commitment or capacity to actually implement the new laws effectively. In all countries implementation of anti-domestic violence law remains under-resourced, lacks key personnel and co-ordination. Only in Rwanda where ideological commitment was strong and state capacity high, has serious progress been made.