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Public, political and digital participation

Gender, conflict and violence

Women's political inclusion is a key strategy for creating inclusive political organizations and participatory processes that strive to deliver on attaining gender and sexual justice. While the numbers of women in parliaments and in local government have risen globally (IPU 2014; UN Women 2014); women still experience significant gendered barriers in accessing and participating in politics and policy making spaces. Women’s ability to enter politics and their effective participation depends on being able to access material and social resources. Studies have largely focused on the impact of gender quotas in women entering politics—but few have explored how women’s ability to mobilize funds and material support for political campaigns and their reproductive responsibilities influence their decisions to participate in politics. We need to understand and address these dimensions for women’s political empowerment. 

While studies on conflict resolution, peace building, and reconstruction have explored women’s ability to participate in these larger settlement processes and how women are excluded; few studies have explored how political violence and the threat of sexual harassment influence women’s ability to access participatory and political spaces and be active. This is key area where we need more evidence and policy measures that address these concerns, especially as these trends and dangers are being mirrored strongly in the growth of online and digital spaces. It is widely acknowledged that increasing the number of women in political parties, in elected offices and policy making spaces do not automatically lead to promotion of gender equity in politics. Women’s political inclusion is the first step, and creation of effective voice depends on: the terms of inclusion, the presence of critical allies (including male actors) inside the state and wider coalitions in civil society supporting gender equity concerns. We still lack systematic evidence on when do men become critical actors for promoting gender equity?

Research also shows that autonomous women’s movements are crucial for sustaining political pressure on the state and for strengthening women voice inside policy spaces. Moreover, international policy discourse has been critical as reference points for framing demands at the national level. There is a need to systematically explore how women’s movement actors and international discourses shape openings for gender equity in conflict settings.  

Evidence shows that in contexts where levels of general violence is high, it has contradictory effects on women’s political participation. In extremely violent political contexts, particularly during intra-state conflicts, women’s participation in mainstream party or organised politics tends to be low. However, women have played key roles in mobilising for peace in Latin and Central American countries such as Columbia, Nicaragua, Argentina and Chile (Waylen 1996; Molynuex 1985), in sub Saharan Africa countries such as Rwanda (Burnet 2008), and also in South Asia including Nepal and Sri Lanka (Tamang 2009; de Alwais 1998). These forms of mobilisation have taken shape highlighting women’s role as care givers, particularly mothers and wives, who had lost their family members. Women have also mobilised by questioning the legitimacy of the authoritarian rulers or the state by highlighting how conflict or war had effected the household, thereby politicising the domestic/private sphere and their ‘gender roles’ (Steans 1998; BRIDGE 2003). Conflict settlement literature also reveals that women’s mobilisation and activism had led to women activists being the targets of specific forms of gender-based violence, including sexual violence, to limit their political voice and participation. There is still a need to explore options for effective policy and process solutions, such as in responding to sexual violence in conflict situations or in promoting women’s more equal participation in peace-building.

It should be noted that violence is also used in ‘stable’ political contexts to threaten and intimidate women in public and political spaces (Cornwall and Goetz 2005). This includes threats of using physical and sexual violence to limit women’s participation in voting, for example by the Taliban in Pakistan or in Afghanistan (Zia 2014) or, for example in India or Bangladesh, the use of sexual violence to intimidate specific groups of women based on their caste, class or religion from voting or standing as candidates in elections (Jayal 2006; Nazneen 2008). Violent political culture in relatively stable contexts requires the use of strongmen and money, both of which women tend to lack as a group. Research conducted in these contexts show that women’s participation in political processes tend to be low (UNIFEM 2008).  Violent political culture tends to be masculinised and foster a reluctance about women being the in public sphere among women themselves and their families. While literature emphasises maintaining law and order for creating an enabling environment for women’s political participation, there is a need to focus on exploring what has worked to mitigate and change violent political culture using a gender lens. How can electoral laws and public administration be used to effectively to reduce the use of thugs and money in politics?

A useful resource on the issue:

BRIDGE Gender in Armed Conflicts, Cutting Edge Pack