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.
Women’s ability to effectively participate in the political arena is closely linked to how sexual norms restrict women’s mobility and may limit women’s ability to interact with other social and political actors in every-day life. Gender and sexual identities may limit who accesses political and public spaces. For example, sexual minorities may be restricted from participating in mainstream politics in many countries and even within these –newly formed movements, issues of class and gender play a defining role in whose voices are counted.
Issues of women’s bodily integrity is of course a key issue of concern when it comes to women’s participation in politics. Sexual norms around chastity (e.g. norms around women interacting with males not related by blood/marriage) and everyday forms of sexuality play key roles in constructing how women participate in politics and the space they have to manoeuvre. For example, women in South Asia at the local level are unable to attend meetings in mosques as these are restricted to women based on the argument that women menstruate thus they are polluting bodies, and that women would create sexual tension among the men present. This closes off one of the key political spaces for accessing information and mobilisation. In certain parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan and in the Middle East and North Africa region women have to rely on male relatives for political campaign as their mobility is restricted based on their gender identity as a women. Sexual norms in these regions dictate that they should not interact with unrelated males.
Apart from restriction on mobility or interactions with unrelated males, sexual harassment is prevalent in formal political spaces including parliaments, administration and the local government bodies. Research on women parliamentarians in Zambia, South Africa, France and other countries show that women parliamentarians face a culture that fosters harassment of female MPs by their colleagues (Goetz and Nyaumu-Musembi 2008). This culture where harassment is treated with impunity reinforces women’s subordinate position. Gender biases within the court system, police and administration, restrict the potential for women’s political empowerment by their biased treatment of cases of gender based violence (Goetz 2004). It creates a political and administrative culture where gender based violence is tolerated and women who decide to participate in the political system are forced to either endure or accept the fact that they are exposed to the risk of experiencing GBV and may restrict their political activities.
For those societies where the free expression of non-normative sexual and gender identities is prohibited or discouraged, political solidarity and advocacy has found space within online spaces, but issues of security and anonymity are becoming a more pressing concern. Due to the global nature of online spaces, there is a greater porousness of political advocacy taking place over national borders which creates tensions around cultural sensitivities and imperialist interference in national sovereignty, particularly in relation to homosexuality and issues of sexual and reproductive health.
Some useful resources on the issues include: