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Women need democracy more than democracy needs women

There has been a tendency to develop an instrumentalist case for persuading political leaders to promote women’s participation in politics: democracy needs women, the argument goes, because they bring qualities of tolerance, non-violence, integrity. This is directly linked to the essentialist argument that women are less corrupt than men.

This determined sweeping out of public sector graft is unusual for any politician and there is still no systematic evidence that women make a difference in cleaning up public office. There is, as the World Bank pointed out in its publication Engendering Development (2001), a strong correlation between low levels of corruption and high levels of women in public office. However, a study cited in UNIFEM’s Progress of the World's Women 2008/9 shows that both women in government and low corruption are in fact associated with liberal democracy. Democratic and transparent government enables more women to participate in politics, and it minimizes opportunities for widespread corruption too. Enabling more women to compete for public office is a democratic good in and of itself but would not on its own clean up government. Effective checks and balances on power are needed, whatever politicians’ gender.

The fact is that women need democracy - democracies have more women in public office, and gains for women in terms of enjoyment of basic rights are more sustainable than in socialist and authoritarian regimes. Many of women’s rights in socialist regimes, particularly to employment support and public services, crumbled on introduction of market economies, but the lack of civic freedoms had so inhibited women’s civil society presence that there was no mobilised force to prevent this happening.

Women need democracy in the home if they are to enjoy it in public life. It is physically impossible for women to devote the time and energy needed for political engagement if they are burdened with disproportionate care responsibilities in addition to employment outside the home. If men do not shoulder a greater share of domestic duties, women cannot compete effectively. Democracies, therefore, must invest in democratising the private sphere if they are committed to the never ending challenge of deepening democracy. We should stop asking what women can do for democracy but rather, in a reversal and paraphrase of Kennedy’s famous statement, we should ask what democracy can do for women. We could assess women’s views of the benefits of democracy and develop an index of democracy from a gender equality perspective. This would enrich existing measures of the depth and quality of democracy.

In the end, the proof of the effectiveness of any democracy in promoting women’s rights is found in the experiences of women going about their normal lives. Are they living lives free from fear of violence? Can they profit from their hard work? Can they access services that are responsive to their needs as women, mothers, workers, rural or urban residents? Are they free to make choices about how to live their lives - whom to marry, how many children to have, where to live, and how to make a living? It is the policy agenda of politicians, not their gender, that will give the answers to these questions.
Women and men committed to gender equality must build constituencies that will not just vote for gender equality policies, but will track the behaviour of politicians and hold them accountable for promoting gender equality.

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