This opinion piece was written by Caroline Hubbard, Senior Gender Advisor at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a nonprofit, nonpartisan, NGO that nurtures democracy and promotes human rights worldwide, and Tim Shand, Vice President of Advocacy at Promundo, a global leader in engaging men to promote gender equality and prevent violence.
The emergence of the #MeToo movement has led to an increase in the global dialogue on the problem of sexual violence and harassment, but there are still sectors where the conversation lags behind.
Violence impacts women across all industries, locales and socio-economic groups. It is an egregious assault on their individual human rights, but it is also a systemic problem rooted in and used to maintain unequal power relations between men and women. Nowhere is this more visible than in the testimonies and reports of violence against women in politics.
“Women in politics raise issues that others overlook”
More and more frequent reports from around the world indicate that when women step forward to claim their right to participate in politics, they are met by a backlash that encompasses harassment, psychological abuse (both in person and online) and physical or sexual assault. Such widespread attacks against politically active women are a clear indicator of the negative impact of unequal gender norms on the democratic health of our societies.
Over the last century, significant progress has been made in women’s numerical representation in politics around the world. But all too often, this has not directly translated into greater political influence. Political equality remains a distant goal.
Words and deeds
Gender equity and women’s empowerment continue to be perceived primarily as a “women’s issue”. However, in order to achieve gender equality, men need to be champions of the effort — not just allies.
Increasingly, international development organisations recognise the need for men to be agents for change. Just look at Canada’s feminist foreign policy: “Gender equality cannot be achieved by women and girls in isolation,” it reads. “Men and boys must also challenge the traditions and customs that support and maintain gender inequalities.”
“Political parity remains a distant goal”
This means more than just ticking a box or making a public statement in support of gender equality. It means elevating the voices of women and pushing for policies which support women’s political participation and representation. It means preventing and responding to instances of violence in both public and private life. It requires men to hold other men accountable for their actions, even when it’s not easy to do so.
Attempts to engage men for gender equality in politics too often stop at recommendations for “gender-sensitive training” for male leaders. At the same time, training for women rarely goes beyond teaching them how to develop tactical alliances with male elites.
Neither approach unpacks the socio-cultural norms that disempower women, nor how such norms become institutionalised through the rules and processes of political organisations. These approaches do not require men to question how privilege and power operate in their own lives and in the spaces where they work. Any change remains superficial.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
The change required to build a more inclusive political system will not always be easy. Men must be willing to proactively speak up for women’s political empowerment, even if it means putting their own position and status in jeopardy. Sometimes, they will need to cede power — not just share it — in order to create space for women. The end goal should not just be permitting women to “be at the table”, but to have the agency required to run the table without fear of reprisal.
The benefits of more inclusive politics are not limited to any one demographic. As Madeleine K. Albright, the US’ first female Secretary of State, taught us: “Women in politics raise issues that others overlook, pass bills that others oppose, invest in projects others dismiss and seek to end abuses that others ignore.”
If the #MeToo and accompanying movements really signal a change in norms and our ambitions for a more gender-equitable world, then many more men will need to realise the gendered nature of privilege and power and the damage this does to our democracies and societies.
(Picture credit: UN Women/Ryan Brown)
Caroline Hubbard & Tim Shand