The United States: Laggard on Women’s Representation, Promoter of Women’s Representation

By Sarah Bush

Women attend a shura on voting and running for office in Helmand, Afghanistan. By Helmand PRT Lashkar Gah.
Women attend a shura on voting and running for office in Helmand, Afghanistan. By Helmand PRT Lashkar Gah.

In my very first post on Political Violence at a Glance, I discussed some of the ways that the United States and other international actors have pressured Afghanistan to ensure that women are adequately represented in its parliament. But what that post didn’t address was why the United States is in the business of trying to advance women’s political participation in the developing world in the first place.

I was reminded of that question recently when I was reading about the decision in Germany to institute a quota for the number of seats on corporate boards that must be reserved for women. It is difficult to imagine the United States adopting a similar policy. In fact, the United States is hardly a trailblazer today when it comes to women in leadership positions in political and civic life. For example, the United States is just the 72nd best country in the world in terms of the proportion of women in the lower or single house of parliament. Ironically, Afghanistan is 39th.

Despite the United States’ relatively mediocre standing cross-nationally in terms of women’s representation, promoting women’s political participation in the developing world has become a major component of its efforts to aid democracy in other countries. Whereas the U.S. government dedicated few resources to women’s representation as a component of democracy assistance when it began funding it in the 1980s, my analysis in a new book suggests that it is now a major component of the American democracy assistance portfolio. Given the United States’ mediocre scores when it comes to women’s political participation, why is it encouraging other countries to do better?

There are several factors at work, including changing norms and women’s activism. Beyond those dynamics, however, is a broader, and important, evolution in the way that the United States aids democracy in the developing world. In a nutshell, promoting democracy today is a technical endeavor in which donors often gravitate towards activities that avoid directly challenging political elites in the states that are the targets of aid. Attempting to enhance women’s representation is one example of such an activity; supporting local governance is another. Democracy assistance wasn’t always this way, I’ve argued – when it began in the 1980s, it was a more overtly political endeavor, with many programs supporting the activities of dissidents, political parties, and trade unions. The field’s evolution has to do with changes in the U.S. government, changes in the countries that are the targets of democracy promotion, and the professionalization of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that design and implement democracy assistance. As I explain elsewhere, “Although donor and target countries put important constraints on the work that these NGOs engage in, the NGOs – which I collectively refer to as ‘the democracy establishment’ – also make a significant impact on how democracy is promoted overseas.”

Support for women’s political participation helps organizations in the democracy establishment survive and thrive, even in non-democratic countries that put restrictions on more directly confrontational activities. The director of an NGO in Jordan – a country where the U.S. government has been strongly committed to advancing women’s participation – helped illustrate this dynamic in an interview with me. He told me that he did not hold Jordanian citizenship and so he was worried about the possibility of being kicked out of the country if he were to aggravate the government there. He said, “I know that I don’t want to talk about political rights here in Jordan because of my delicate personal situation, even though I’d like to. So all I can do is women’s issues, rather than more political issues.”

Is the rise of support for women’s political participation a good thing for democracy? According to some points of view, the answer is no: promoting women’s political participation can help autocracies mimic the appearance of liberal democracy for international audiences in order to secure aid and other international benefits that will help them survive. All the same, having more women in parliament could be good for gender equality and it may plant the seeds of democratization in such countries down the line – and in countries that are firmly autocratic, a more confrontational approach to democracy assistance might not be possible anyway. Perhaps eventually U.S. support for women’s political participation overseas will end up having a boomerang effect and translate to new action at home.

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