As part of last December’s Summit for Democracy, the Biden administration launched a wide range of commitments aimed at countering the troubling anti-democratic headwinds around the world. One of these pledges is the “Advancing Women’s & Girls’ Civic and Political Leadership Initiative,” a new U.S. government effort to promote women’s democratic inclusion. Implemented by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) with a planned budget of $33.5 million, it seeks to strengthen women-led civil society organizations, tackle entrenched barriers to women’s political and economic participation, and foster a more inclusive environment for women in politics.

A greater focus on gender equality in the United States’ global democracy agenda marks a welcome shift. After several years of flagging investments, the United States has fallen behind many other donors when it comes to supporting women’s political leadership or feminist and women-led organizations. Meanwhile, the global picture has worsened: despite some bright spots, democratic reversals in many parts of the world have empowered exclusionary regimes that have lashed out against women’s pro-democratic mobilization and attacked feminist and LGBTQ movements to fuel social polarization. The COVID-19 pandemic has further undermined global progress toward gender equality by disrupting girls’ schooling, increasing women’s economic precarity, and heightening gender-based violence.

According to the Biden administration, the new Women’s & Girls’ Civic and Political Leadership Initiative will advance a holistic approach to gender equality in politics. If this initiative is to succeed, however, it will need to grapple with the lessons of women’s rights and gender-focused programming over the past 30 years. As researchers at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, we have conducted over 160 interviews with aid officials, advocates, and women politicians as well as a detailed analysis of women’s political empowerment programs in Kenya, Nepal, Morocco, and Myanmar (as part of a larger research project to be published at a later date). In this research, we have identified four key areas that are critical to realizing the goal of sustainable gender parity in political power: supporting the implementation of existing reforms, transforming hostile political institutions, nurturing feminist reform coalitions, and tackling gendered violence and backlash. In addition, given the close links between democratic backsliding and struggles for gender equality, we emphasize that the U.S. government should avoid establishing programmatic silos for gender-targeted efforts and instead embed a gender lens into its broader democracy strategy.

The Track Record

The U.S. government first began funding democracy aid programs focused on women’s political participation in the early 1990s and scaled up this support following the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women. Early initiatives focused on bolstering women’s presence in nascent democratic institutions, through a mix of technical and financial support for gender quotas, training for women candidates and politicians, and project funding for politically oriented women’s organizations. Although often small in scale, these efforts bore some fruit. Most notably, the global proliferation of gender quotas produced a slow but significant rise in the number of women holding political office. Well-designed capacity-building programs provided networks and support to women running for office or entering political institutions for the first time. However, these efforts did not transform entrenched institutional and cultural barriers to women’s equal political power – from inequities in caregiving, mobility, and financial power to patriarchal resistance and violence.

Aid organizations and gender equality advocates have spent the last decade pioneering new programming approaches to tackle the broader ecosystem perpetuating men’s political overrepresentation, through efforts to reform political party structures and parliamentary processes, new gendered electoral financing schemes, gender mainstreaming in electoral management and voter education, and data collection on violence against women in politics. Yet despite these important innovations, donor support too often consists of short-term, disconnected interventions that fall back on “capacity-building” for women as the primary model of gender equality change.

Four Priority Areas

Building on the lessons learned over the past three decades of programming, our research highlights four key areas where sustained international support – in the form of technical assistance, funding, and diplomatic pressure – could make a difference.

First, policymakers and practitioners should focus on the implementation and enforcement of existing gender equality reforms. Women’s rights activists and politicians around the world have achieved critical legal and policy successes, often with the support of international actors. Reforms range from electoral gender quotas to gender mainstreaming rules and new laws on gender-based violence. In many countries, these gains have led to meaningful changes in women’s rights and representation. Nevertheless, enforcement remains a major challenge. Party officials, for instance, are astute at subverting or resisting new gender quota regulations. Enforcement mechanisms – if they exist at all – are often ineffective due to weak commitment and/or low state capacity.

To tackle this challenge, civil society groups and local reformers need sustained support to strengthen their monitoring, oversight, and awareness-raising work. In Liberia, for instance, women’s organizations have played an important role in improving the implementation of laws against gender-based violence, through a mix of training, monitoring, education, and lobbying. This type of multi-level organizing is critical, yet it requires technical, diplomatic, and financial backing, as well as careful data collection on roadblocks in implementation processes. Although legal reforms remain a priority area in many countries, mechanisms to ensure greater transparency and accountability in implementation require additional attention.

A second and related priority area should be a more sustained focus on challenging the formal and informal institutions that perpetuate male dominance in politics. Researchers and activists have shed light on many of these barriers, including weakly institutionalized and clientelist political parties that favor political insiders, ethnically-based political competition, expensive campaigns that rely on individual wealth or access to (mostly male) political financiers, impunity for electoral violence, and homosocial networks between male politicians that women struggle to access.

Changing these patterns is difficult, especially since changes in formal rules often do not displace informal practices. New policies and programs seeking to advance women’s political participation should therefore be rooted in a detailed analysis of the way institutions actually function. Strategic entry points may include new funding mechanisms for women candidates, a push for improved oversight of candidate selection processes, security provision for women’s campaigns, and norm-change interventions that focus on households and communities (rather than individual women). Another promising avenue may be to reinforce actors who are modeling and promoting more inclusionary political practices – through bottom-up political education, grassroots mobilization, art, and other forms of activism.

This final point ties into a third priority, namely the need to strengthen feminist reform coalitions. Institutional efforts to advance gender equality in politics inevitably hit certain walls: so long as there are deep structural inequities in society, equal political representation – beyond a small group of elite women – is difficult to achieve. In the long run, increases in women’s economic power and sustained feminist activism (enabled by democratic political systems) are crucial to shifting gender norms and redistributing material resources in society. Women politicians alone cannot drive these changes: although they often bring different legislative priorities to the table, they are also bound by partisan loyalties, political incentives, and gender discrimination. International support must strengthen other critical actors, too.

Globally, feminist mobilization plays a pivotal role in driving gender equality change. Activists often rely on international frameworks as well as ties with reform-minded actors in governments and state bureaucracies to press for legislative reforms. But women’s organizations are generally under-resourced and, in contexts of democratic backsliding, faced with increasing state restrictions and intimidation. Concerted support to feminist networks is therefore essential – by facilitating their access to policymakers and international fora, nurturing coalitions between reformers within and outside of government, and resourcing links between women’s organizations at different levels and across countries.

Lastly, women politicians and rights defenders that challenge gender norms often face violence and backlash, both online and offline. Over the past several years, U.N. Women, the National Democratic Institute, and other organizations have launched new initiatives to tackle this challenge, through data collection, international norm-building, and training security, judicial, and election personnel. The Biden administration has further announced a new domestic task force and an international partnership aimed at countering gendered online harassment and abuse. Yet to date, there are still few country-level initiatives focused on preventing gendered political violence at multiple levels, for example through stronger legal sanctions, systematic monitoring, accompaniment of candidates, media outreach, and training for law enforcement. Such efforts should not only focus on formal politics: in countries experiencing insecurity or a slide toward authoritarianism, women and LGBTQ rights defenders are particularly at risk, including from state security forces, corporate actors, and violent criminal groups. Responses thus need to be embedded into broader strategies that tackle impunity for state violence and corporate abuses.

The Need for an Integrated Approach

Globally, attacks on democracy and struggles over gender equality are often intertwined. Of course, women’s political representation alone does not automatically strengthen democracy, especially since autocrats can co-opt women’s leadership to consolidate their political power. Nor do multi-party elections alone ensure the empowerment of women or other marginalized groups. But feminist groups and women’s movements are often on the frontlines of struggles against rising authoritarianism and militarization, from Sudan to Thailand to Myanmar. Moreover, many of the hurdles undermining gender equality in politics – such as entrenched socioeconomic and ethnic hierarchies, the use of violence to advance political goals, and personalistic and corrupt governance – are, at their core, failures of democratic governance, which have profoundly gendered effects.

Looking ahead, it is therefore critical that gender equality is integrated into the Biden administration’s broader democracy agenda. Interventions focused on women’s political participation are often too small in scale and too short-term to create lasting change. Frequently, they are also insufficiently integrated into higher-level diplomacy and the parallel domains of development and security assistance. Although many donor governments and democracy assistance organizations have made formal commitments to “gender mainstreaming,” these are not necessarily backed up with the necessary resources, staff, and high-level leadership. The Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) agenda exemplifies this trend. The U.S. government now has a comprehensive policy framework focused on WPS implementation, yet the agenda as a whole remains undervalued, underfunded, and weakly integrated into parallel foreign policy processes such as the Global Fragility Act.

To overcome this challenge, the Biden administration should ensure that newly launched global initiatives – such as USAID’s Partnerships for Democracy, which seeks to help governments going through democratic openings deliver tangible services to citizens – are also used as opportunities to reinforce gender equality and women’s leadership. The administration’s global and country-level democracy strategies should similarly integrate a strong gender lens, drawing on the ambitious commitments set out in the National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality and the expertise of the Gender Policy Council. Lastly, the administration can do much more to institutionalize attention to gender across the national security and foreign policy apparatus, by requesting more gender- and WPS-focused funding from Congress, launching agency-specific implementation plans (with budget requests) for the national gender equality strategy, and including gender experts in National Security Council meetings and policy processes focused on broader democracy and conflict challenges.

Around the world, women’s meaningful participation in decision-making is essential to address longstanding gender inequities, as well as those exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. To ensure that renewed U.S. investments in women’s political leadership have a sustained impact, policymakers and practitioners should carefully consider the complex linkages between democratic erosion and women’s political inclusion, build on the lessons learned from past initiatives, and integrate a stronger gender lens across the U.S. government’s democracy and governance policies and assistance efforts.

Image: New Honduran President Xiomara Castro greets supporters after swearing in during her inauguration ceremony, in Tegucigalpa, on January 27, 2022. – (Photo by LUIS ACOSTA/AFP via Getty Images)