Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance

Women’s political empowerment is essential to building and sustaining strong, non-corrupt, and inclusive democracies.

Sector Overview

There is a direct link between the health of any democracy and the ability of all members of a society to participate freely in politics and public life without suffering discrimination or reprisal, regardless of their gender identity. This includes the participation of women and girls in formal political and peace processes and informal avenues (for example, participation in labor associations, civic activism, the media, and defending human rights). Research demonstrates that women’s political empowerment is essential to building and sustaining strong, non-corrupt, and inclusive democracies. Formal political institutions are more democratic and responsive to citizens’ needs when the institutions include meaningful women’s representation. Increased women’s mobilization in civil society tends to align with positive trends in democratization; the reverse is also true. This shows that increasing gender equality is not only a crucial human rights issue, but an imperative for global democratic resilience. Although research on linkages between LGBTQI+ inclusion and democracy is nascent, there is a clear link between higher levels of human rights protection for all citizens and democracy.



Corruption is a key factor in the disproportionate harms that women and girls face. Corruption creates a lack of equitable access to services (as women are often less able to pay bribes when required to do so to access services), increases sexual exploitation (as "sextortion" is used as a form of corrupt abuse of power), allows greater impunity for gender-based violence (where law enforcement and judicial systems are captured and allow perpetrators to go free in exchange for a bribe), is a barrier to women's economic empowerment (as women and other new entrants to the economy struggle to compete in economies dominated by oligarchy and collusion), and is a barrier to women's political leadership (as "pay to play" systems reward entrenched power structures and male-dominated parties).

Women and Girls in Politics and Public Life

The rights of women and girls have advanced in the last quarter century since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, but progress has been slow and increases in women’s leadership have been met with backlash. The rate of representation of women in national parliaments around the world gradually increased from 15 percent in 2002 to 23 percent in 2021. For candidates with intersectional marginalized identities, however, including minority LGBTQI+ candidates, gains have been smaller due to several layers of stigma derived from their gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, and racial identities. For example, of the 45,913 parliamentarians in office in the world as of September 1, 2020, only 245 (0.5 percent) identify as LGBTQI+. Women are still overrepresented in "social" ministries and parliamentary committees and inadequately represented in security, economic, and defense bodies within governments, which tend to be seen as men's purviews. Women’s leadership in social movements has expanded significantly, which has proven to be an important catalyst for democratic change. Unfortunately, a high degree of gender equality within movements does not always lead to the same level of representation in negotiated settlements or ensuing governing structures. Women remain grossly underrepresented in decision-making worldwide at the local, national, and international levels and across all branches of government and the security sector. Women continue to be marginalized in peace negotiations and face significant obstacles as media professionals and civic activists. Their mobilization is often met with harsh resistance, including violence both in the physical world and online.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated pre-existing economic and social barriers to women’s political participation, emboldening anti-democratic leaders to close political space and roll back hard-won gains in gender equality. This backlash is often part of a concerted effort to control political outcomes and maintain patriarchal power hierarchies that benefit autocratic leaders and illiberal governance

Promising Approaches

  1. Address the causes and consequences of patriarchal power structures within political organizations that limit, deter, and/or exclude women’s full political participation within these institutions.
  2. Address barriers to women’s and girls’ full and meaningful participation in politics and public life across the entire political ecosystem, including those at the individual, institutional, and societal levels.
  3. Build the pipeline of civic-minded and/or politically interested women and girls, while simultaneously working to create a favorable environment to facilitate their representation, leadership, and agency.
  4. Transform harmful gender norms by working directly with male political and traditional leaders to encourage and build their support for women’s political empowerment and gender equality in politics and public life.
  5. Address violence against women in politics and public life in both the physical world and online.
  6. Reduce corruption by building the capacity of women leaders to advocate for open governance; adapting reporting mechanisms that make it easier for women to report corruption; and disrupting the links between illicit finance and anti-gender-equality movements.
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