Obstacles to Political Participation

26 posts / 0 new
Last post
Obstacles to Political Participation

Below are a few questions to begin this conversation thread:

How do the cultural expectations, traditional values, patriarchal structures and societal norms prevent women from greater political involvement?

How are these barriers being overcome or circumvented?

In what way do economic burdens, poverty and unemployment play into low levels of political participation among women? What is being done to remove this barrier to participation?

How does violence and intimidation affect women’s political participation? What is being done to overcome this?

Are there legal frameworks that limit the influence of women in politics and decision-making? Have organization’s been successful in removing these legal limitations?

How are non-governmental organizations affecting change in women’s political participation at a grassroots level?

Obstacles to pol participation/successful ways to overcome them

Obstacles to Political Participation are many, but some of the most obvious ones are lack of public support even in the most developed democracies coupled with the lack of political party support; entrenched traditional views; lack of confidence; lack of financial means; lack of capacity building opportunities; lack of access to technology; and the fact that it is often physically unsafe to be part of political processes.
However, I believe that one of the ways to overcome these obstacles, we need to start changing public perception and when talking about the obstacles, we should also talk about the benefits of having women in the decision making. These benefits are far reaching and result in better governance practices, including bigger economic benefit, greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across party lines and more sustainable conflict resolution.
To help women overcome traditional and cultural barriers as well as build their confidence, one of the most impactful approaches from my experience is the local ownership of such efforts of assistance. Role models from your own country and/or community, who are able and willing to share experiences and know-how as well as help build local capacity, has been among the most results oriented means to achieve positive change to overcome obstacles to women’s empowerment.
Take Selima Ahmad from Bangladesh. Selima is Founder of Bangladesh Women’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry who, in addition to being a successful business woman, is making sure that she helps other women succeed too. Selima is also a reliable partner of the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) and a member of IRI’s Women’s Democracy Network (WDN), a global initiative to advance women’s empowerment globally. We have successfully partnered with Selima, recognizing the power of change that women like Selima are capable of delivering to their communities. Their deep knowledge of the needs of these communities help design programs to overcome the obstacles that women face for political and economic participation.
Determined to further women’s rights in her country, Selima worked closely with WDN focusing on building women’s political empowerment, their leadership and encouraging women entrepreneurs to seek political office. She is Founder of WDN Bangladesh Country Chapter and has successfully established Women’s Leadership Schools around the country, a WDN initiative funded by the United Nations Democracy Fund. Under her leadership, the WDN Bangladesh Chapter has built the capacity and confidence of women to lead in their communities. In addition, Selima has successfully led the lobby efforts to achieve the government of Bangladesh to support the development of women entrepreneurs through the establishment of the first public, rent-free venues for women micro-entrepreneurs to display and sell their products.

Do obstacles to women's political participation differ from country and region and what are the common approaches across the regions to overcome them?

Advocay for WPP - tactics for valuing women's participation

I wrote a longer post that alas didnt upload so am trying again now more briefly! I note the post above and wanted to drill down a bit further into the suggestion that one way of addressing the lack of women's political participation is by suggesting that women are "better" for policy making and development outcomes. I think this is a risky strategy for a couple of reasons:

  1. I fear it sets up an unnecessary argument about whether women contribute differently / more / better than men in the political sphere. I dont thikn its particulary helpful for advocacy purposes to take on thqat argument - and in my experience, i thikn it is a hard one to win. While my anecdotal sense is that wome do indeed seem to bring a different "feel" to peace negotiatons and conflict resoluton, the same cannot be said for good goernance. There have been nunerous examples of corrupt female politicians (see Asia in particular, for example) and i have also heard any argue agaist gender equality, human rights and LGBTI rights;
  2. I think that the better argument is simply on princpope - womenmake up half the population of all countries ad deserve to have a direct say in (public) decision making which will impact their lives. Historically, women were relegated to the private domain, but this is increasibgly ot the case and politics needs to play catch up with the rest of society.
Charmaine Rodriques, you make

Charmaine Rodriques, you make a good point. Elevating one against the other has never been the smartest tactics. What I was getting at is the necessity to use facts about the benefits of having women in office. Such facts is more and more available due to the increasing number of research and indexes that are being developed. No one denies proven facts. For example, according to the IMF 2013 data, the global economy has missed out on 27 percent of GDP growth per capita due to the gender gap in the labor market. It is a bit harder to identify similar hard date in politics, but not impossible.

violence and intimidation a major obstacle to women

One major threat to women’s political participation is violence and intimidation. Although there are other threats like patriarchy, lack of self-confidence, political party etc. that of violence and intimidation is on the negative side as it could be life threatening. This is a common feature during political parties’ campaigns and rallies some countries. In the last election in Nigeria which is most recent, some women politicians were physically assaulted. It is sad also that apart from those arrested and prosecuted by the law enforcement agents themselves, women hardly come out to initiate prosecution themselves. During mentorship on political participation for young women before the elections some of the women expressed worries that, political thuggery and violence is a major concern for them in their path to political heights.

WPP and violence

The issue of violence again women in the politics sphere is a very well made one. I recall that recenty in Afghanistan, the Electoral Management Body set up women-nly polling booths, to try to give women more security when they actually went out to vote.

That said, i think there has been less focus on protecting women politicians - possibly because in some countries it is not just women, but women and men in opposition parties, who face intimidation and threats of death/violence (i am thinking here of recent political assassinations in Somalia ad Burundi this month/week). Certainly, harassment is a major challenge - and addressing such harassment should be an issue that is included in any women's political training that is undertaken. Yes, ideally, there should be no such harassment, but in many many countries, politics is a so-called "dirty game" - women could benefit from being given training/skills/support to deal with such challenges - including from the political parties they are aligned with.

Addressing political violence could also be included in electoral codes of conduct, which all political parties and institutons should be required to sign up to and implement.

violence and intimidation a major obstacle to women

I just wanted to respond to MFijabi and express my deep respect to her and other women around the world who, regardless of political violence, continue to participate in politics. When NGOs like the International Republican Institute, share good practices of empowering women in political decision making, they offer a variety of potential tools that have worked from our experience. However, it is up to the women to adapt them to the local context, as they are the ones to determine what they can achieve give the current circumstances. From our experience, women in Nigeria, Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, Uganda, many LAC countries have taken these good practices and made them work adding many creative local approaches, and taking these good practices to a new level of success.

Advantages to political parties

a number of conversation participants here as well as some leading women politicians already suggested and I will reiterate it here - when discussing women's political empowerment of women, we should focus on why we are succeeding in addition to why we are failing. So here are some positive points - as political parties are gateways for women’s political participation, they also gain if they have women as members and candidates promoting their platforms. It is commonly recognized that political parties increase public support through positive image of being inclusive of both genders equally. In addition, it is often associated with a better understanding and openness to the inclusion of a wider range of marginalized groups. By welcoming women members, political parties also have a potential to add party membership and thus new credible and capable candidates, who have stronger connections to civil society and grassroots. Ultimately, the goal of every political party is to win, the more diverse party membership, the higher probability of increased number of votes. Finally, with the international community focusing on the Sustainable Development Goals, where women’s empowerment is one of the center objectives, political parties will have a greater potential for international support. But it is key to recognize that change only happens when “we” make it happen. Nothing just happens on its own. One of the ways to achieve this is advocacy by those within political parties to engage more women in internal decision making – be it individual women and/or women’s wings of political parties.

Would be interested to discuss tactical steps to enhance women’s voices within political parties.

Erika, I agree, but we need

Erika, I agree, but we need to be better at proving that increased women's participation is good for parties and that parties get more votes when they have diverse membership.  We all know, and agree, instinctively, but women in parties need hard, cold facts - data that show their inclusion as candidates and decision-makers help parties win.   I believe we need better and more robust public opinion research (especially post-elections) to better arm activists with the proof of the positive effects you have described. 

hard facts to prove the benefits of having women in pol parties

Francescabinda, you are making a great point - evidence based on facts is what we all need to achieve faster progress. One idea that I heard today, while participating in the OSCE-ODIHR's Expert meeting on Good Practices for Advancing Women's Political Participation in Warsaw, Poland, I found interesting. Sonja Locar, Executive Director of Central and Eastern European Network for Gender Issues noted that sometimes it is difficult to come up with the hard facts we need to prove that having women in political parties helps them win. In that case, she suggested a best practice to use the argument from a negative stand point. i.e. those parties who do not employ gender sensitive attitude, have lost elections. According to Sonja, it has worked well, especially if you can track this non-progress for more than five years. Let me know what you think about this, please.

Engendering political parties

One quick response Erika is that i thikn tat when we discuss gender quotas, we should also lobby for them within political party executives. at the moment, many political parties have utterly male-dominated executives -and we know that this tends to result in the replication of such male dominance in candidate selection. Parties coulbe required by law to have a 30% minimum of women wihin their leadership structures - in addition to applying such quotas to candidtae selection itself.

Women's wings within political parties (as well as ensuring young women are actively involved in political party youth wings) can also be another mechanism for engendering political parties.

engendering political parties

Charmaine, I fully support what you said about the need to achieve internal party quotas as well as to promote women's wings. I am a solid believer in the impact of women's wings, but only if they are part of the political party decision making structures. In the opposite case, they may be considered just another unimportant piece to the political party, to which it turns to only when it needs it, not because the party cares about the opinion of the other half of the population. The same goes for youth participation.

negative social norms and attitudes as barriers

erika makes a good point that the current focus on the development and the adoption of the Post-2015/SDG framework is an opportunitity to bolster support for women's empowerment. This is an opportunity for political parties to gain greater international support, as with a range of other stakeholders - after all, the goals and targets agreed in the SDG framework will determine where a huge amount of resources and political will internationally will be placed. If, as many of us hope, a target on women's public and political participation is included this will be extremely positive in this regard.

However to ensure women's full, equal and meaningful participation the target and any accompanying indicator(s) must go further than the MDGs and look past women's numerical representation in formal, national-level entities. They should take into account the different levels at which women are and should be politically active, and also ensure that women's level of influence is increased - representation alone is insufficient. 

Political parties are absolutely key to this, as rightly pointed out. However barriers exist at many levels and in many fora, and efforts should take into account the full range of barriers which impede women's meaningful political participation, including structural barriers such as negative social norms and attitudes towards women as leaders and decison-makers. This is a long-term endeavour, and is often at odds with initiatives to improve women's political participation whch leave these structural barriers untouched, such as short-term support or training of women candidates in the run up to elections. 

Myths and Reality


Gender discrimination is routed in different layers of the social and political system of our societies, at local, national and international levels. Historically women have been the subjects of discrimination and gender based violence more than any other group. Dealing with rooted discrimination requires a change of mindset from all segments of society.

One of the challenges is the misconception that women do not vote for women and that they do not trust women in power.

Entry point: including perceptions that women and men are equally capable of leadership and politics is relevant for women. However we need to move beyond correcting this misconception and suggesting a new definition for leadership by promoting who people should vote for. Sometimes it is not all about changing the people’s perception of women, but using this opportunity to introduce new concepts of whom people should vote for.

The other misconception is that women in politics are not supporting women and they do not promote women’s rights and support the gender equality discourse. This is a challenge since these women cannot mobilise women’s network to support them. Also women in politics feel abandoned by women’s groups.

Women legislators are more likely than male legislators to promote and support measures identified as relating to women’s rights and interests. This of course varies depending on how interests are defined. There is a strong recognition that not all women share the same interests nor do they all define women’s interests in the same way. The extent to which women’s attachment to women centric legislation varies based on whether one is talking about issues women politicians themselves are interested in or women’s movements or policy agencies; and varies if you are considering issues tied to women’s traditional roles, policies affecting women directly, or legislation aimed at reducing discrimination against women and improving women’s status.

Entry point: there is a high demand for stronger public awareness raising and increased capacity building and accompaniment programmes for female politicians. Awareness raising is required for the public and also the female candidates so they are aware of women’s demands of them. Facilitating dialogue in these cases can be useful.

Gender sensitive political party interlan organization

As many of distinguished participants noted quite a few things about political parties and their need to be more inclusive, I wanted to offer one more item to consider - the importance of gender sensitive internal organization of a political party. By this I mean the importance of ensuring that political party by-laws and other internal party regulatory systems reflect gender equality values. This potentially should lead to women’s membership on the governing structures of the party and hopefully to the voluntary measures to support women’s advancement within the party. Once we have women in the party decision making structures, there is more probability that we will have more women placed on the electoral candidate lists; and most importantly, in the winning positions; and issues that have been considered secondary for years, will be featured in the party platforms.

Continuing the conversation on violence against women,

Thanks to MFijabi and Charmaine for bringing up violence against women in politics, which is an important and often invisible barrier for women’s participation in politics. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) has noted through our research and discussions with women activists and political leaders in countries where we work the significant use of violence as a method to dissuade women from participating in elections. However, violence against women in elections has been largely absent from broader discussions on this issue, because it has not been distinguished from general electoral violence. Not only is this a women’s human rights and political participation issue, but it is also an election issue. Anything that prevents the full participation of women in elections has implications for the integrity of the electoral process, and ultimately undermines democracy.

This isn’t something new, but until recently it has received little attention or research. A major gap when it comes to electoral violence against women is the lack of data. NDI is piloting a new data collection tactic that builds on our previous work with local domestic observation groups. We’re working to train election observers to look for and recognize violence against women in elections so that it can be mitigated and strategies for preventing it identified. I recently co-facilitated a session with our domestic observation partner in Guatemala on monitoring for early warning signs of gender based and other forms of electoral violence in the lead up to the September elections. My work with our partner organization, as well as meetings with local civil society organizations working on gender based violence more broadly reinforced my convictions that violence against women in elections is a serious issue in need of solutions.

What do you think? How can we do a better job of collecting data and mitigating gender based electoral violence?

Members tagged in this comment: 
Research and Documentation on Electoral VAW

Hi Caroline,

I completely agree with you that electoral violence  for long has  not received the right attention deserved. Research and documentation are two major steps that will bring focus to it by all stakeholders required to take action. This is where training which you mentioned earlier on comes in.  Observers need to be trained on how to recognise VAW. In addittion, there is need to commssion groups/individuals working in close collaboration with the media to track signs of VAW and the actual occurence at every stage of the electoral cycle. There is also need to raise awareness through advocacy for women on the importanc eof reporting occurence and having the courage to stand through the proscution of such cases.

Charmaine, I agree that

Charmaine, I agree that mandating party quotas for internal decision-making bodies is helpful - particularly in countries where parties receive state funding, the state should be able to legislate quotas.  Morocco introduced 30% quota for all party decision-making bodies in 2011.  Parties were also required to establish "parity" committees - although the role and impact of these committees was left ambiguous.  Women in Moroccan parties are now working to leverage this representation and how to translate it to real power to effect change. 


Obstacles in urbanization...

Regarding obstacles to women’s political participation and culture, shifting cultural norms is among one of the most difficult areas in which we work, but also one of the most critical. We have seen some opportunities for challenging cultural expectations, traditional values, patriarchal structures and societal norms in cities. This research comes out of a forthcoming paper on Gender, Urbanization and Democratic Governance written by The Institute for Women’s Policy Research and commissioned by NDI to help guide our programmatic work in this area, as well as to contribute to the larger discussion on urbanization. 

Research shows that women are a fast-growing share of cities’ populations and increasingly heads of households. In many cities in the developing world, more women than men are moving to towns and cities, especially in Latin America, as well as in some countries in Southeast Asia, like Thailand and Viet Nam. Growing numbers of women benefit from greater independence and access to increased opportunities in urban settings. Urban women, on the whole, have greater access to services and infrastructure, more chances to engage in paid employment, and greater opportunities as a result of relaxed cultural restrictions, when compared with their rural counterparts. The urban context provides for new and changing social norms, which happens more rapidly in urban settings, as compared to rural areas. 

Other obstacles to women’s political participation in cities, include gender-blind governance.  Governments need both the substantive representation of women in urban decision making, and an enhanced awareness and understanding of gender-specific needs within the governance structure.  Gender-sensitive governance elevates women’s voices and participation in urban decision making processes, giving them agency to affect change for issues of importance to both women and men. It works to identify gaps in policy and service provision that disproportionately affect the lives of urban women, and acknowledges women’s unique contributions to urban settings in the formation of policy responses. Urban governance provides opportunities to overcome the obstacles to women’s full political participation, but we must ensure that institutions of governance have the capacity to acknowledge and respond to the disparate experiences of women in cities.

Social norms are the most

Social norms are the most difficult barriers for us as NGOs to overcome especially in women related issues. Lebanon is considered a liberal country in the ME but still expectations from women are to push the males in their families for political participation rather than running themselves. When women are candidates and they have their pictures just like any other candidate, they are criticized for even personal issues rather than professional performance. Women are still reluctant to have a serious step into the world of politics for different reasons:

1- Women need social and family support which is not often there. Women from all religions in Lebanon are usually "adviced" to take care of their family future and if they dont have one to think of having a family instead and look after her personal life especially because she can't change how things are

2- Women are usually excluded from the political parties decision making level. This in return makes it even impossible to run without being in a list

3- If women tend to run alone without a list just to show a certain opinion or attitude they usuallyhave an economic barrier. As a amatter of fact, economic barriers limit women's voice also in voting as they become more vulnerable to vote for people they dont believe in just because they get some social services (food, health, education, etc) from a certain family member or a political party.

On the other hand, violence and intimidation against women are not the direct cause for women not to be in political life. They are actually not even in the social life and they are usually staying at home and leading a very traditional life. The violence and intimidation that we worry about is the violence or threatening of political parties against women who decide to run. This was the case in 2004 in the city of Baalbeck when a lady decided to run for municipality and all her family which is the biggest Shiaa family in the city came to her place and at the beginning "adviced" her not to run and then they angrily said that there are still men in that family and at the end when she refused to withdraw they threatened her and her immediates. So this is our worry and we would like to fight this kind of violence.

Law in Lebanon does not prevent women from practicing her political life equally to men, but at the same time there seems to be no encouraging laws like a quota or other legislations with political parties

USPEaK in its different projects tries to engage women more and more in social life including political issues to break taboos and create new ideas among generations.  Our work includes educational programs whether in lskills or social trainings including leadership, democracy, media, advocacy and campaigning among others. We also trained potential women candidates for the first time in the region. It is not an easy task to break all the social norms and trational behaviors but at least we and others can make a change in the future.


Obstacles to participation - resourcing

Another important obstacle for women getting into politics is the resourcing. Many women I have spoken to have told me how they can’t compete with their male counterparts who get financial and other in-kind support for their campaigning. I remember meeting an aspiring parliamentary candidate in Ghana, she had to use a lot of her own money to fund her campaign and explained how she felt fortunate because her husband supported her in that, but that she was competing against men who had financial backing from political parties or stakeholders in the district. For obvious reasons, donors are not willing to give financial resources to back political campaigns. The project Womankind and our partner WiLDAF-Ghana implemented on women’s political participation a few years ago, saw us overcome that obstacle by providing other in-kind support to female candidates to the local District Assembly elections. Such as paying for air time for their campaigning, producing general election material as well as facilitating community events as a platform for female candidates to present their pledges. Feedback was that this type of support was beneficial but it really does not address the constraint women are facing when financing for their campaign and the unequal playing field they find themselves in.

It would be great to hear from others on successful strategies to overcome this barrier.

Catherine, as other comments

Catherine, as other comments in the conversation confirm, resources are a big issue for women's participation.  Examples, such as the one you provide from Ghana, are great - and should be duplicated.  Advertising and air time are expensive and "every little bit helps".  I think the solution is two-fold:  first, fundraising and access to resources need to be more agressive.  The funding of politics is often seen as corrupt and "dirty", which is why it is difficult to address and often turns people off.  We need to admit that participating in politics requires money.  Women need to be better at asking for money and I believe women in business need to do more to step up and help.  Also - in kind resources should not be neglected.  Second, in order to level the playing field, more robust campaign financing restrictions need to be implemented. The high price of poltiics not only hurts women, but in some countries means that only the wealthy and elite men can compete.  

Some very salient points made

Some very salient points made Frances around financing for campaigning. Addressing corruption and promoting good governance is key. In Ghana we found even at universities male students were bribing others to elect them onto different student committees.  Addressing governance needs to cut across all sectors.

Obstacles and Opportunities in Information & Communication Tech

One subject that hasn’t been brought up yet is the interesting dualities with Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). ICTs both provide opportunities for and present obstacles to women's political participation. While ICTs can empower women and give them space for political activism, ICTs can also be used to attack women. The same anonymity in access that provides women with the ability to engage online is also a shield for hate speech and harassment, which perpetuates subjugation.

For example, a study of media coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s 2008 political campaigns found that some of the worst attacks came from online.  ​There were more than 500 YouTube videos under the search "Hillary" and "bitch" and, and there were multiple Facebook groups with sexist names, including the most popular "Hillary Clinton: Stop running for president and make me a sandwich," which had 41,025 followers​.

​However, social media can in turn be used to combat violence and harassment directed at women through documenting incidences, raising awareness of the problem, and organizing campaigns around which to advocate. A great example of this is HarassMap in Egypt; women report sexual harassment and assault through SMS and social media and these incidents are mapped on their website. HarassMap then partners with local businesses and people, who pledge to adopt zero-tolerance policies against sexual harassment and provide assistance to those who have been sexually harassed to create safe zones in their communities. 

Tactics for combatting violence and harassment


Thank you for raising this issue. ICT's certainly offer both challenges and opportunities.

It's great to see that you shared the example from HarassMap in Egypt. Women in Egypt have been pioneering efforts to combat harassment using social media tools and formats.

New Tactics features three tactic examples from organizations in Egypt, including how HarassMap partners with local businesses. Here are links to these tactics that could also be adapted for situations specific to political participation barriers.


Natasha Anonymous's picture

The only true spell caster that can help you win a lottery is the GREAT DR. Aadoo. I never believed in lottery winning through spells until I met Dr.Aadoo who helped me to cast a spell for the winning numbers of the lottery I just won. I just needed to share the testimony of how I won $500,000.00 with the help of Dr.Aadoo. One very day I checked up on spell casters that have helped lots of people because I was tired of losing lotteries. So I found the extraordinary spell caster people kept talking about but I still had doubts about the possibilities of winning through spells. However, I contacted him and he told me the necessary things that needed to be done and assured me of gaining great wealth from the lottery as long as I had faith in the power of his gods. After casting the spell he told me I was going to get my numbers in less than 24hrs. Those numbers I got are what has gotten me where I am right now. Invested the money from the lottery and I must say life is way better for me. Dr. Aadoo is a gifted human being who is fully blessed to help others who are in need. I'll advise everyone reading this to contact this amazing spell caster. doctoraadoo@yahoo.com