Gender equality – a core pillar of democracy

Democracy is eroded every time a woman or girl faces harassment, hate speech or online violence. Thus, the strengthening of democracy requires also the strengthening of gender equality.

In the past weeks, we have been thunderstruck by Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The developments have shown how quickly the actions of an authoritarian regime can escalate to new dimensions – even full-scaled war. When the cornerstones of democracy, such as the realization of human rights or the space of civil society, are restricted, the road to using military force and breaching the sovereignty of another country can be surprisingly short.

Democracy and the rule of law are challenged in different parts of the world. At the same time, the so-called anti-gender movement has gained strength, also in Europe. This is not a coincidence: democracy and gender equality are closely interlinked. Democratic societies that defend human rights are being challenged by others questioning the rights of women, girls and sexual and gender minorities.

As International IDEA finds in their Global State of Democracy Report 2021, attacking gender equality and minorities is a clear strategy that has the aim of weakening democracy.

The participation of women increases democracy and is, thus, a threat to authoritarian leaders. Democracy is eroded every time a woman or girl faces harassment, hate speech or online violence. Democracy is weakened each time a female politician is silenced or her looks criticized, or when the political participation of a person belonging to a sexual minority is hindered or questioned.

Gender equality at the centre

There is a need to put women’s political participation and gender equality at the very core of the defense and strengthening of democracy. This was discussed at a seminar organized by the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland in the context of International Women’s Day in March 2022.  Democracy does not work unless everyone has access to power and decision-making at all levels. All over the world, the access of women to the highest levels of decision-making is far from that of men.

Finland advances the political participation of women at different levels. For instance, in Tanzania Finland supports a project of UN Women that aims at strengthening the political leadership and empowerment of women at local levels. In Zambia, Demo Finland has supported, together with the organization Zambia National Women’s Lobby, women’s political participation and political parties’ gender equality work already for a long time.

However, for instance only two percent of EU’s gender equality work has been directed towards the strengthening of women’s political participation.

As in all work to advance gender equality, also in the context of political participation it is important to look at the norms, structures and root causes that hinder the achievement of gender equality. Politics is still considered in many parts of the world as ‘men’s business’. It is important to identify in which way discriminatory norms, beliefs and structures impact women’s political participation. And also, what kind of barriers are faced by those subject to discrimination not only on the basis of gender but also age, disability, sexual orientation, ethnic origin, geographic location or other ground?

In Ukraine, we can already see the gendered impacts of the war. In conflict resolution and peacebuilding, the political participation of women must be ensured. The Women, Peace and Security agenda provides a good framework for this work.

We need to act quickly and determined against the efforts to weaken democracy and gender equality. Finland must, together with its partners and in a more goal-oriented and long-term manner, focus on the strengthening of women’s political participation, and advance gender equality as a central element of democracy work. The importance of this is highlighted in today’s world.


Written by Senior Advisers on Gender Equality, Krista Orama and Katja Tiilikainen, and Senior Adviser on Democracy and Governance, Lotta Valtonen, from the Unit for Sectoral Policy at the Department for Development Policy.