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Topic paper: Gender and rising authoritarianism: Implications for women’s political empowerment and participation (May 2022)


1 Background and rationale

1.1 SDC’s learning journey on Working in Authoritarian Contexts and women’s political empowerment

Building on earlier work on governance in fragile settings and shrinking spaces for civil society, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), with the Peace, Governance and Equality (PGE) cluster in the lead, has engaged in a learning journey on Working in Authoritarian Contexts. The joint learning journey is looking at challenges in contexts of democratic reversals and in long-standing authoritarian contexts, with the question of how cooperation in an authoritarian context can nevertheless be transformative and effective in advancing human rights.

The SDC Policy Note on Governance in Authoritarian Contexts provides an extensive analysis and conceptual approach to understanding different types of authoritarian regimes and trends as well as possible entry points for how and when cooperation offices can stay engaged (SDC 2020). The Policy Note served as the basis for regional consultations to understand the context-specific implications. Three Issue Papers have been commissioned to highlight specific aspects of engagement in authoritarian contexts and this paper on gender and authoritarianism is the third topic-specific research.

Among others, SDC’s learning journey unearthed women’s political empowerment and participation as a particularly vulnerable area to focus on when engaging in an authoritarian context. Strengthening women’s political empowerment and participation has indeed been at the forefront at SDC, not only in its Gender Equality Unit and Network, but also in the Governance Network as laid out in a thematic working aid (SDC 2017). SDC’s engagement with this question is centred around the concern that numerical representation alone will not automatically lead to gender-responsive policies or to a genuine impact on enhancing gender equality.

The consensus within SDC is that it is women’s voice, leadership and influence that need to be increased. As laid out in the SDC working aid, women’s voice and political empowerment are key to ensuring women’s status as full and equal citizens and this, in turn, is at the core of processes of democratisation (ibid.). Between 2021 and early 2022, the Gender Equality Unit and Network engaged in an experience capitalisation in this regard, analysing SDC’s approaches in diverse contexts, its proven practice, challenges and lessons learned. This paper complements the experience capitalisation.

Women’s political participation and leadership is a strategic priority for SDC, anchored in the following key frameworks: CEDAW, the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, Switzerland’s International Cooperation Strategy 2021–2024 (Objective 9), the FDFA Strategy on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights 2017 (Objective 2) and Switzerland’s National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security (2018–2022).