No women, no change: Mighty Merkel, multitasking mothers and managers of medical miracles.

Thursday, July 1, 2021


By Birgitta Ohlsson,

Director Political Parties,

National Democratic Institute (NDI)


Recall the beginning of last summer. The first wave of the pandemic was fading out in a few countries. At least in some places of the world, people had little time to reflect before the next devastating waves rolled in. The shared success stories at that moment and the spread of serious symbols circulated much around gender and the three L:s; leadership, life and labor.  

On leadership: Throughout the pandemic, women leading countries and political parties have been recognized for their early and staunch response to the pandemic. Female heads of government in Germany, Norway, Finland, Taiwan and New Zealand smashed stereotypes about the political capabilities of women while also becoming role models for good governance. 

On life: Lockdowns in countries across the world affected families in a number of ways. Gender-based violence saw a dramatic increase. The enormous burden of online learning and homeschooling lead to a huge overload in domestic childcare needs, which overwhelmingly were placed upon women. Parties must submit gender-sensitive recommendations and proposals to their governments to ensure COVID relief adequately addresses the challenges women face.

On labor: Women have broken barriers in numerous professions during other historical crises, be it pandemics, wars or conflicts. The COVID-19 crisis only again reminded us of the fact that 70 percent of the world’s healthcare workers are women. Political parties are long overdue in recognizing the value of this essential work carried out by women, including raising wages and improving security. 

A year later, many of us - at least in the western world - are fortunate enough to get our vaccinations at health care centers administered by female politicians, maintained by female nurses. And yes, leadership, life and labor - they are all connected. But who is connecting the dots? 

If this is not deserving of a global feminist roar - or at least a wakeup call for political parties around the world to give space to women in roles of leadership, listening to women's experiences (women make up more than 50 percent of voters in many countries), and understanding that women carry societies all around the world - what else would be an eye-opener?

Following elections in 2020, the global proportion of women in parliament reached a record 25.5 percent,  according to the IPU’s latest Women in Parliament report. Although progress has been steady over the past years, it is still embarrassingly slow. At the current rate, it will take another 50 years before we will reach gender parity in parliaments worldwide. 

And the situation is worse in the top ranks. Only 10 countries in the world have a female Head of State, and just 13 countries have a woman as Head of Government. According to UN Women, it will take another 130 years for women to be equal to men in the highest positions of power in politics. Political parties must speed up the pace! 

A mere 21 percent of government ministers are women in the world today, and they tend to be appointed to lead ministries traditionally associated with women. The most commonly held portfolios by women ministers are issued of Family/children/youth/elderly/disabled, as well as Social affairs and Women affairs/gender equality.

To build back democratically and for the world to successfully recover depends on:

  • Reinforcing democratic institutions

  • Engaging marginalized groups through participatory and inclusive decision making

  • Strengthening information integrity through effective communications and countering disinformation

  • Combating COVID corruption

  • Preventing violence by renewing the social contract

We cannot accomplish all of this without a gender-focused lens. Every day at NDI we work with democratic parties across the world - despite their failings and weaknesses - because we firmly believe that in multiparty systems with free and fair elections - they are still the backbone of democracy. But political parties need to step it up. 

Political parties have an essential role in promoting and safeguarding women’s equitable participation in public life. Although they are not a minority by population size, women’s participation in politics remains largely unequal to men’s participation, and institutional, socio-cultural and individual barriers to entering and staying in political life remain. Women continue to be underrepresented in politics and in senior levels of political parties. 

Gender equality will not happen by accident; it requires deliberate strategies and leadership to ensure that women are equal partners in public and private life.

In the climate debate, it is emphasized that we are the last generation to save the planet. In the global democracy discussion, it is stressed that we are the first generation after the second world war to face a real democratic backlash. Even before the coronavirus brought the world to its knees, authoritarian political parties, governments and leaders were on the rise. And the authoritarian leaders use gender as a weapon in their feminist backlashing strategies. 

It should be obvious by now that without more women in leadership positions it will be impossible to build back democratically. No woman, no change. 

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