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How Autocrats Exploit Women’s Rights to Cement Power

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“Being a champion of gender is the same as being the champion for justice and human rights,” proclaimed the winner of the 2016 Gender Champion Award recipient during his acceptance speech. The country he leads has the highest share of legislative seats in lower houses held by women in the world at 61 percent. But this “gender champion”—Rwandan President Paul Kagame—is no champion of democracy. For more than 20 years, he has rigged elections, coerced opponents, and disregarded human rights to keep a tight hold on power.

Kagame is but one of many autocrats who have learned to exploit women’s rights as a means of furthering their authoritarian goals. By taking credit for advances in gender equality, autocratic regimes distract their critics: They put the spotlight on an area that is widely (and correctly) seen as linked or bundled with democracy while drawing the focus away from their authoritarian abuses. We call this phenomenon “autocratic genderwashing.”

Although autocracies have historically exhibited stark gender inequalities, the three decades since the Cold War’s end have witnessed dramatic change as the international community prioritized the push for greater gender equality. Just as many authoritarian states responded to democracy promotion efforts by adopting democratic institutions only superficially, so too have these rulers learned to use gender equality to mask their undemocratic nature.

“Being a champion of gender is the same as being the champion for justice and human rights,” proclaimed the winner of the 2016 Gender Champion Award recipient during his acceptance speech. The country he leads has the highest share of legislative seats in lower houses held by women in the world at 61 percent. But this “gender champion”—Rwandan President Paul Kagame—is no champion of democracy. For more than 20 years, he has rigged elections, coerced opponents, and disregarded human rights to keep a tight hold on power.

Kagame is but one of many autocrats who have learned to exploit women’s rights as a means of furthering their authoritarian goals. By taking credit for advances in gender equality, autocratic regimes distract their critics: They put the spotlight on an area that is widely (and correctly) seen as linked or bundled with democracy while drawing the focus away from their authoritarian abuses. We call this phenomenon “autocratic genderwashing.”

Although autocracies have historically exhibited stark gender inequalities, the three decades since the Cold War’s end have witnessed dramatic change as the international community prioritized the push for greater gender equality. Just as many authoritarian states responded to democracy promotion efforts by adopting democratic institutions only superficially, so too have these rulers learned to use gender equality to mask their undemocratic nature.

By announcing a gender quota in parliament, for instance, an authoritarian regime can pose as committed to the democratic value of inclusion while sidestepping pressures to allow that parliament to be freely and fairly elected. In fact, of the 75 countries that have adopted gender-based quota laws for parliamentary representation, about two-thirds (51 countries) have been nondemocracies. Excessive eagerness to equate even superficial gender equality reforms with democracy makes it too easy for autocrats to benefit from such reforms, since appearing democratic can reduce demands for political and economic reform from the international community.

At the same time, gender equality reforms tend to involve little risk to the regime compared to changes that might strengthen the opposition. In many autocracies, women legislators have tended to be more loyal to their respective parties than men are. Women are often more dependent on party hierarchies and leaderships because they have limited access to other pathways to politics, such as local clientelist networks.

While autocrats do use on coercive strategies to stay in power, efforts to empower women belong to another type of autocratic tactic: seeking legitimacy. More specifically, taking credit for gender equality progress enables autocrats to devise legitimation strategies aimed at specific groups, namely the political opposition, international players, and civil society and citizens. In a recent essay in the Journal of Democracy, we identified three strategies or areas of reform that authoritarian regimes use to try to influence these groups.

First, they often lean on procedure-based reforms to show regime opponents that they appear to have followed the rules when seeking power. (Of course, they fail to highlight that it is they who made the rules and decide on their application.)

The adoption of electoral gender quotas is an increasingly common way to do this. These quotas do lead to increased female participation in legislatures. But autocrats arrange the quotas in a way to favor the ruling party. One example is Singapore, where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has increased the size and number of its Group Representation Constituencies to allow for more women as PAP nominees. But these constituencies generally represent PAP “safe seats,” such that increasing their size and number have helped the party appear more inclusive without trading away its electoral strength.

A second tool is prestige-based strategies that seek to boost autocrats’ image in the eyes of the international community. Gender equality reforms may help autocratic regimes appear more democratic: A recent study suggests that citizens in donor countries perceived autocracies as more democratic and were more likely to support giving them foreign aid when they had adopted quotas and increased female political representation.

Take, for instance, Cameroon. It followed recommendations from the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and created a women’s affairs ministry as well as a committee dedicated to promoting women. This compliance helped Cameroon’s autocratic president, Paul Biya, secure significant international aid. Since 1995, Cameroon has netted more than $19 billion in official aid and development assistance. The money and prestige came cheap. Biya gave the ministry a nominal budget, and the committee met only three times in 12 years. In practice, these hollow institutions actually have the opposite effect: They undercut genuine women’s organizations and progressive ministry staffers by strengthening the capacity of the regime while stunting the advance of civil society.

A third tactic is the use of performance-based strategies that commonly involve citing real or feigned achievements to satisfy citizens’ needs. In gender equality terms, this can mean high-profile gender equality projects supported by the state or legal reforms related to women’s status or well-being. The autocrat’s main interest in adopting these efforts is to forestall mass protests or anger around these issues.

Saudi Arabia is a prime example. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seeking support from younger Saudis, wants to portray himself as progressive and reform-minded. In 2018, a year into his rule, Saudi Arabia ceased being the only country on the planet that banned women from driving. The crown prince’s modernization plan for the country, “Vision 2030,” also calls for increased female participation in the workforce to help the kingdom diversify its economy.

Although women activists in Saudi Arabia had long fought for the right to drive, the crown prince was careful not to give them any credit for the reform. How could he, when he was imprisoning women’s rights activists—including right-to-drive campaigners—as part of a crackdown that he began at nearly the same time?

Of course, gender equality reforms in authoritarian countries, even if the handiwork is from rulers with suspect motives, may still make a difference for women and render societies more just. Under certain conditions, women’s increased legislative representation, for example, has spurred higher public health spending and led to lower maternal and infant mortality rates.

But the main point remains: Politicians, diplomats, international investors, activists, citizens, and other targets of autocratic influence should be careful not to conflate women’s increased inclusion in politics and society with democratization. Although egalitarian reforms are important, they are no substitutes for free and fair elections with open competition. Gender equality efforts should not exempt autocrats from critical evaluations of their motives or fool anyone about what is going on when autocrats seek to genderwash their regimes.

A full version of this essay appears in the April issue of the Journal of Democracy.

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