HomeLearning CenterOn the Front Lines: Women’s Mobilization for Democracy in an Era of Backsliding

On the Front Lines: Women’s Mobilization for Democracy in an Era of Backsliding

Originally published by Saskia Brechenmacher, Erin Jones, and Özge Zihnioğlu for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

The world is beset by what analysts frequently call a democratic recession, marked by democratic erosion in old and new democracies in every region of the world. Yet against this troubling backdrop, people all over are pushing back against authoritarian practices. Their resistance often has taken the form of large-scale, sustained protests against stolen elections, repression by security forces, and moves by incumbent leaders to undermine democratic institutions—whether in Belarus, Brazil, Iran, Myanmar, Poland, or elsewhere. New civil society initiatives have formed to defeat autocratic leaders at the polls and prevent illiberal restrictions on citizens’ basic rights.

Women have been at the forefront of these prodemocratic movements in many countries. Millions of women mobilized against President Donald Trump in the United States in 2017 and against President Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, viewing these leaders as dual threats to both women’s rights and their countries’ democracy. In Poland, women took to the streets during the COVID-19 pandemic to protest the ruling Law and Justice Party, their activism catalyzed by the government’s aggressive rollback of reproductive rights. In Belarus and Myanmar, women have spearheaded nonviolent civil resistance movements against authoritarian power grabs, mobilizing at great risk to their safety. Women in India, Iran, and Sudan similarly have fronted mass protests against antidemocratic and exclusionary regimes.

This pattern is striking, particularly given women’s global underrepresentation in electoral politics and leadership. Yet so far, women’s prodemocratic movements have received limited analytic and policy attention. The bulk of existing analysis on democratic erosion has focused on diagnosing the problem and illuminating its varied symptoms and causes. Less common have been efforts to chart responses, whether by citizens within backsliding countries or by interested international actors. And within that domain, cross-country analysis of women’s agency and roles in mobilizing against democratic erosion has been noticeably absent. Although scholars have documented women’s involvement in past movements against military and communist dictatorships, studies of the current moment of democratic decline and resistance often have been gender-blind.

Yet the power of women’s political mobilization has not gone unnoticed by autocratic and illiberal leaders. In recent years, several autocratic and far-right populist governments have cracked down ferociously on women’s activism and doubled down on conservative gender hierarchies. These leaders have framed progressive gender norms as a radical ideology that destroys traditional families and cultural traditions. Others have sought to co-opt women’s movements by bringing them into state-controlled channels and implementing top-down women’s rights reforms.

To help address the lack of analysis on this topic, this compilation examines women’s diverse roles in and influence on popular movements against democratic erosion around the world. It asks why women mobilize for democracy and how they do so, and assesses whether their participation—as individual activists and leaders or as part of organizations—shapes the goals, tactics, and coalitions of democratic resistance. It further analyzes how autocratic and backsliding regimes and their allies in civil society have responded to women’s mobilization for democracy.

The compilation does not assume that women are a homogenous group. Nor does it seek to portray them as inherently democratic actors. Instead, it aims to shed light on the various factors driving women to mobilize for democracy and the diverse priorities and perspectives they bring into broader antiauthoritarian movements. Several case studies also emphasize women’s roles in illiberal or antidemocratic regimes and networks; all of them highlight how women’s cross-cutting political, ethnic, and religious identities structure their political engagement. This diversity underscores the need for a more nuanced understanding of women’s political roles during periods of democratic erosion.

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