How autocrats exploit women’s rights to cement power

“Being a gender champion is the same as being the champion of justice and human rights,” proclaimed the 2016 Gender Champion award winner during his acceptance speech. The country he leads has the highest share of lower house legislative seats held by women in the world at 61 percent. But this “gender champion” – Rwandan President Paul Kagame – is not a champion of democracy. For more than 20 years, he has rigged elections, coerced opponents and flouted human rights to stay in power.

Kagame is just one of many autocrats who have learned to exploit women’s rights as a means to pursue their authoritarian goals. By taking credit for advances in gender equality, autocratic regimes divert the attention of their critics: they shine a light on an area that is widely (and rightly) seen as linked or lumped together with democracy. while diverting attention from their authoritarian abuses. We call this phenomenon “autocratic gender washing”.

Although autocracies have historically displayed strong gender inequalities, the three decades since the end of the Cold War have witnessed dramatic changes as the international community has prioritized the promotion of greater greater gender equality. Just as many authoritarian states have responded to democracy promotion efforts by superficially adopting democratic institutions, these leaders have also learned to use gender equality to mask their undemocratic nature.

“Being a gender champion is the same as being the champion of justice and human rights,” proclaimed the 2016 Gender Champion award winner during his acceptance speech. The country he leads has the highest share of lower house legislative seats held by women in the world at 61 percent. But this “gender champion” – Rwandan President Paul Kagame – is not a champion of democracy. For more than 20 years, he has rigged elections, coerced opponents and flouted human rights to stay in power.

Kagame is just one of many autocrats who have learned to exploit women’s rights as a means to pursue their authoritarian goals. By taking credit for advances in gender equality, autocratic regimes divert the attention of their critics: they shine a light on an area that is widely (and rightly) seen as linked or lumped together with democracy. while diverting attention from their authoritarian abuses. We call this phenomenon “autocratic gender washing”.

Although autocracies have historically displayed strong gender inequalities, the three decades since the end of the Cold War have witnessed dramatic changes as the international community has prioritized the promotion of greater greater gender equality. Just as many authoritarian states have responded to democracy promotion efforts by superficially adopting democratic institutions, these leaders have also learned to use gender equality to mask their undemocratic nature.

By announcing a gender quota in parliament, for example, an authoritarian regime can portray itself as committed to the democratic value of inclusion while avoiding pressure to allow that parliament to be elected freely and fairly. In fact, of the 75 countries that have passed gender-based quota laws for parliamentary representation, about two-thirds (51 countries) are non-democracies. The over-eagerness to equate even superficial gender equality reforms with democracy makes it too easy for autocrats to benefit from these reforms, since the appearance of democracy 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. Women are often more dependent on party hierarchies and leaderships because they have limited access to other avenues to politics, such as local patronage networks.

While autocrats use coercive strategies to stay in power, efforts to empower women belong to another type of autocratic tactic: the pursuit of legitimacy. Specifically, taking credit for progress in gender equality allows autocrats to design legitimization strategies aimed at specific groups, namely the political opposition, international actors, civil society, and citizens. In a recent essay in the Democracy Journalwe have identified three strategies or areas of reform that authoritarian regimes use to try to influence these groups.

First, they often rely on procedural reforms to show opponents of the regime that they appear to have followed the rules when seeking power. (Of course, they fail to point out that they are the ones who set the rules and decide how they are applied.)

The adoption of electoral gender quotas is an increasingly common means of achieving this. These quotas lead to increased participation of women in legislatures. But autocrats organize quotas in a way that favors the ruling party. An example is Singapore, where the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) has increased the size and number of its group representation constituencies to allow more women to nominate the PAP. But these constituencies generally represent “safe seats” for the PAP, so increasing their size and number has helped the party appear more inclusive without sacrificing electoral strength.

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

Take, for example, Cameroon. It followed the recommendations of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and created a ministry for women’s affairs as well as a committee dedicated to the advancement of women. This compliance helped Cameroon’s autocratic president, Paul Biya, secure significant international aid. Since 1995, Cameroon has collected more than 19 billion dollars in public aid and development assistance. Money and prestige were 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 undermine genuine women’s organizations and progressive ministry staff by strengthening the regime’s capacity while stifling the advance of civil society.

A third tactic is to use performance-based strategies that typically involve citing real or simulated achievements to satisfy citizen needs. In terms of gender equality, this can mean large-scale state-supported gender equality projects or legal reforms related to the status or welfare of women. The main interest of the autocrat in enacting these efforts is to prevent mass protests or anger around these issues.

Saudi Arabia is a prime example. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seeking the support of young Saudis, wants to present himself as a progressive and a reformer. In 2018, a year after her reign, Saudi Arabia ceased to be the only country on the planet to ban women from driving. The crown prince’s modernization plan for the country, “Vision 2030”, also calls for increased participation of women in the labor market to help the kingdom diversify its economy.

Although Saudi female activists have long fought for the right to drive, the crown prince has been careful not to give them any credit for the reform. How could he, when he imprisoned women’s rights activists, including women’s right to drive activists, in a crackdown he began almost at the same time?

Of course, gender equality reforms in authoritarian countries, even if the work comes from leaders with suspect motives, can still make a difference for women and make societies more just. Under certain conditions, the increased legislative representation of women, for example, has led to increased public health spending and led to lower maternal and child mortality rates.

But the main point remains: politicians, diplomats, international investors, activists, citizens and other targets of autocratic influence must be careful not to confuse the increased inclusion of women in politics and society with democratization. While egalitarian reforms are important, they are no substitute for free and fair elections with open competition. Efforts for gender equality should not exempt autocrats from critical assessments of their motives or deceive anyone about what happens when autocrats seek to discredit their regimes.

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