Increasing the Civic and Political Participation of Women (2017)

Understanding the Risk of Strong Resistance

Research Team:

In 2016, USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance launched its Learning Agenda—a set of research questions designed to address the issues that confront staff in USAID field offices working on the intersection of development and democracy, human rights, and governance. This literature review—produced by a team of UVA professors and graduate students representing the academic disciplines of anthropology, history, political science, religious studies, and sociology—synthesizes scholarship from diverse research traditions on the following Learning Agenda question:

What are the most effective ways to encourage women’s civic (e.g., volunteer, advocacy, etc.) and political (e.g., voting, running for office) participation? What are the risks to women of these strategies in contexts where resistance to changing gender norms is strong?

Building on an ODI report, “Women’s Voice and Leadership in Decision-Making: Assessing the Evidence” (2015) that identified seven strategies to support women’s civic and political representation, the UVA team focused on the second half of the research question, using a flexible systematic review process that included defining and operationalizing strong resistance. Overall, the team found that 1) research on resistance that aims to limit or end challenges to the status quo is under-theorized and in need of concept-building before researchers can make the analytical distinctions necessary to assess resistance fully and 2) where the literature does exist, it has an almost exclusive focus on female politicians.

With these limitations in mind, key findings include:

  • Resistance—which may include physical and sexual violence; social and familial censure; ostracization by the religious community; and various overt or subtle forms of restriction, deprivation, and exclusion—varies according to multiple factors, including by not limited to gender norms, the broader cultural context, regime type, local power structures, economic opportunities, and the form of participation sought.
  • All women do not experience the same levels of risk, and are not vulnerable to the same types of resistance. For example, even within a single socio-cultural context, women who are marginalized (economically, racially, linguistically, religiously, or otherwise) are likely to bear greater burdens of risk.
  • Strong resistance in response to the seven strategies identified in the ODI report is not pervasive but does occur, and that it can discourage women’s participation.
  • Low to moderate resistance is ubiquitous, but generally has less deleterious effects.
  • Sites where strong resistance occurs vary within countries and even among local areas within a single country, suggesting that a country-level analysis of gender norms is inadequate and ineffective for assessing and understanding women’s risk of strong resistance.

The implications of these findings are that practitioner risk assessments should be:

  • Routine and done prior to engaging in any intervention, and require information extending far beyond local gender norms.
  • Focused on low to moderate forms of resistance in situations of backlash, and attentive to the possibility of strong resistance in situations of entrenched resistance.
  • Designed for the specific site where the intervention occurs, while remaining attentive to national- and individual-level factors that shape resistance.