Women’s empowerment – a by-product of political bargaining?

I’ve recently been struck by just how important the fight for political power can be for many aspects of development. What drives a political party to implement a particular policy? Usually political incentives; pleasing voters, strengthening the party’s alliance against the opposition, improving international ties, or another way of consolidating their position of national power. Of course, the desire to stay in power, whether in a democracy or not, does not necessarily lead to pro-poor, sustainable, equitable (etc.) policy-making.

But sometimes it does. Take, for example, women’s empowerment in Tunisia. A case study I’ve been working on this month has found that since Tunisia’s independence in 1957, women’s rights and freedoms have gradually improved as subsequent governments reformed social policy to encourage all children (boys and girls) to go to school, gave women far more control over fertility, and allowed women to work and participate in government. These policy reforms, along with others, have led to Tunisian women today having far more freedom and power than women in the other North African countries.

The important question is why did the various Tunisian governments bring in these reforms? Out of a strong concern for gender equality? Not necessarily. Most of the key policy changes appear to have been fuelled by one of two political pressures. One was the recurring need for the party in power to strengthen its alliance with other progressive groups against the threat of the Islamist opposition. The other was the need to improve economic growth to maintain the political support of the business community. Tunisia has a service-based economy, reliant on a skilled and healthy population and so investing in education, health, and fertility control was important for economic growth.

Women’s empowerment seems to have occurred as a by-product of this political bargaining. For example, investing in public education and healthcare meant that women and girls were now freer to go to school and go to work. Likewise, in the ‘80s when the Islamist opposition grew strong and threatened the ruling party’s grip on power, the regime of the time sought an alliance with women’s groups for which the religious fundamentalists were also a threat. As a result of this alliance, women’s groups gained a stronger role in government and women’s status in the public sphere grew. As more women have accessed education, employment and public office, so their power to demand equality has grown, and women’s participation in life outside the home has become slowly more socially acceptable.

Yet, what does this say for development? The Tunisian case made me think a few things:

  • development outcomes don’t require a democratic government, just a ‘favourable’ political settlement. And this can change. Advances in Tunisian women’s rights waxed and waned as the political arrangement shifted from religious fundamentalist to more progressive. Settlements, policies, rights, ‘development’ are vulnerable to change and can always be reversed;
  • religion (and its importance to national identity) has a strong influence on political parties and elections in ‘developed’ as well as ‘developing’ countries (thinking about the links between religion, political parties, and gay rights in the UK, for example); and
  • the economy seems to always be at the root of it all. Had the Tunisian elite relied on their own control of a lucrative natural resource for their power, rather than the support of the wider business community who wanted to trade with Europe and who needed a skilled workforce, maybe there would not have been such investment in public health and education. But since wealth creation required ordinary Tunisians to go to school and work, it was in the elite’s interest to implement pro-development policy.

I am perhaps being overly cynical and I definitely oversimplifying things but, for me, a clear question emerges: if political settlements at the top are so influential, how can these be shaped so they produce development-friendly outcomes? Again, the challenge of working politically and all within the constraints of international politics, donor requirements, and public scrutiny…