IFES Q&A with Senior Gender Specialist Dr. Gabrielle Bardall

As a leader in inclusive democracy and governance, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) works to fortify women in political and electoral processes as candidates and elected leaders, technical experts in elections, engaged civil society leaders and informed voters. In this Q&A, IFES Senior Gender Specialist Dr. Gabrielle Bardall discusses how academics and development practitioners can work together to promote women’s political participation, IFES’ efforts to foster women’s empowerment and inclusive governance, and provides suggested resources for those looking to learn more about women’s political participation.

Dr. Bardar rejoined IFES this month, after most recently advancing democracy and women’s rights issues in a personal office in the U.S. House of Representatives and working with the Africa team at the Foreign Affairs, Defense and Trade Division of the Congressional Research Service at the Library of Congress, as a 2016-17 American Political Science Association congressional fellow. She has spent extensive time working overseas with IFES and other international and non-profit organizations, and is an expert-level Building Resources in Democracy Governance and Elections (BRIDGE) facilitator.

What drew you to IFES and the field of democracy, rights, and governance?

My family was very engaged in promoting multicultural understanding and social justice in our community in New Jersey as I was growing up. I knew I wanted to carry these values into my career, so by the time I graduated high school, I had shucked enough Jersey clams at the local fish market to afford my first plane ticket overseas to figure out how to turn those ideas into action. Through my early career I worked in a variety of areas, from social empowerment with wartime rape victims in El Salvador to microfinance in Ghana, a rural hospital in Cameroon, supporting refugees in Montreal. With each experience, it became increasingly evident to me that these varied development challenges all traced their roots back to peace, security and good governance. IFES’ work goes straight to the heart of these issues. We tackle some of the most challenging and vital questions in foreign affairs today, with rigor, agility and innovation. This is a profoundly rewarding field to work in, because it is ultimately about the personal empowerment, dignity and hope that democracy brings to people who have lived through war and oppression.

How does IFES work to promote women’s empowerment and inclusive governance?

IFES believes that women’s participation in all aspects of political and electoral activities is essential for the success and sustainability of democratic institutions. Our approach is twofold: a) We use evidence and provide technical leadership to integrate gender equality and women’s empowerment activities into our democracy and governance work by providing gender-sensitive technical assistance and analysis throughout the electoral cycle with all electoral stakeholders we work with such as election management bodies, civil society organizations, activists, and leaders; and b) We implement women’s leadership and empowerment activities to increase women’s political participation and decision-making in political and electoral processes. IFES’ approach is not zero sum, but rather it is inclusive and explores opportunities to involve men and boys in all gender equality activities, both as allies to women’s empowerment and to ensure their perspectives are included in the electoral process. IFES recognizes the important contribution that all women can make and aims to create pathways to meaningful participation for women with multiple marginalizations including women with disabilities, poor and rural women, transgender women and ethnic or religious minority women.

What challenges do you foresee to promoting democracy and political gender equality in the years ahead?

Democratization is not a linear process and the challenges are constantly evolving. Some of the challenges I am monitoring and working to address include:

  • Grappling with sophisticated authoritarians who try to instrumentalize women’s political participation or “genderwash” their programs to curry international favor and divert attention from other abuses;
  • Understanding political gender equality as, first and foremost, a human rights issue. Just as elections are necessary but not sufficient to democracy, so is women’s equitable representation in government. Approaches to supporting women in politics must be embedded in big picture analysis of democracy;
  • Confronting violence against women in elections and in politics by viewing it both as a threat to electoral integrity as well as a human rights violation and tool of oppression and exclusion;
  • Capitalizing on the opportunities presented by engaging with intersectionality in elections and democracy assistance; and
  • Continually challenging our own views of how we understand inclusive governance, including refining our tools to address supply and demand for state accountability, adapting approaches that view inclusivity as both a process and an outcome, engaging for both descriptive and substantive representation of marginalized groups, and sustaining constructive ideological diversity through support for level-playing-fields across our activities.

How do you see academics and development practitioners working together to promote women’s political participation?

As both an academic and a practitioner, I see great potential for collaboration. Practice must be based on sound and responsible research, especially in dealing with the poorly understood needs of vulnerable populations in politically sensitive areas. For academics, the access, expertise and in-country resources of practitioner groups are hugely valuable for generating higher-quality, field-based research. Collaboration is mutually beneficial. For example, my work on violence against women in elections (VAWIE) initially took root in 2009-10 when I was working on IFES’ “Election Violence and Resolution” projects in Nepal and Burundi. The ideas generated by these field experiences led me to take on the topic from a research perspective (and eventually write a dissertation on the topic!). The research reflected back into practice and laid a foundation for IFES’ innovative tools to prevent and mitigate future violence. Today, IFES works with many individual academics and academic institutions worldwide. We welcome the exchange of ideas and value these contributions. Although working together requires bridging differences between the two fields, it is always worth the effort. I strongly believe this not only in so far as academic research addresses substantive areas of our work, such as VAWIE, but also as academics increasingly assess the field of democracy assistance in and of itself.

Which resources do you recommend for those looking to learn more about women’s political participation?

IFES has developed a wealth of resources and expertise in this area, both through published knowledge products and through the activities of our field programs. IFES pioneered research and tools in addressing VAWIE. Our women and political transition brief discusses the women, peace and security agenda as part of IFES' approach to mitigate setbacks and support good governance processes and durable democratic practices. There are many examples from the field as well. “She Leads” is a women’s leadership training program designed to address the lack of women’s leadership in political and decision-making processes at all levels of state and society, implemented in Myanmar. In Libya and Haiti, IFES has piloted the Male Allies for Leadership Equality (MALE) training module, which is a first of its kind training module focused on harnessing male allies support within the home, community, and institutions for women’s leadership in peace and political processes. This is only a few of the many resources and models IFES offers, check out www.IFES.org for so much more.

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