Women Leaders and Male Allies Provide Alternatives to Populist and Nationalist Narratives

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Women candidates participating in IFES' "She Leads Sri Lanka" program deliver press statements in 2017.

Recent studies highlight that far-right nationalist and populist movements are on the rise in democracies worldwide. While the context differs from country to country, far-right movements share common, troubling characteristics that can undermine democratic rights. These characteristics include adoption of authoritarian-leaning elements, in which a “strongman” approach is valued above equal rights for all, use of ethnonationalist narratives that seek to entrench the power of dominant political or ethnic groups, while also normalizing violence against minorities and a focus on “traditional” values that restrict women’s rights. As seen across Asia, far-right populist and nationalist leaders spur religious, ethnic and gender divides and can have devastating impacts on citizens’ democratic rights to equal political participation, freedom of expression and nondiscrimination.

Amid these challenges, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems’ (IFES) programming in Asia-Pacific seeks to reinforce the power of citizens and elected leaders to work across ethnic, gender and religious lines. Key programming examples include IFES’ “She Leads” women’s leadership training, which empowers women with the skills and knowledge to take on leadership roles in political and electoral processes, and the “Male Allies for Leadership Equality” (MALE) initiative, which creates opportunities for alliances and coalitions between men and women working on democracy and governance. Through these programs, women leaders and male allies provide an alternative model of leadership in their communities that, contrasting far-right nationalist and populist sentiment, is guided by a focus on inclusion.

Promoting citizens’ active role in advancing inclusive solutions: Populist and nationalist strategies appeal to voters by promising a “quick fix” for complex economic, political or social problems – fixes that too often deflect blame onto immigrants, women and ethnic and religious minorities. Such misdirected narratives encourage citizens to focus on restricting the rights of minorities, rather than on the important role that citizens themselves play in proactively addressing key challenges. IFES’ “She Leads” training, which has reached over 2,600 women in countries across Asia-Pacific, empowers diverse groups of women to take responsibility for meaningfully addressing the priority issues that confront citizens across ethnic and religious divides. For example, following a “She Leads” training in Myanmar, a network of newly trained women leaders from resource-poor areas worked together to secure funding for a women’s livelihood project that now spans 16 rural villages, helping to provide women and their families with critical income sources. Similarly, in Sri Lanka, a newly elected local government leader and “She Leads” alumna drew on skills learned from the training to launch an initiative that finds employment for young women and widows in her constituency. Contrasting the populist narratives of “quick fixes” and deflecting blame, these and countless other examples provide a model for how citizens and elected leaders can proactively address the real challenges in their communities.

Populist and nationalist strategies appeal to voters by promising a “quick fix” for complex economic, political or social problems – fixes that too often deflect blame onto immigrants, women and ethnic and religious minorities. Such misdirected narratives encourage citizens to focus on restricting the rights of minorities, rather than on the important role that citizens themselves play in proactively addressing key challenges.

Strengthening capacity of ethical leaders to respond to cross-community priorities: Nationalist leaders and their supporters spread an “us-and-them” approach that silos interests along communal lines, without regard for the priorities of others. In Sri Lanka, women candidates trained through IFES’ “She Leads” program engaged in ethical leadership sessions that built participants’ understanding of the responsibility of elected leaders to represent all Sri Lankan citizens, including those from other religious or ethnic groups. As part of this effort, the more than 450 women trained through the “She Leads Sri Lanka” program identified campaign issues that would mutually benefit men and women from different groups and of different ages. Following the training, women alumnae applied these skills to their own campaigns and roles as elected leaders. One alumna established a cross-community network of over 100 women leaders to continue to engage across ethnic divides. She noted, “It is a forum for us to communicate with each other on shared goals irrespective of party differences.” Applying lessons learned from “She Leads,” newly elected women representatives demonstrate how the best leaders overcome – rather than exacerbate – religious, ethnic or other divides.

A male ally says, "I do not believe that there is any kind of work that a woman cannot do."

Still image from IFES' Vaane campaign in the Maldives

Building alliances with men through the "MALE" program: Far-right populist and nationalist movements often seek to “preserve masculine privilege by subordinating or repressing women and other sexual minorities.” As noted above, the improvement of women’s engagement as political, economic and community leaders is one integral component in addressing the social divisions and inequalities that inhibit development of inclusive democracies. At the same time, men must equally be part of the solution. Through its global “MALE” allies tool, IFES engages men as allies working to enhance women’s access to the political process. In Sri Lanka, senior men in the Election Commission have led sessions with male family members of women candidates to identify opportunities for men to support their wives and daughters in running for office. In the Maldives, IFES’ VAANE campaign highlights the ways that men can support women family members’ efforts to pursue nontraditional roles. Additionally, outside of Asia-Pacific, IFES has used its “MALE” training to engage male family members, government representatives, and civil society members in Haiti, Libya and Ukraine. Such open dialogues and increased partnership opportunities break down the silos between men and women and reframe women’s rights and inclusion as a benefit for all of society.

Far-right populist and nationalist leaders have demonstrated their capacity to draw on public fears and grievances to mobilize popular support. In many countries, populist or nationalist leaders have used the politics of fear to justify increasingly authoritarian leadership models that subvert democratic rights to equal political participation, nondiscrimination and gender equality. Most alarming, in some cases, their violent rhetoric has stoked violence against minority groups. IFES’ “She Leads” and “MALE” programs offer an alternative to the subversion of democratic rights by empowering citizens and elected leaders with the skills needed to advance cross-community priorities, represent pluralistic interests and engage with men and women from all groups.