The Covid-19 pandemic has put significant challenges to issues of political stability in democracies worldwide. Despite considerable efforts from some European countries, there are substantial concerns about rising gender inequality paired with a decline in certain democracy indicators.

According to the UN, democracy is based on promoting human rights, development, peace, and security. These components of democracy include gender equality, considering the importance that gender in democracy has gained through time, in terms of “women’s access and engagement in policy-making forum and provision for women’s particular concerns to be adequately voiced”. Gender equality is a central component of democratisation that is now recognised as  part of a broad cultural change transforming societies and as part of growing popular demands  for increasingly democratic institutions.

While the focus of achieving actionable gender equality has been on political reform, it is equally important to pay attention to other markers of democracy, such as the proper access to justice. This article explains why and shows how democratic progress may not be linked to improvement in achieving only political gender equality.

Is there an improvement in the European Union?

Europe has been a good example of how to apply better ways of understanding democracy, especially among the formal institutions that were resilient in the face of the grave challenges presented by the pandemic. However, there are striking disparities among members of the European Union. Hungary and Poland, in particular, showed a considerable setback regarding free and equal access to political power, fundamental rights, effective control of executive power, and impartial administration.

Although the fight for gender equality was slow-going even before the pandemic, the consequences of the outbreaks have made progress even harder. For instance, in the EU, from 2019 to 2020, 15 out of 27 countries had negative or no improvement in the Gender Equality index, Slovenia showing the worst performance (-9,0%), especially when observing a -7,3% setback in General Access to Justice (-8.5% for women). Despite having cases such as Belgium, Czechia, and Spain that improved their access to justice,  their general gender equality score between 2019 and 2020 had negative variations. This means an overall decrease in the performance of achieving a more equal environment for women. 

The main aspects of this gender equality regress rely on the policy measures taken. Lockdowns increased gender-based violence in many countries, and women have been under-represented in leadership and expert groups managing the crisis. Even though the global urge for democratic governance remains strong, gender has been weaponized in backsliding strategies. This has been simultaneous with actions for doubling down on popular expression, pushing for more direct control to retaliate against these measures. For instance, Hungary  has passed several ordinances limiting citizens’ rights and giving more power to Viktor Orbán’s government with the pretext of bringing the pandemic under control.

The tricky approach to gender equality

Conventionally understood democracy, then, may not significantly influence the agenda of reaching gender equality. This acknowledges political intentions that aim to reduce this disparity but fail owing to the skewed implementation of policies.To this extent, transparent elections are one of the political factors grasped into the definition of democracy that may not lead to gender equality as access to justice could.

For this, a  statistical model was run as a first approach to understand if a political variable has more influence on gender equality than a legal one. The variables selected were already constructed based on The Global State of Democracy Indices Codebook from 2019.

Source: Authors’ calculations based on IDEA (2021).

Results showed a significant positive relation between transparent elections and access to justice with increasing gender equality. However, when analysing both in the same model, irregularities in electing a representative are no longer as significant as access to justice. Hence, it could point to a possibility that gender inequality may be inextricably linked  to justice access rather than democratic processes in politics. Therefore, is the stability of democracy the only factor influencing gender provisions for reaching equality?

The simple answer is no, inequalities are felt first and foremost materially through the appropriation and squandering of wealth by a few, the exploitation by some of the others’ labour-power and the abuse of others. When control by any group is capable of being maintained without direct force, it is always because compliance has been won through identification processes.

Even high-performing democracies in Western Europe have suffered challenges to ensuring judicial independence during the pandemic, although not as a result of it. In Spain, the government initially passed but then withdrew a bill that would have made the appointment process for judges easier and subject to less scrutiny. The proposal highlights how  high-performing democracies must be vigilant to maintain judicial independence. This characteristic is fundamental for achieving gender equality as a judiciary free from external influences might enhance credibility in the system and allow a better reporting to the civil society.

Finally, political parties should prioritise gender equality and broad inclusion, facilitating women’s and other disadvantaged groups’ participation and representation to ensure more responsive policies. Civil society and media have a crucial role in monitoring progress, suggesting reforms and facilitating debate around progress on equality.

Challenging gender inequality: what’s next on the agenda?

According to these considerations, many democracies, especially in Europe, have proved resilient to the pandemic effects, introducing or expanding democratic innovations and adapting their practices and institutions in record time despite the unstable and uncertain situation they have faced. These innovations may allow citizens to raise their voices in the policymaking process amidst pandemic restrictions to onsite gatherings such as assemblies. Although the quality of elections is a fundamental factor for measuring levels of democracy, policymakers and political actors should turn their attention to fixing unequal access to justice within other factors that may tip the balance against  the democratic exercise for women.