Do you ever wake up and wonder when “populism” became such a buzzword? According to the internet, it just means “support for the concerns of ordinary people.” But lately, it has been identified with several powerful movements, so I was interested to see how Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2017 report, Populist and Autocrats: The Dual Threat to Global Democracy, addresses the impact of growing populist movements in the United States and Europe, and how autocrats (those long-acknowledged opponents of democracy) are using populism as a tool to achieve their ends.
Freedom House launched its report by holding an engaging discussion among expert panelists about its findings. The organizers even managed some unexpected challenges like a fire alarm sounding during the middle of a packed house of interested listeners. And although I really enjoyed the event – and the report – I am sorry to say something important was missing: the inclusion of the voices and experiences of women and girls.
In its report, Freedom House did clear-sightedly address recent oppression of civil society, human rights defenders, activists, and journalists by governments, which our Alliance members in countries like Egypt, Burundi, and Gambia are experiencing the consequences of. They also rightfully emphasized the importance of the U.S. as a defender of human rights and democratic freedoms. To this point, the panelists highlighted the already decreased domestic support during President Trump’s administration and called upon domestic and international organizations to intensify advocacy efforts.
I was dismayed, however, by the lack of attention paid to gender equality and the freedom of women and girls. How can countries be free if women and girls are not free? The World Economic Forum states that closing the gender gap will take over 80 years. It is an oversight not to include women and girls when analysing freedom, populism, and autocracy, especially since women often do not have full access to equal political, economic, and civil liberties. It is impossible to create an accurate map of democratic freedoms around the world without deeply considering women and girls’ specific experiences.
Women and girls’ many significant contributions to freedom must be recognized. The hard work of women human rights defenders, activists, and community leaders continues to produce victories for all. Women’s rights advocates have spent years struggling for the inclusion of women and girls; we have come too far to forget them now.
Domestic and international organizations should make including the voices and contributions of women and girls a priority: in their conceptions of freedom, in how they measure it, in their publications, and in discussions with the development community. I admire the work that Freedom House does, and the dedication of its staff, but we all have a responsibility to make sure that we visibly address the experiences of women and girls and include their perspectives in all evaluations of “freedom in the world.”
How can non-governmental organizations do that (or do it better), you ask?
They can listen to and partner with grassroots women’s rights organizations and Global South development practitioners. They can also make sure that research considers women and girls’ specific experiences in all areas of investigation and evaluation, and that women are included in all stages of data collection. Because every time we include women and girls in our work, the world becomes just a little bit freer!