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Integrating Women into Election Observation

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This article was written by Sarah Cooper, the National Democratic Institute. 

Election observation initiatives are most effective when their findings are not only valid but also—more importantly—accepted as such by the majority of citizens. Observation teams should reflect the diversity of the population so that observer groups can truly speak in the name of all citizens. Gender balance is an important consideration in the composition of observer teams and leadership structures, both of which influence public perceptions of the observer group.

Integrating women into an observation effort helps ensure a more comprehensive understanding of the different barriers to political participation that men and women face. It is also an important step to advance observation strategies that address the distinctive ways electoral violence affects citizens.

In many countries, real challenges to recruiting women for election observation programs still exist. Women often lack access to education and technology, meaning that basic prerequisites to serve as an election observer, such as literacy or having a cellphone, can narrow the pool of qualified women even before an observation project is underway. These challenges are compounded when social or cultural norms operate to dissuade women from engaging in political activity or traveling outside of the home. As underscored throughout NDI’s Votes Without Violence initiative, men and women may also face different risks or be differently affected by election violence. In environments where there is a history of violence or concern about future violence, women may be less willing to join election observation programs, or may face pressure from their families and communities not to engage in potentially high-risk behavior.

So what is an observer group to do? In Côte d’Ivoire, women comprised 40 percent of the staff (supervisors, coordinators and observers) supporting the Plateforme des organisations de la société civile pour l’observation des élections en Côte d’Ivoire (Platform of Civil Society Organizations Observing Elections in Côte d’Ivoire – POECI) to carry out a seminal parallel vote tabulation of the October 25, 2015 presidential election. POECI recruited qualified women observers throughout the country despite facing significant gender gaps in education, economic freedom and political representation, as well as  a recent history of significant election violence. Some of the successful strategies that POECI adopted could be relevant for other election observation groups, including:

1. Generate buy-in for a commitment to promoting women’s participation early and at all levels—from observers to the board of directors. Frequent discussions and trainings encouraged all of POECI’s members to consider gender in the conduct of their activities, with a particular focus on recruiting women observers and leveraging the expertise of women’s rights groups and gender experts within and outside the coalition.  

2. Confront the challenges head-on. In Côte d’Ivoire, trainers organized a specific session on recruiting female observers. This session openly acknowledged that recruiting women as observers would be more difficult than recruiting men. Participants discussed the challenges that they anticipated and brainstormed context-specific solutions, such as educating potential observers about protocols to ensure their safety on election day or approaching communal leaders about recruiting women before reaching out to the women directly. Every coordinator left their training equipped with ideas that she or he had helped to generate about how to effectively reach and recruit women.

3. Use friendly competition to inspire teams to recruit more women. During regularly scheduled meetings to share progress on observer recruitment, POECI kept a running tally of the number of men and women that had been recruited in each district. The tally results inspired the supervisors to put more pressure on their recruitment teams to increase the number of women they reached so that they could advance in the “competition.”

4. Engage male “champions” to further the cause. Within POECI, male staff --  acting as allies and advocates -- continually reinforced the message that women should be recruited as election observers. When women are the only ones speaking out about the need for more women in the room, it is easier to marginalize their concerns as self-serving or dismiss them as low priorities.

Integrating women into observation efforts can be challenging, but the challenges are not impossible to overcome. POECI benefitted from the strategies it took to mobilize women who would not otherwise have been involved in the political process.

It is always desirable in democracy and governance programming to create space for women’s political engagement, but it is particularly crucial in post-conflict environments such as Côte d’Ivoire. Peace processes are weakened by a failure to recognize and leverage the many roles women may play in conflict and transitions as victims, perpetrators and peace activists. When women’s experiences are not acknowledged and addressed, especially in transformative and transitional processes like elections, it is far more likely that post-conflict political systems will perpetuate uneven development outcomes for men and women, or that the needs and perspectives of one-half of the population will not be taken into consideration. POECI’s female observers helped the organization to better understand the experiences of women in Ivorian elections and in electoral violence, including violence against women, throughout its observation effort.  

POECI’s practical strategies and other resources, which will be available in the Votes without Violence toolkit this fall, provide helpful starting places to begin thinking systematically about gender in election observation and the effects of gender-based electoral violence on democratic development. Changing organizational structures is never easy and gender equality does not happen overnight.  POECI’s experience shows us, however, that a clear strategy for recruiting women can produce results even in difficult circumstances.

Source: Democracy Works