Bending the arc of democracy

Guest article by Lopa Banerjee, Director, Civil Society Division, UN Women

Democracy in disarray

Democracy was born of the aspiration for fundamental equality; out of a commitment of people towards each other in crafting a common destiny; and based in the mutuality of moral action for the public good. The idea of governance of the people, for the people, by the people calls to the highest ideas of solidarity and shared endeavour and to the notions of common freedoms, thought and debate, between the governed and those who govern. And it is these ideals of collective aspiration that inspired struggling and oppressed peoples all over the world to emerge into hard-fought, vibrant, sometimes shambolic, free democracies.

But democracy is failing us today. Mostly it is failing the women of the world, the young, the poor, the refugees, the asylum seekers, those living on the margins yearning for peace and hope. The very value of social solidarity that underlines democracy, the idea of the democratic state as a consistent champion of the public interest and human rights, is under siege today.  And instead what we see is the ascent of illiberalism; an uptake of the notions of insular nationalism, a rejection of multilateralism and global institutions of cooperation and solidarity; and the adoption of binary perspectives, where national sovereignty, culture and interests are pitted in confrontation with international norms and standards of human rights, justice, progress and well-being.

The shift in the nature and complexity of peace and security threats, including the rapid proliferation and entrenchment of armed conflicts, climate shocks, global health pandemics, austerity measures to address volatile and insecure economies, neo-conservative politics and fundamentalism are undermining notions of the common good, social justice and human solidarity.

The gender equality agenda is in particular peril. In a number of countries, hardening political and social conservatism, along with entrenched sexism and misogyny, are rolling back women’s rights - including reproductive rights and legal protections from violence - and are harkening back to traditional stereotypes of gendered roles, and in some cases, the violent enforcement of traditional gender norms. Further, the scale of humanitarian crises and human displacement, unprecedented since the Second World War, has led to catastrophic change and challenges that disproportionately affect women and girls.

The ascent of illiberalism

Over recent decades, corrupt and ineffective governments in many countries of the world failed to deliver social services and public goods to their citizens. This led to widespread citizen distrust in public institutions and democratic decision-making. Citizens became disillusioned with the promise of democracy and disengaged themselves from the pursuit of democracy, leaving the space free for undemocratic actors. At the same time, unchecked globalisation exacerbated economic inequality in countries; along with the austerity measures adopted by many governments in response to the financial crisis of 2008, and the aggressive pursuit of neoliberal economic policies, this led to widespread economic upheaval. Societies fragmented and fractured along faultlines of identity, ethnicity and race. Populist leaders embarked on an agenda of bold conservatism and fundamentalism and were able to separate people from their histories and contexts and coalesce them around simplistic, uni-dimensional identities. At a time when people were reeling from the insecurity of their lives and livelihoods, this worldview offered people familial stability, security and homogeneity; that it came at the cost of liberties, plurality and solidarity mattered little.

So today we are at a moment when societies are viciously polarised and divided. People identify in tribes rather than in communities and this has led to wins for the politics of fear, exclusion and prejudice. The erstwhile democratic ideals of tolerance, diversity and curious, questioning societies have given way to a muscular idea of democracy that promotes heteronormative, homogenous, jingoistic societies and marginalises people with impunity. In this manifestation of democracy there is an emphasis on law and order above the idea of justice. This allows for the legitimisation of discrimination, prejudice and xenophobia and a subversion of the ideals of democracy, from solidarity, diversity and pluralism to brutal majoritarianism. Thus people - and in particular the disenfranchised, minorities and the already marginalised - are wilfully ignored and excluded in the pursuit of order and security for the majority.

Telling the better story

Notwithstanding this, wave upon wave of civic activism led by feminist mobilising is surging. Against all odds, people, in particular, women, are organising and mobilising, on the streets, in communities and on the internet, to demand justice, equality and dignity, so long denied. And so we find ourselves in the #MeToo moment. From #MeToo to #Time’sUp to #NiUnaMenos to FeesMustFall to BlackLivesMatter to #JusticeForNoura to successful campaigns against ‘marry your rapist’ laws, all over the world, in different ways and across different issues, this is a moment of reckoning by women. From Ireland to Turkey to Lebanon to India to South Africa to Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, the United States, Sudan and in a multitude of other countries, women are speaking out at scale and upturning entrenched discriminatory norms that normalise, accept and justify discrimination against women and girls.

What is so significant about this moment is that women’s mobilising is challenging the implicit hierarchies of power for everyone. In challenging gender discrimination women are fighting for equality for all. They are interrogating unequal power relations in society and resisting the traditional perceptions of duties, entitlements and privileges that foster multiple inequalities. This discourse is shining the light on individual, community, societal and institutional norms, practices and stereotypes that limit opportunities for people and restrict them to certain roles in private and public spheres.

This is the better story to tell in these times of radical discontent and divisiveness. And democracy must be reimagined and realised in this story, beyond the rule of the majority, to a manifestation of substantive equality and inclusion so that no one is left behind in its arc and reach.

And we have the framing for that in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which sets out the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which prioritise universality and the notion of leaving no one behind in the quest for people, planet and prosperity. The unanimous adoption in 2015 of the SDGs, with their far-reaching aspiration for equality and prosperity for all people on this planet, was a pinnacle of democratic decision-making, demonstrating that international solidarity, collective visioning and global action is possible even as the world is wracked by war, inequality and the discontent of its citizens.

The adoption of the SDGs was momentous not only because the goals were negotiated by all governments of the world and are applicable to all the countries of the world, but because there was clear recognition among governments and leaders that civil society and women’s rights groups had made huge contributions to the development of this new agenda and were going to be essential partners in its implementation. This came at a time when the space for civil society activism and democratic dissent was already threatened and eroding.

Bending the arc towards plurality and equality

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing

and rightdoing there is a field.

I will meet you there.”


The development of the SDG agenda and its adoption was the glory of democracy in action. In much the same way, reimagining democracy must be about the building of social alliances, going beyond race, class, gender and majorities to understand and respond to the ways in which people’s identities interconnect in diversities of age, geography and culture. It must be about multilateral and global institutions actively breaking intellectual and political hierarchies and seeking moral collaboration across political ideas, constituencies and generations.

Philosopher and scholar Martha Nussbaum writes:

“Instead of viewing morality as a system of principles to be grasped by the detached intellect, and emotions as motivations that either support or subvert our choice to act according to principle, we will have to consider emotions as part and parcel of the system of ethical reasoning. We cannot plausibly omit them, once we acknowledge that emotions include in their content judgments that can be true or false, and good or bad guides to ethical choice. We will have to grapple with the messy material of… love, anger and fear… in thought about the good and the just.”

The feminist movement has for long been doing just that. As the longest-running transnational movement for substantive equality and justice it has for decades mobilised on the idea of the radical power of love and sisterhood. The feminist rallying cry of ‘the personal is the political’ placed centre stage the idea and practice of love and anger in all its dimensions as intrinsic to the political goals of gender equality and the achievement of women’s rights.

We are at a time when democratic activism and the feminist movement must align to develop a radically enjoined vision of equality and plurality that honours personal choice and political action. Ideas of social cohesion will not be able to counter the rhetoric of divisive populism if they are not embedded in equality that is personally lived and politically fought for. This is a time for drastic, political, intersectional engagement led by civil society and the feminist movement. Feminist voices and views have to be prioritised and amplified in forging inclusive partnerships and strategies with diverse constituencies, never losing the importance of intergenerational engagement and recognising the crucial power of young feminist leadership, and actively seeking the engagement of responsible media. Intersectionality must be an organising principle for activism and civil society actors must engage in the hard work of building intersectional social movements that are truly plural.

One of the most important strategies must be about articulating a strong, transnational, public discourse of substantive gender equality, opportunity and justice that can counter both the authoritarian erosion of democratic voice and space and the rhetoric of intolerance, fear and exclusion. This means that eminent feminist public intellectuals must be enlisted to articulate this narrative widely, powerfully and across audiences.

Ultimately it must be feminist civil society that leads the necessary act of movement building that can reimagine democracy to be, once more, for all peoples, by all peoples, of all peoples, celebrating and acknowledging solidarity and collective strength.

We might then have a chance of bending the arc of democracy towards plurality, equality and inclusive citizenry.

The views expressed in this article are the personal opinions of the author only.