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Democracy Support: Navigating the Intersectional Feminist Frontier

An intersectional feminist foreign policy (FFP) is a political framework that seeks to promote gender equality and advance the rights of women and marginalised communities in the context of international relations and diplomacy. The main objective of intersectional FFP is to centre the needs and perspectives of those who are often marginalised in different aspects of foreign policy –  including but not limited to security, migration, diplomacy, and trade, and to promote social, economic, and political inclusion of all people, regardless of their social factors and attributes.

Feminist policy frameworks are being increasingly designed in various fields of foreign and international development politics, most recently the German Federal Foreign Office and the Ministry of Economic Cooperation presented their strategies for FFP and feminist development policy. Despite efforts to promote and strengthen democratic principles and institutions and increase citizens' participation in decision-making processes through democracy support, there is still a need for a more comprehensive intersectional feminist approach that moves beyond quantitative analysis and focuses on meaningful inclusion of marginalised persons and communities. A holistic, transformative understanding is needed, especially at times when democratic institutions and democratic principles are endangered, and societies are becoming more divided and polarised. The share of people living in democracies around the world has been shrinking, having direct effects on the political participation of women and marginalised people. Scientific evidence shows that strong democratic structures are more likely to lead to egalitarian gender attitudes because democracies are based on principles of equality, individual rights and rule of law, which gives them the potential to provide a more conducive environment for promoting inclusion and equality.

This brief aims to contribute to ongoing discussions on feminist foreign policy and its potential implications on democracy support. It does not introduce an entirely new conception of democracy support as such, but rather offers a practitioner's perspective on how a transformative intersectional feminist approach could be applied to build more inclusive and responsive democracies. The brief explores key elements of an intersectional feminist approach in order to bridge gaps in current discussions and stimulate further reflection on how to effectively promote democratic practices for all people, particularly those who are marginalised.  

An intersectional feminist approach to democracy support is a necessity  

In a democratic system, decision- and policy-making processes should be guided by the needs, concerns and interests of the people. This entails involving a diverse range of individuals at various stages of decision-making and governance, thereby promoting greater acceptance of political decisions, enhancing trust and strengthening governance structures. However, realities vary greatly making people’s needs, concerns and interests diverse and complex to meet. These different realities and needs are compounded by social factors and attributes that add to the marginalisation and minoritisation of certain people and communities. In order to promote inclusive political change that benefits all individuals, adopting an intersectional feminist perspective is essential. This approach recognises the unique experiences and needs of marginalised groups, with the aim of creating a more sustainable and responsive democratic governance system that is inclusive and accessible to all. 

From a practitioner’s perspective, many identified patterns and lessons learned point to the necessity and urgency of applying an intersectional feminist approach to working to support democracy:  

Human Rights, Justice and the Rule of Law 

While a neutral and unbiased administration and application of legal frameworks is crucial to reach legal equality, an intersectional feminist lens is indispensable to achieve and maintain social justice and equity. This approach is particularly necessary when assessing legal frameworks and policies that were often designed to cater to the needs of the majority, without taking into consideration the realities of minoritised persons and communities. In addition to that, access to equal justice – including equal aid and advice – can be impeded by structural obstacles faced by different persons and communities based on identities and social attributes that intersect to create specific forms of discrimination. For instance, legal aid structures that treat all citizens equally may ignore other systemic barriers such as language barriers, poverty and mobility which makes them inaccessible. In such cases, an intersectional feminist approach can help identify and address the specific needs and experiences of diverse individuals and communities and work toward creating a more just and equitable legal system that takes into account diverse experiences. 

Democratic Online Discourse and Elections 

Ensuring equal participation free of barriers in the electoral process is central to an inclusive democratic system. This requires the unpacking of structures, processes, rules and norms that could contribute to the perpetuation of those obstacles throughout the electoral cycle. Some of these barriers are linked to a lack of equal access to resources (e.g. information, financial means, time, access to networks etc.) associated with structural patterns of discrimination against marginalised persons and communities. For instance, political campaigns require significant financial resources to be competitive, including funding of advertisements, campaign events etc. This can create a significant disadvantage for women and marginalised communities, who may have limited access to funding. As a result, they may struggle to gain visibility which can limit their ability to effectively shape the democratic process.  

In the digital era, new challenges arise that emphasize the need for an intersectional feminist approach to identify the differential harmful impacts of online hate speech and disinformation on marginalised persons and communities, be it in the context of elections or beyond. In fact, new digital tools such as deepfakes and cheapfakes have gained prominence as weapons to humiliate and discredit activists and political actors – especially in the form of online gender-based violence. These impacts are layered and experienced in unique and additionally devastating ways by persons with other intersecting identities. An example of this could be a woman activist belonging to an ethnic minority who experiences online hate speech that targets both her gender and ethnicity. This could lead to compounded negative effects on her well-being and discourage her from engaging in political activities. 

Local Governance 

Participative democracy at decentralised levels provides great opportunities for citizen-centred decision-making processes and participative policy-making mechanisms. Nevertheless, structures and mechanisms at the local level are not inherently inclusive and do not necessarily nor automatically cater to the needs of the most vulnerable. In fact, they can sometimes present more rigid and less inclusive patterns than centralised structures. Using an intersectional feminist lens will ensure that decentralisation reforms and engagement at the local level focus on the needs and concerns of the persons and communities in question, thereby empowering them to effectively participate in decision-making processes and access to service delivery at the local level, to name but a few.   

Breaking down barriers: intersectional feminist approaches in democracy support 

The integration of intersectional feminist perspectives in democracy support is crucial for promoting inclusive civic participation and democratic understanding. It is important to adopt a comprehensive approach throughout the entire project cycle, including the design and implementation, to ensure that all aspects of the programmes are encompassing and inclusive. These transformative tools include: 

Institutional and capacity strengthening 

To ensure sustainable learning that caters to diverse needs, it is essential to move beyond traditional one-off training and frontal teaching. This can be achieved by incorporating local knowledge systems, which are crucial for contextualising knowledge and promoting effective learning. Mechanisms such as guided self-assessments (GSA) could inform the design phase to identify the needs of different persons and communities depending on their realities and existing abilities. Design phases of such activities require an in-depth assessment of underlying patterns and root causes of existing issues. Moreover, capacity building activities – especially for governance topics – should aim at the inclusion of persons with limited access to certain resources, notably formal education and mobility. Similarly, innovative and inclusive approaches to capacity-building such as simulation workshops, theatre, and future-design thinking could provide more sustainable learning outcomes.  

In general, institutional and capacity strengthening in democratic support programmes should be regarded as a long-term transformative mechanism that focuses on empowerment and critical thinking as important feminist principles, instead of ad-hoc programmes that focus on short-term quantitative outcomes. Such programmes should be accompanied by the allocation of the necessary resources to include a practical component embedded in the learning cycle, for example, by providing funds to participants to apply and test acquired skills in their respective contexts.  

Raising awareness 

Raising awareness about political participation and governance systems is a powerful tool in the field of democracy support. To achieve this, diverse tools for awareness campaigns could be used, including innovative and digital formats, to reach a more inclusive audience. It is also important to use simple language and images that are accessible and non-discriminatory to increase outreach and ensure intersectional representation. Collaborating with key stakeholders who have local knowledge and access can help tailor the campaigns to target communities. Additionally, it is crucial to mainstream intersectional feminist messaging across all topics, instead of limiting it to specific initiatives, such as gender-specific empowerment efforts.  

Building networks and fostering engagement

Solidarity – as a key principle of an intersectional feminist approach – can be reflected in providing safe and inclusive platforms for transnational engagement among civic actors to exchange on common grievances and interests, and to share experiences and learnings. Facilitating vertical exchange, such as creating opportunities for grassroots activists to engage with women leaders, is crucial in fostering collaboration and knowledge-sharing.  

It is important to focus on existing platforms rather than creating new networks that cannot sustain themselves beyond the project duration due to a lack of funding and technical support. This shift of focus offers the space and resources to strengthen existing platforms and focus on localised solutions. For that, existing grass-root level organisations, networks and initiatives should be supported technically and financially to engage with marginalised persons and communities and to act as facilitators to ensure that their interests, needs and concerns are amplified in spaces that are not accessible to the wider public (e.g. high-level meetings, consultations with government etc.).  

Supporting policy change 

Understanding the differential impact of policies and legal frameworks on marginalised and minoritised persons and communities is a necessary first step to advise on people-centred policy changes. This necessitates the active involvement of grassroot civic actors who are well-positioned to highlight the needs, concerns and interests of their communities. For this, the participation of these actors must be ensured in the facilitation of public consultations and public fora. Then, solutions and recommendations to deal with tangible issues can be suggested by those most impacted by them. Policy and decision-making structures should allocate the necessary resources to ensure that consultations are a fundamental component of the policy-making process.  

Conclusion 

In conclusion, integrating intersectional feminist approaches into democracy support initiatives is crucial for promoting inclusion and equity in civic participation and for building sustainable democratic institutions. This requires a comprehensive approach that is incorporated into all aspects of project design and implementation, as well as reflected in funding approaches by institutional donors and funding partners. Prioritising longer-term programmes is particularly important as they are more effective in bringing about sustained change. Furthermore, it is essential to centre quality over quantity by focusing on building meaningful partnerships and engaging with a smaller number of beneficiaries over a longer period of time. This approach also allows for flexible impact assessment through outcome harvesting and thus a more nuanced evaluation of programme effectiveness beyond just quantitative indicators. 

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