Reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights are increasingly under attack across the world. So far, we have a good grasp of the causes and consequences of the backlash against gender equality. What we need to do now, argues Cristina Chiva, is to conceptualise and document democratic resilience against these trends
Backlash against gender equality is an intrinsic part of the current wave of autocratisation sweeping the world. Gains in gender equality such as reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ rights are being contested and even reversed at an alarming rate in new and established democracies alike. Thanks to extensive scholarly work, we have a very good understanding of these trends. However, democratic resilience – ‘the ability to prevent substantial regression in the quality of democratic institutions and practices’ – is something that scholars have yet to tackle systematically.
In the United States, a recent Supreme Court decision revoked the constitutional right to abortion. State legislatures, meanwhile, are currently considering more than 350 bills targeting LGBTQ+ groups. Poland's government introduced a near-total ban on abortion, while some local and regional authorities designated themselves ‘LGBT-free zones’. In Hungary, the government banned gender studies programmes in universities and the teaching of LGBTQ+ content in schools. Peru's legislature passed a law that effectively limits the ability of schools to discuss reproductive rights and LGBTQ+ issues. Indeed, as Human Rights Watch argues, opposition to LGBTQ+ rights has become a significant part of the ‘authoritarian playbook’ across the world.
The rise of conservative movements challenging gender equality is the key to understanding these developments. Thus, anti-gender campaigns in Europe and the Americas have mobilised around a concept of ‘gender’ that they perceive as a threat to social order.
Anti-gender campaigns have mobilised around a concept of 'gender' that they perceive as a threat to social order
This mobilisation has led to the introduction of retrogressive policies emphasising traditional gender roles and the ‘natural’ family. It has undermined the implementation of gender equality policies, eroded existing consultation mechanisms on gender equality, and precipitated the public delegitimisation of gender equality policy.
Given the significance of gender for current processes of democratic backsliding, it has now become imperative to study resistance against autocratisation by focusing explicitly on gender equality. At the moment, we have two major gaps.
First, the literature on democratic resilience has yet to consider gender as a dimension of analysis.
Secondly, scholars of gender and politics have only just begun to unpack democratic resilience, with Central and Eastern Europe as a central focus.
Gender is significant in cases of democratic backsliding. Scholars must therefore focus on gender equality when studying resistance to autocratisation
I develop an actor-centric, outcome-oriented conceptualisation of democratic resilience with respect to gender equality. I define democratic resilience as the outcome of critical actors’ efforts to act for marginalised groups in the face of threats to existing gender equality rights.
My definition is actor-centric because, just as with democratic backsliding, the efforts of actors such as women’s and LGBTQ+ organisations are the key to understanding conditions for successful resistance against autocratisation. It is outcome-oriented because, for democratic resilience to occur, it must result in a successful pushback against retrogressive gender policies.
My conceptualisation of democratic resilience is, in part, derived empirically from a case study of Romania’s 2020 ‘gender identity’ bill. The bill bears a striking resemblance to legislation recently passed in other countries such as the US and in Hungary. The legislation aims to ban the teaching of ‘gender’ (understood as different from ‘biological sex’) from the educational system.
Progressive actors mobilised swiftly against the bill. First, they persuaded the President to not sign the bill into law, and refer it to the Court instead. However, the President chose not to include references to gender equality in his submission to the Court. Instead, he focused on the bill’s non-compliance with constitutional principles such as university autonomy.
During the second stage, actors persuaded the Court to consider gender as part of its ruling. This resulted in an extended reflection by the Court on the evolution of gender equality legislation in post-communist Romania.
In the event, the Court found the bill to be unconstitutional. It also ruled that ‘sex’ and ‘gender’ are distinct concepts in Romania’s post-communist legal framework.
What does the Romanian case study tell us about the factors driving democratic resilience?
First, it tells us that coalitions work. Women’s organisations and LGBTQ+ groups formed an alliance with some of the main universities in the country. The universities' priority was not necessarily gender equality, but rather the ability to set their own curriculum.
Formation of broad coalitions, strategic timing, the targeting of key gatekeepers and effective persuasive strategies are all crucial factors in successful democratic resilience
Secondly, timing matters. Actors mobilised most vocally at the key stage between the bill’s adoption and the President’s signature, succeeding in preventing it from becoming law.
Thirdly, effective targeting of gatekeepers is crucial. Actors identified the two principal actors that could stop the bill – the President and the Court – and directed their efforts accordingly.
Finally, actors’ persuasive strategies are the key causal mechanisms for the outcome; these strategies were:
(a) framing (for example, portraying the bill as incompatible with key constitutional principles, as well as with Romania’s international commitments as an EU member state); and
(b) learning (for instance, getting the Court to reflect on the evolution of the notion of gender equality as a democratic value within the Romanian legal system since 1990).
The Romanian case study works well as a ‘proof of concept’ for analysing democratic resilience. But more work needs to be done.
For example, we need to expand the scope of inquiry to other case studies. One such case is the 2021 ruling of Latvia’s Constitutional Court concerning the Istanbul Convention. Furthermore, we need to test the concept by asking questions that we cannot yet answer. These include the factors driving the long-lasting, rather than short-lived, resilience of democratic norms of gender equality.