How Women Influence Constitutions

Research co-author Marie O’Reilly with news about Syria’s constitution—and why the process and outcomes are more likely to succeed if women are included. Read at »

Co-author Marie O'Reilly shares key findings and explains why we did this research.

Introducing New Research

This is the first major effort to understand the numbers, roles and impact of women in constitution making after conflict and unrest. We examine eight countries and draw out lessons for policymakers and those looking to influence this crucial entry point for building peace.
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75 Countries
undertook constitution reform in the wake of conflict between 1990 and 2015

But only 1 in 5 constitution drafters is a woman

Black Sash, a white women's organization that nonviolently resisted Apartheid, pickets the second Convention for a Democratic South Africa, with security standing by, Johannesburg, May 1992. Africa Media Online / Gille de Vlieg

A constitution lays the foundation for how power will be exercised in a country's future. And the process of drafting a constitution presents an entry point for building peace. Constitution drafters can chart a path for civil dialogue and acknowledge the inequalities and marginalization that contributed to conflict in the first place. But the potential for constitution making to transform conflict depends, in part, on who gets to participate.

Women are the single largest group excluded from constitution-making processes. In countries affected by conflict or unrest, just 19 percent of members of constitution-reform bodies between 1990 and 2015 were women. Despite increasing attention to women's roles in peace processes in recent years—and mounting evidence of positive outcomes when women exert influence—women's roles in constitutional reform remain poorly understood.

Women's Impact

Bridge Divides & Advance Consensus
Broaden Societal Participation
Advance Provisions for Equality & Inclusion

Bridge divides and advance consensus
Across eight case studies, women repeatedly built coalitions across deep societal divisions. In doing so, they modeled for other policymakers how communities affected by conflict can collaborate and develop consensus on priority issues for the constitution.

"We came and said we want to be one tribe. We have 43 tribes in Kenya and women became the 44th."

- Sophia Abdi Noor, member of Kenyan parliament

In Kenya, for example, amid acute ethnic and political divides following recent violence, the women's consultative group held a “spitting session” to air their grievances before embracing their commonalities. They learned “how to listen to each other and work together regardless of party affiliation, ethnic background, and whether or not we like each other,” group member Atsango Chesoni reported. They were then able to agree on shared goals for the constitution.

Broaden societal participation
Women's civil society organizations broadened societal participation and kept policymakers informed. During South Africa's transition and constitution-reform process, for instance, more than 90 nongovernmental organizations and 13 regional groups joined forces as the Women's National Coalition. The coalition reached out to an estimated two million women across racial, cultural, and linguistic divides to educate them about the constitutional process while also cataloging their problems, needs, and hopes for the future. It then used these inputs to create a charter of priorities for the constitution, and these were ultimately reflected in the 1996 text.

Citizen input into—and understanding of—constitution reform processes is a significant factor in ensuring the legitimacy and efficacy of the final product.

Advance provisions for equality and inclusion
Women consistently advanced constitutional provisions for more equitable, inclusive societies. For example, in Colombia, women's organizations successfully lobbied the constituent assembly to include a constitutional provision that guarantees women's representation in the decision-making ranks of the public service. And individual women within the constituent assembly pushed for protections for marginalized groups.

"The State of Rwanda commits itself to … ensuring that women are granted at least thirty per cent of posts in decision making organs"

- Article 9, Rwandan constitution

In Rwanda, the women's caucus secured a provision for a 30-percent quota for women in the senate. Rwanda went on to achieve the highest rates of women in parliament in the world.

This is significant for the nation as a whole. Research demonstrates that a country is less likely to relapse into conflict when women's representation in parliament is high. In fact, scholars have shown that gender equality is a greater predictor of peace than a country's wealth, levels of democracy, or religion.

Filipino Muslim women join a rally at the Philippine Senate to coincide with the hearing on the passage of the Bang- samoro Basic Law in Manila, on June 3, 2015. AP Photo / Aaron Favila

Challenges & Barriers

Women remain far from achieving equal participation in these processes, and access does not always translate to influence. Across eight case studies, women experienced five frequent challenges to their participation.

Perceptions of tokenism
Women's input was undervalued by decision makers because women were often viewed as “token” members of a constitution-making body, even where their male counterparts had the same or less experience. This was the case for many women in Tunisia. Although women played an active role in the revolution, in the political arena they were forced to prove their legitimacy at every turn. When they fought to be taken seriously they were sometimes told they were “not good women, because they were behaving like men.” In reality, the vast majority of the constituent assembly, both men and women, had little familiarity with the political and legislative process.

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Harassment and attacks
In part stemming from the perception that politics should be a male-only space, women were targets of harassment, threats, and physical attacks. In Tunisia, some civil society representatives who spoke to the media about women's rights were called traitors, accused of working on an agenda pushed by international actors. Others reported receiving death threats. Women in the constituent assembly were disproportionately targeted both in person and through social media.

Discriminatory social norms
Women frequently experienced self-doubt and misgivings related to their capacity and competence, driven by the internalization of social and cultural norms. Media outlets in Tunisia perpetuated the notion that men possessed greater capacity than their female counterparts. Journalists regularly interviewed assembly members on the body's progress and achievements, but primarily sought interviews with men, despite women's high rates of attendance in the committee and plenary sessions. Observers also noted that many women outside of the capital expressed doubt as to whether they could or should participate in political activities.

"There were lots of educated women, but they didn't feel they were competent enough compared to men."

- Maryam Ben Salem, Tunisian professor & researcher

Lack of recognition of women's diverse identities
In most of the cases, women managed to bridge significant identity divides to advance a common agenda. However, a lack of recognition for women's diverse identities and roles often proved problematic. Some women in the Tunisian assembly struggled to reconcile their identities as political actors and mothers. Many votes took place after midnight, which made it particularly difficult for women with young children or those who were the sole caregivers in their families. In Nepal, female assembly members created an informal women's caucus to strengthen their collective decision-making power, but lacking sufficient dialogue, reconciliation, and trust-building initiatives, they struggled to overcome class and caste divisions.

"In case of a person born to a Nepali woman citizen married to a foreign citizen … he/she may acquire naturalized citizenship of Nepal."

- Article 11.7 of Nepal's constitution

Subordination of so-called women's issues
Despite the difficulties women faced in Nepal, their proposals on inheritance rights, proportional representation in elected bodies, and the formation of a women's commission were ultimately secured in the final constitution. However, the perception reigned that women can only advocate on “women's issues” and that “women's issues” are something to be resolved later. Nepali women were unable to overturn a constitutional provision produced by the second constituent assembly that prevented children with foreign fathers from acquiring citizenship by descent. In their rush to overcome their impasse and reach an agreement in the wake of an earthquake, the four major political parties struck a deal among themselves; women's groups and their interests were sidelined.

Lessons Learned

Women's participation levels vary, but their proportion in constitution-making bodies has been increasing in the post-Cold War era: from an average of 13 percent between 1990 and 1995 to an average of 24 percent between 2010 and 2015. How can more women access and influence this pathway toward peace, governance, and gender equality in their own countries?

Women's representation is on the rise

Co-author Marie O'Reilly shares lessons learned from the research.

Lessons from the cases studies suggest at least five complementary tactics for women looking to influence constitutional negotiations, and for men and women who wish to support more inclusive constitution-reform processes in fragile and conflict-affected environment.

Mobilize early.
The rules for electing or appointing members to a constitution-making body are frequently established early in a peace or transition process. Women typically succeeded in gaining access when they presented a joint front and advocated for inclusion long before the election or nomination process began.

Constituent Assembly Vice-President Mehrezia Labidi speaks during debates on the new constitution on January 17, 2014, in Tunis. Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

Incentivize women's participation, and go beyond tokenism.
Quotas for increasing gender balance among members of constitution- making bodies arguably contributed to higher levels of women's participation. In many cases, however, women then had to overcome a perceived lack of legitimacy—and often did so through subject- matter expertise or by asserting political authority.

Cultivate strategic alliances and broad coalitions.
Whether through coordinated coalitions advocating for common goals or cooperation with key political parties and male policymakers, women strengthened their access and influence by building strategic alliances. This included partnering with "insiders" in the constitution- reform body and "outsiders" in civil society, as well as across societal divides that underlie sources of conflict or unrest.

Frame the debate effectively.
Women repeatedly advocated for issues relating to gender equality and the rights of marginalized groups. When they successfully framed these issues in relationship to overarching goals of peace, reconciliation, or democracy, they were more likely to realize their objectives.

President of the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women Sanaa Ben Achour speaks next to other association members during a meeting on women's rights in the constitution on March 13, 2011, in Tunis. Fethi Belaid / AFP / Getty Images

Understand the negotiating context, and get creative.
When women had a clear understanding of the constitution-making process, key actors, and major interests, they frequently found creative ways to overcome obstacles to their influence—from convincing dominant players that their interests aligned to blocking procedures until negotiators agreed to include women in their delegations.

These lessons suggest that international donors and those offering technical assistance could support more inclusive constitution-making processes by providing flexible funding and support for women's early mobilization initiatives. They should also increase assistance for training initiatives focused on advocacy and strategic messaging. These should accommodate a range of women's perspectives, while facilitating consensus on shared priorities—not least through trauma-healing and reconciliation activities, where appropriate.

Deputy of the National Constituent Assembly signs a copy of the Tunisian constitution in Tunis, November 20, 2014. Thierry Bresillon / Sipa via AP Images

Women's Guide

Click to download the guide.

More practical guidance is available in our Women's Guide to Constitution Making. For those looking to get a clearer understanding of the constitutional process, actors, and tactics for influence, we have also developed a Women's Guide to Constitution Making. This guide is designed for women looking to influence constitutional processes in their own countries, whether by earning a seat in constitution-drafting bodies, advocating from civil society, advising as constitutional experts, or supporting the process in other ways.

It introduces need-to-know concepts related to constitutions and constitution-making processes, such as the elements that make up the text, the types of constitution-making bodies, legal standards for women's participation, and sample constitution-drafting timelines. It also lays out a five-step strategic framework for designing and implementing advocacy strategies that can be tailored to any constitutional agenda. From mapping key actors to mobilizing for change, this framework includes 17 tools to support an advocacy campaign.

This guidance draws on the rich and varied experiences of female drafters, activists, and advocates in Colombia, East Timor, Kenya, Nepal, Philippines, Rwanda, South Africa, and Tunisia. The advocacy frameworks are also informed by hundreds of Inclusive Security trainings in peace and transition processes in some of the most difficult, conflict-affected contexts, from Afghanistan to South Sudan.

Download the Women's Guide