It’s not news that fighting for real gender equality is important for democracy.  Democracy thrives when citizens’ interests are equally represented in government, something that’s impossible if half of the population is left out of the game.  And this often requires more than just giving women the vote.  It involves empowering women to take an active part in the policy-making process as elected officials or activists.  When women are involved, women’s interests are involved.  Many studies have demonstrated a strong correlation between the number of women in any given legislature or policy-making body and the extent to which that body takes up issues deemed important for women, including reproductive health, social welfare programs and employment anti-discrimination policies.  For an example of one such study about the United States, see here.

The global community of national governments seems to be waking up to this idea too.  On Sunday, the newly-formed United Nations entity, UN Women, announced that it was accepting applications for grants, with a focus on projects seeking to empower women in Arab countries transitioning to democracy.  An effort in line with the organization’s focus on advancing women’s leadership and participation in politics.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also put women’s rights in the forefront of United States foreign policy, using the United States’ position on the world stage to advocate and advance women’s rights and public participation as a necessary component of prosperity and stability in emerging democracies.

However, there are some indicators that governments are talking about women’s empowerment more than they are acting to advance it.  While there was a lot of excitement around the creation of UN Women, it may have been a step forward in name only.  The combination of four other UN entities into the new organization was viewed as a signal that UN members were ready and willing to take a larger and more impactful role in promoting gender equality and women’s rights.  The desire to strengthen global efforts was further exemplified by the former Chilean President, Michelle Bachelet’s, appointment as Executive Director, a known and strong advocate for women’s empowerment.  However, the organization has already run into funding problems, only having contributions of $80 million by the end of June 2011, to support what the UN Secretary-General said will need $500 million in just the start-up phase, with a strategic plan of requiring $1.2 billion over the next two years.  Without proper funding, what is UN Women other than a simple sum of the four formerly separate, and at time ineffective, organizations that make it up?  Such a result is the opposite of what it was meant to be.

That governments committed to advancing women’s involvement in reform and democracy consistently face challenges to actually advancing that involvement is evidenced by episodes like that which occurred in the United States House of Representatives earlier this month.  While Secretary Clinton has committed United States support to UN Women and similar efforts, Congress advanced a bill proposing funding cuts to another UN entity, the UN Population Fund, that supports family planning services in developing countries, access to which fosters women’s empowerment.  Further, when Secretary Clinton requested $8 billion to give to UN Women itself, a number already well below what many expected the United States to pledge, Congress only gave her $6 million.

Perhaps the problem is that we’re looking in the wrong place for action.  Governments just can’t seem to get their act together, either individually or through intergovernmental organizations like the UN.  Instead, maybe we should look to the grassroots for real action.  This year, the Nobel Prize Committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to three women’s rights activists for their work in Liberia and Yemen – one, the first democratically elected female leader of Liberia, another a peace activist in Liberia who campaigns for women’s rights and against rape, and the third, a pro-democracy campaigner in Yemen.  All three women have been integral in empowering women and ensuring that women have a seat at the table.  Their stories are inspiring and provide a model for what local action can be.  Of course talk is still important, and the more talk high-profile figures, like Clinton and Bachelet, do around the world, the more women begin to think about change in their own community.  However, it might just be that the women of the world’s hope for gaining the rights and participatory opportunities they are due through real action, action beyond the talk, lies not with governments but with themselves and their neighbors.  It’s only where real action occurs that women start to be empowered and involved in a way that strengthens a country’s democracy, making it responsive to the needs of all its population, not just the men.