On the eve of her meeting with Africa’s only female head of state, Vice President Kamala Harris said Wednesday that having more women in power is a key ingredient for a healthy democracy.
Her meeting comes as the White House hosts its second-ever Summit for Democracy in Washington.
Harris said that in a vibrant democracy, women winning positions of power should be a common occurrence, not a rare and newsworthy one, as her ascension was.
As she prepared to meet Thursday with Tanzanian President Samia Suluhu Hassan, she spoke Wednesday with female entrepreneurs and leaders in Ghana’s capital, and announced more than $1 billion in private-sector-led funding to advance women’s economic participation in Africa.
Afterward, in response to a question from VOA, Harris said women’s leadership is fundamental to a healthy democracy, and that it’s a topic she often raises in high-level meetings.
“In every bilateral conversation I have with almost any world leader, that is a topic that we raise because we do believe it is in the best interest of prosperity and security for the globe,” she said.
And, she says, it’s not about pushing women into power — in a healthy democracy, more citizens will feel empowered, and more women will gravitate toward higher office.
“When it comes specifically to this continent and the correlation between that and women’s empowerment, there’s no question when you have transparency in systems, when you have accountability in systems, when you create a system where rule of law is important, equal rights are defended and protected, you will see greater empowerment of all people including women — especially if they have been behind or you see extreme disparities,” she said. “So, there’s a correlation there, and we’re going to continue to work on it knowing that they’re interconnected.”
That’s one of the aims of the largely virtual summit in Washington, which is co-hosted by Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia.
In Zambia, the Carter Center, founded by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, will host a summit-related program this week. David Carroll is director of the democracy program there, and told VOA that inclusivity is key.
“Healthy democracies are ones that are inclusive,” he told VOA on Zoom. “They are ones that have transparency, that respect core fundamental freedoms and rights. And hopefully, they’re also showing that they’re able to deliver for their people in ways that really meet the needs of their populations.”
Carroll added, “Another central element of the problem is democracies need to be respectful of core rights. They need to be inclusive as possible. They need to ensure that broad respect, but they also need to deliver for their populations.”
That is an uphill battle, especially amid what President Joe Biden has described as a global tug-of-war between democracies and autocracies in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. And data recently released by civil society group CIVICUS shows that 43 of the 120 nations invited to the summit “severely and routinely” restrict civic rights. According to their data, six countries have seen backsliding this year, including Ghana, the United Kingdom and Greece.
“In too many countries that have been invited to the Summit for Democracy, governments are stifling civil society and going to extreme lengths to silence their critics,” said Marianna Belalba Barreto, civic space research lead at CIVICUS.
“Without freedom of speech and the right to peacefully protest, democracy cannot function effectively, as people lose their most important tools to hold governments accountable and promote change.”