Why Might Information Exacerbate the Gender Gap in Civic Participation? Evidence from Mali
A civic education course successfully improved political knowledge among women in Mali, but had a negative impact on their civic participation.
Despite increasing attention to gender issues worldwide, substantial gender gaps in civic and political participation exist globally, particularly in agrarian societies. Some evidence suggests that interventions promoting gender equality in civic education may actually reinforce existing gender disparities. In one study, an intervention intended to increase female voter turnout in Uganda had the opposite effect, reducing the number of female voters.
The “resource paradox” theory may explain this effect; increasing resources among a repressed group can cause backlash when an existing power hierarchy is challenged, diminished, or reversed. When women gain political and civic power, it may be seen as a threat to the status quo, and men may take retaliatory action in order to re-establish their status as the dominant group.
In Mali, women are generally considered to be a marginalized group; women are unable to own land, cannot open businesses without their husband’s permission, and are legally bound to obey their husbands. In this study, a multi-day civic engagement educational program was implemented in Malian villages, targeting both men and women. Effects of the intervention on political knowledge and civic participation were then analyzed.
 Jung, D., Ferree, K.E., Gibson, C., Dowd, R.A. (2012) Getting out the vote, Uganda style: Social and political context and turnout in an African election. APSA 2012 Annual Meeting Paper.
Despite the effectiveness of a civic engagement training on increasing civic knowledge among women, participation in the course widened the gender gap in civic activity.
- Participation in a course that provided information on local governance, lobbying, and other ways for citizens to be involved in the democratic process increased civic and political knowledge among both men and women, to an equal degree.
- After participation in the course, men’s participation in civic activities increased by 4.6% and women’s participation in civic activities surprisingly decreased by 5.9% based on self-reported surveys about civic activity from the participants and data from local civic event registers.
- In follow-up interviews, both men and women communicated that political and civic engagement was seen as a male activity.
- Women reported fear of male backlash if they participated in political activities following the course, and discussed explicit attempts by men to repress female participation.
The authors suggest that female participation in the civic engagement course was seen as an undesirable deviation from the social norm; as compensation, women further limited their own civic participation, and men reacted with threats and sanctions, adding further barriers to female participation.
95 rural communes in Mali were randomly assigned to either participate in a civics engagement course or to the control category. A commune consisted of an average of 18 villages with around 1000 people per village; the final experimental sample included 556 villages.
In participating communes, educational sessions lasting two or three half days were conducted by Malian instructors in one week intervals. Participants in each commune voluntarily self-selected to participate. Women accounted for 43% of the participants.
The civics course provided information about the rights and responsibilities of citizens in the democratic process, discussing ways that citizens could participate in the governance of their commune (participating in public meetings, lobbying the commune council, and making informed voting decisions).
Three months following the civics course, a follow-up survey was administered to a stratified sample within villages in treatment and control communes. Six randomly selected households from each village were then chosen to participate in the survey based on a random walkthrough of the village. Four targeted local leaders (more likely to have participated in the survey) were directly recruited. The survey evaluated outcomes such as knowledge of local government, level of civic participation, and transmission of information across a village. A subsequent survey was conducted through focus groups and interviews two years after the intervention to explore mechanisms by which the intervention increased the gender gap in civic participation.