“Is populism bad for women ?”, a meeting at UNIGE

On the 17th May 2017 at Geneva University (UNIGE), Foraus gender group, a Swiss think tank in foreign policy, the Global Studies Institute and Reproductive Health Matter an NGO defending reproductive health rights held a conference in the University of Geneva with a central question: “Is populism bad for women’s right?”. The debate was led by Shirin Heidari the director and editor of Reproductive Health Matters with Professor Laura Ferguson the Associate Director, Program on Global Health & Human Rights, Keck School of Medicine, University of Southern California and Professor Ayse Dayi the Head of research, faculty of social and political sciences, University of Lausanne.


The important rise of populism in Europe and the USA these last few years brought some new question in political science debate: populism often seems to impact negatively minority rights but what impact concerning women’s rights? Which impact and on which rights?

Dr. Shirin Heidari, Director and Editor of Reproductive Health Matters moderated the debate. To introduce the issue she started by inviting a PhD in Political Sciences Student to help the public understand what is populism. The student, Hugo, explained that Europe and the USA saw a rebirth of populism and neo-populism, from the left to the right wing. He underlined that “populism” is hard to define and there surely are differences between extreme left and extreme right populism. Populism can shortly be define as an ideology putting the representation of the pure people first. A populist is someone assuring that he speaks in the name of the people. Populism is the contestation of a group feeling excluded from a representative system and fighting the oligarchy. To sum up, a Professor at the University of Princeton, Jann Werner Mueller, defines populism as the combination of the fight against an antique establishment and a discourse underlining the representation of the pure people. After giving the audience a better understanding of what populism means, Dr. Shirin Heidari gave the floor to two professors of different University, expert on the topic of populism and women’s rights.

Firstly, Ayse Dayi speech was about the situation in Turkey, a country she knows as she studied and work there for a while. Erdogan regime is without a doubt a populist regime. He mixed his health reform on reproductive rights with a populist discourse. In 2002 the AKP (Justice and Development Party) was only a moderate Islamic party in Turkey but the party of Mr. Erdogan evolved and became a mix between neoliberalism and social conservatism. The government implemented huge projects like public transportation and invested a lot in the construction sector. But a less visible transformation was the one of the health care sector where President Erdogan –at this time Prime Minister- implemented an important social reform in 2003. In 2011 the neoliberalism aroused with a restriction of the public system and an increased conservative discourse. The Turkish Ministry of Women was as well impacted in an attempt to lessen the civil society and more precisely women’s rights organizations. The new Minister erased the promotion of gender equality from the ministry guidelines and replaced it by the promotion of a social justice.

How these change affected the reality of the women’s rights in Turkey? The neoliberal health reform of 2003 affected negatively women’s reproductive rights and more specifically their abortion and birth control rights. The public sector was dismantled and the increase of bureaucracy slowed the care given to women. The health reform replaced community health center by semi-privative family health center. Bringing the need of performance in this sector push the new Family Center to put aside women’s reproductive rights which were of no interest in term of business. Abortion is still legal in Turkey but President Erdogan explained in one of his speeches that abortion was murder and that C-section wasn’t natural. Even if the law didn’t change this intervention of President Erdogan push some hospital to change their policies. On the whole, Erdogan policy had has important negative impact on women’s reproductive health and is still ongoing.

Then, Laura Ferguson took the floor analyzing the impact of populism on women’s rights the USA with two types of populism: right wing populism with President Donald Trump and left wing Populism with Bernie Sanders. She explained that despite no clear line in Trump policy some of his rhetoric is clearly based on xenophobia, conspiracy theory and misogyny. Yet 53% of white women voted for Trump. Before being elected as the 45th president of the USA, Donald Trump considered that abortion was people and their doctors’ choices but in order to get the support of the Republican voters he changed his positions and declared himself in 2016 “pro-life” and “totally against abortion”. He considered birth control as one individual’s problem and company shouldn’t pay for it as it was the case before. He also defunded medical research, Planned Parenthood and United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA) despite the fact these organizations weren’t all using state money to fund abortion. Furthermore, these organizations are a good way of caring people “in the lower economic circle”. The confirmation of Hudge Neil Gorsuch at the Supreme Court by President Trumps a well-known anti-choice politician constitute another bad sign for women’s right. The risk of a weakening of the right of women to abort and other reproductive rights is high. With all this example Laura Ferguson demonstrated that Trump policy on women’s rights is very retrogressive. On the case of Bernie Sanders a left wing populist the professor was far less negative. Mr. Sander’s main preoccupation was -as Trump- the economy but the Vermont’s Senator had a positive position on reproductive rights but it seems it didn’t get totally the issue. Women’s rights were for Bernie Sanders only a way to introduce the economic issues.

With this lecture it seems we can conclude that right wing populism is more dangerous for women as left wing populism. But still women keep on voting for populist politician. Voters in their large majority prioritize every issue and right now economic issues are at the top of their preoccupations. What could change that? Why reproductive rights are not seen as basic rights? These questions are still thought-worthy …


EF - Research Assistant at CIPADH