Civic and Gender Participation As a Remedy For Political Disillusionment in Central Europe

The current trends in Western Europe show that civic participation plays an integral part of policy-making. It is an important part of the democratic process, says Kristína Bolemanová, an expert in European and foreign policy.

Disillusionment with political leaders and the idea that citizens are controlled from afar have created a fertile environment for populists in Europe, which represents a real danger for democracy. In Eastern Europe, the situation is additionally complicated by the history of authoritarianism and the inherent distrust of political elites. One of the main problems of modern democracies, everywhere in the world, is the alienation of citizens from political processes. 

In this context, civic society plays an important part of the democratic process. Civic participation has historically arisen as a reaction to the weakening of citizens’ trust in their elected representatives. It provides citizens with an alternative, in addition to the possibilities represented by political parties and their candidates, to express different opinions and promote different interests in decision-making processes.

Let’s take an example. Imagine that you live in your village or city all your life. The closest playground to your house, where you can take your kids, has not been renovated in the last 20 years. The conditions there are dire. Or the only park that you have in your village needs to be revitalized, new trees seeded and benches put in place, so you can enjoy the afternoon sun and chat with friends there.

You might also feel lonely, do not have friends in your area, there are no social gatherings and life feels really solitary. Maybe you have tried everything: to talk about it with your local representatives, consulted local civic organizations or even tried to engage your neighbours or the church to change it. However, no one really picks it up. What are your options?

Either you give it up,  lose your trust in the elected officials and become angry and grumpy or you decide to take it in your own hands and become the voice and change maker.

Very often, one small local activity has a snowball effect, incites others and spurs community engagement. And this is what this article is about, civic participation and its impact on our lives.

Civic participation is a core element of democracy.

It refers to citizen involvement (either individuals or organized communities)  in public decision-making and their engagement with their governing organizations – local, regional or national. In short, it is the participation of people in government and democratic processes. Civic participation is therefore a manifestation of active citizenship. Participation encompasses civic activities (volunteering, advocacy, community engagement) and political activities (activism, running for office or voting). 

Civic participation is essential because it allows citizens to influence policy, local values and set local priorities.

In many countries, civic participation has developed mainly thanks to the active engagement of non-governmental organizations and communities. Knowing local challenges well and with sufficient resources and support, they are able to design and implement innovative solutions and thereby contribute to effective policy-making. This, in turn, leads to a higher level of trust, stronger communities, happier citizens and creates agency among residents who are often overlooked.

As a result, local governments stimulate citizen engagement. The more engaged citizens are in their local community, the more likely they will engage in civic activities. Their participation not only improves governance, but has a positive effect on the mental health of the citizens themselves. Secondly, civic participation empowers citizens and helps governmental authorities better understand citizens’ needs and priorities. 

Communities are made up of unique individuals with different backgrounds and experience, their participation raises inclusion and equity levels.

Third, the early engagement of youth results in the creation of next-generation civic leaders, who not only understand the government, but also actively engage in its activities. With the right guidance, education, skills and mentorship, they will be able to make a difference in the future. Giving citizens the means to act makes them empowered, more conscious of the challenges in their vicinity and more willing to take action into their own hands.  

Governing organizations do not always, however, foster civic participation. Apart from what they declare, active hostility is expressed by politicians who think that voter support gives them a mandate to make decisions without any further obligations to their constituents. In other cases, officials do not agree with the decisions made by citizens and are afraid that citizens will tell them what they do not want to hear. Last but not least, some of the governing organizations are not identified with the ‘letting go’ principle/ ‘barrier of subsidiarity’ and do not want to cede or delegate their powers  to citizens. These approaches not only widen the gap between the government and the citizens, but also subvert democracy and undermine democratic processes. 

The decisive challenge is to involve people who do not normally participate in the process of policy-making and help them find solutions for the challenges they face. Sadly and surprisingly, one such group are women.

Women’s Civic and Political Participation

Encouraging women’s civic and political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. It facilitates women’s direct engagement in public decision-making and is a means of ensuring better accountability to women.

The representation of women in Slovakia is low not only in municipal politics, but also at the regional and national level.

In the European Union, Slovakia is among the countries with the lowest proportion of women at the highest levels of political power.

For comparison, at the regional level (for example: the Self-Governing Trnava Region – TTSK) the representation of women is 12.5%, while in the National Parliament it is approximately 20% and at the municipal level (City of Trnava) 16%. This shows how underrepresented women are on all levels of Slovak politics.

In Sweden, for example, women make up half of municipal politicians. In France, women represent more than 40% in municipal politics, around 50% in the national parliament, and the same is true in Belgium.

Share of women in national parliaments 2020 – Source: EIGE gender statistics database: power, 2020


The Gender Equality Index 2022 ranks Slovakia at the bottom – in 24 place out of 27 EU Member States. This index measures the progress achieved in the area of ​​gender equality. Women fare the worst in the two monitored areas, which are power and time. 

The Gender Equality Index 2022 – Source: EIGE

This is mainly caused by the fact that they are responsible for running the household and taking care of children, which is detrimental to their career and further progress.

Women are often discouraged from taking on larger roles in politics or business, or do not find the courage themselves to do so. It is essential to support a better reconciliation of work and private life, ensure children’s access to nurseries and kindergartens, improve the availability of flexible working hours and reduce the wage gap between men and women.

In the twenty-first century, politics should no longer be seen as a ‘men’s club’, where women have restricted access.

The difference between Slovak and European politics is in the approach to women. In Western Europe, women are more likely to be viewed as equal partners in policy-making. They are not discriminated against because of their gender and their starting position is exactly the same as that of their male colleagues. In Slovakia, gender discrimination and bias still exist –  female politicians are more often judged by what they wear, how they look, how they take care of their family than by their opinions, beliefs and actions. As a result, deep-rooted prejudice still stands in the way of gender equality in Slovakia, but a more resolute governmental and societal action supporting women running for office could make a difference. And our society could finally become equal.

Slovakia is in need of more women politicians. Women make up more than half of the Slovak population. Therefore, one would expect that they have equal representation in the institutions that decide on their lives. As we know, this is very far from the truth.

Women should be part of the dialogue about all areas of life, because it directly affects them.

Not only they are equal partners to boys at all levels of education (even the share of women aged 25-64 who have a university degree is greater than the share of university-educated men). Despite this fact, few women reach leadership positions.


Women outpace men, Europe 2020 target – tertiary educational attainment (% of people aged 30–34), EU 2018 – Source: EIGE

Women bring a new perspective to different aspects of life. Since they are in most cases responsible for running households and taking care of the family, they deal with areas of life that men are not so interested in or do not have time to deal with. Women are actively involved in the labor market too and bring an economic benefit to the state.

It has been proved that the greater the representation of women in the economic decision-making process is, the greater the economic benefit and competitiveness.

More women in politics contributes to a more productive and innovative work environment and improves the overall performance of the economy. Women’s presence has proven to influence political culture, debate and rhetoric, which is otherwise more masculine and aggressive. Women also contribute to making political discussions more civilized. Moreover, for a properly functioning democracy, it is inevitable to improve their representation in policy-making.

Civic Participation As a Tool For the Future

Current trends in Western Europe show that civic participation plays an integral part of policy-making. Politicians rely on the support and trust of their citizens/voters and therefore are more willing to delegate their powers in some areas to local communities who know best what their needs are. 

By delegating some powers and giving control to citizens, governing bodies are able to establish a partnership with its civic society and grant it civic power.

It is also essential for all governing organizations and governments to involve all citizens in decision-making. As the current situation in Slovakia shows, the lack of women in politics has detrimental effects on the way policy-making is executed. Slovakia will only have an equal society when it ensures equal representation for everyone.

Kristína Bolemanová

Kristína Bolemanová undertook her studies of international relations and diplomacy in Slovakia, Belgium and France. She recently earned her PhD in International Relations at Matej Bel University in Banská Bystrica. From 2013 – 2020, she served as a policy advisor in European institutions (European Commission and European Parliament) in Brussels. In 2016, she was a national expert advising on EU competitiveness during the Slovak Presidency in the Council of the EU. She participates in the elections as a polling officer. In 2018, she took part in the EU election observation mission to Paraguay. Currently, Kristína consults Trnava Self-Governing region on participatory budgeting and development of civic society and youth projects.

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