Local Democracy Talk: Morality Policies

ICLD hosted an online Local Democracy Talk on the 14th of September 2023 to explore strategies for local governments to combat discriminatory policies and defend democracy. Here is a summary of the webinar.

Morality policy differs from place to place

Morality laws and policies are often used by governments to justify violence and discrimination against minority groups. One of the readings from the discussion was that strategies on morality policy require a context-specific approach. Issues related to gender, LGBT, or people with disabilities are very different in most African countries compared with what they might be in Sweden, as well as the institutions in place. Carol Muga from the Nairobi County Assembly highlighted that the youth are underrepresented in the Nairobi council and criticised the lack of policy implementation and political leadership. She explained that although some people are committed and new youth leaders are involved in decision-making, they reproduce the same normative and dominant narratives.

This is exacerbated in countries, such as Iran, where governments are authoritarian. Shora Esmailian, journalist and women’s rights activist from Iran/Sweden, told us about the personal experiences of her mother who opposed the morality policy imposed onto people after the Iranian revolution by covering her hair with a beige knitted hat instead of the obligatory veil. She added the positive changes that the so-called “Women, Life, Freedom” uprising brought out just one year ago, not only on the implementation of the morality policy but also on “society’s views on morality, about what to dress and how to be as a woman”. This shows that inclusivity and democracy can advance even in more challenging contexts.

Morality is institutionalised at different levels

However, while contexts might be different, all panellists agreed that morality is often embedded in societies and politicians are opportunistic in the sense that they want to uphold their political power by gaining the vote of the majority, because of which minorities can be excluded. This is why Olga Ditsie, Mayor of Jwaneng Town, Botswana, stated that politicians must understand the value of their positions and listen. “We have to ask ourselves,” she said, “why we want to be in that position and whom are we representing?” She added, “We also need more emphasising from the civil society, so they can be really empowered and be supported so they can be the voice of the voiceless.”

A third dimension was brought by Julia Sällström and Diana Bogelund who work at the Roma Information- and Knowledge Center in Malmö. Their work entails both assisting the Roma community and providing training about inclusive policy to local government officials in their municipality. They claimed that “the Roma history is not only Roma history but also Swedish history” and that including the whole of Swedish society has been very important in raising awareness. However, they still find challenges such as working with teachers and school personnel to provide a more inclusive education so that the Roma can be open and feel proud of being a Roma. These views and professional experiences show the importance of taking a multi-level approach and working simultaneously at the individual, structural, and discursive levels.

Key remarks on how to tackle morality policy

Another key point from the discussion was that dialogue is fundamental, especially in highly polarized societies with contradictory moral views. Wawan Mas’udi, author of the research project Morality Policies and the Prospect for Inclusive Citizenship in Decentralized Indonesia, pointed out the importance of creating a dialogue between the different groups to include minorities’ views, but also of making sure that dominant narratives are protected. Wawan highlighted that the state must open room for discussion and guarantee that inclusive processes happen in an egalitarian and respectful manner. Carol Muga remarked that transparency is relevant in inclusive processes to account for civil society and grassroots organisations that truly represent the large society. Another aspect noticed by Wawan Mas’udi was the importance of having regulations in place during elections to make politicians accountable for specific social targets rather than including morality aspects in their programmes. He also talked about developing international networks to facilitate “horizontal learning” between different local governments from different countries so that they can learn from each other.

To summarise, our panellists have come up with some collective actions that ideally will lead us to more inclusive and democratic forms of social organisation:

  • To develop international programs for inclusive policy design and implementation.
  • To provide tailored training and guidance on inclusivity for policy and decision-makers.
  • To support pro-inclusion civil society.
  • To develop international networks to facilitate co-learning and find inspiration.

These points echo the findings in ICLD’s new research on Morality Policies, summarized in this 3-minute video:


  • Wawan Mas’udi, lecturer in the Department of Politics and Government, Universitas Gadjah Mada, Indonesia
  • Shora Esmailian, journalist, author and women’s rights activist from Iran/Sweden
  • Carol Muga, Nairobi County Assembly, Kenya
  • Julia Sällström and Diana Bogelund, Roma Information and Knowledge Center, Malmö City, Sweden
  • Olga Ditsie, Mayor of Jwaneng Town, Botswana
  • Sergeant Kgosietsile, HBTQ activist and former councillor in Gaborone, Botswana

Moderator: Helena Bjuremalm, Deputy Head of Democracy Unit, Sida

Watch the complete discussion:

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