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International seminar gives the key to empowering women in politics

The Christiansborg Seminar gathered experts and politicians from all over the world to share what they've learned on a much-talked about, yet unresolved issue of increasing women participation in politics

Mary Mourad, Sunday 16 Sep 2012
Christiansborg Seminar
Speakers from Christiansborg Seminar (Photo: Courtesy Lars Schmidt, DIPD)

In a unique gathering, celebrated women from all over the world shared ideas, experiences and challenges in seminars on "women in politics," on 11 and 12 September.

Participants came from Bhutan, Nepal, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Tanzania, Nepal, Afghanistan, Jordan, Palestine, Tunisia, Egypt and Denmark among others. The Christiansborg seminar, organised by the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, opened three main subtopics: women in local politics, young women in politics and women in transition countries.

The high-level event was opened by Danish Minister of Foreign Affairs Villu Sovndal and the chairman of the largest opposition party and ex-Danish minister of parliament, Lars Rasmussen.

"The key is to turn issues of women into political questions," a Danish MP said in the Danish-Buthanese film screened during the event, where she states that, as a mother, managing her role in politics wouldn't be possible without community help in the form of day care centres.

Politics is viewed as a sacrifice and not an opportunity, which drives women away from the role.

Women suffer during moments of transition, although those moments could also be opportunities to make significant change forward. The Afghanistan experience, described by social activist Selay Ghaffar, shows the negative influence of international intervention, which forced women more into seclusion for their safety amidst turbulent politics and, generally, a very violent environment.

The Arab Spring received attention, with Chema Gargouri from a Tunisian social organisation giving insight into the identity-driven debate there. In the end it will determine where women will be positioned, highlighting the rights 'given' to women, guaranteed on all levels, by personal statute law under dictatorship.

"The debate about women in politics was never started," Abu Ghoush claimed, stressing that women are already present in all areas of life and will not just give up. Out of 217 seats, 63 women were chosen for the constituent assembly to write the new constitution in Tunisia.

In Nepal, experience shows that women entering politics is a challenge. Not only because they become subject to defamation campaigns against women, but also because the daily search for decent work and secured living is a priority, explained MP Chitra Lekha Yadav. High-level conversations - such as peace talks - do not involve women, nor do the most critical decisions, which reduces their chance for influencing important matters. Still, their latest constituting assembly of 2007 did include a quota for women in parliament.

Janah Ncube, from Zimbabwe, explained that the political conflict came during the fight for the constitution, and women wanted guarantees of equality. "Having one woman in the parties' negotiations is at least a door to entry," Ncube said. She continued saying that the lady who participated was able to bring support from the women's movement outside and engaged all women in the process. Eventually, however, transition pushes good people out, looking for safer lives outside. At the end of the transition the country finds itself without resources, she highlighted. Therefore, providing information, technical knowledge, training, and forming a support system around the few women in significant positions is important to offer to leverage their positions.

Women and political parties

Political parties' role in encouraging women's participation received a lot of attention; specifically, the conversation flowed around how parties' internal regulations can enhance women's participation.

They inquired on internal democracy, selection process for nominations, finance and access to air time, decision-making positions, etc.

A study presented by Ajla Van Heel of UN Women highlighted many of the challenges women are faced with whenever they attempt to reach out to parties. In India, women's boards were designed to support women running for elections and for local councillor.

The photo of the parliamentarian who took her newborn to the assembly made a clear point about the extent to which matching family and work environments is now a challenge, but should not be such a unique event.

Women in local politics was a big question and women's role at that level was subject to debate. Successful experiences from India and Bhutan showcase the high value of the local experience as a step onto the national stage. In Mozambique, women represent some 40 per cent of parliament, though under 10 per cent in local municipalities, as Nzirq Deus described, mainly due to lower education and conservative culture in rural areas.

In Nepal, women joining the political world are looked down upon - especially young women, which doesn't encourage participation. The same was the case in Bhutan where the gender bias is stronger on a local level.

The Bhutan initiative series shows women in political roles, all the way up to prime minister, which made the impossible dream less impossible for many women. It also opened the discussions on the protection of women against violence.

The quota system as a means to help women drew much discussion between the numbers that confirm that quota can double women's participation. Concerns were raised that forcing women into these roles before they're ready will force them to shy away or conform to the roles imposed by the men in the assembly. Zimbabwe MP Priscilla Misihairabwi-Mushonga debated the importance of forming women-men alliances versus women-only support communities and the balance between the two needs.

"When we need a woman to cross the enemy lines and risk her life, we find one, yet when we look for one to sit in a local council nobody volunteers?" said Winnie Byanyima, UNDP and previously MP in Uganda, perplexed. She described the extent of the paradox about women in power and their readiness to serve the cause, yet refrain from political roles, as if they don't want power. She says the issues are related to the structure and sometimes exclusive environments of the political arena.

Julio Huaraya Cabrera from Movement Towards Socialism in Bolivia was the only man among the speakers and describes how women's rights are protected in the constitution and the parties are required to nominate at least 30 per cent women, and the number of female ministers rose to reach 50 per cent in 2010 and in local government 22 per cent.

Young women in politics

Young women face many challenges while entering the political career, including financial, logistical support, family engagement and culture. Jimena Anita De-Sosoo from Ghana explained how imposing a quota in political parties is important to make room for younger people. Fourteen young ministers were appointed in Ghana by the late president to send a signal in this regard.

Ratebeh Adnan Abu Ghoush from the Palestinian Territories reflected on the experience at home, where women struggle side-by-side with men and participate in the daily struggle yet, when elections come women achieve very little. At one point only five of the 88 seats are occupied by women. Women's unions worked harder to do better in the elections, refusing quotas at the beginning, believing they could do it alone. But when quotas were enforced they doubled the participation of women in the parliament through party lists. Also, notably, 72 per cent of the population is under 35, yet not a single member of parliament is within that age range.

The youth council is Abu Ghoush's project to empower youth and encourage work in local governance, with campaigns to push young nominees and pushing the election law to empower and support young women through support networks.

Ideas to Share

What can women do in politics that men don't? The question was debated, but mostly the fact that women tend to focus on and prioritise family issues, education and health was pointed out. They also highlighted that they are also not usually associated with corruption.

Ulla Tornes, MP and former Danish Minister of Development, shared her experience with a small initiative called the Torch, where she would hand a torch to a high country and organisation officials in return for a written contract that they will do one thing for women while in office. The initiative was followed a few years later by a report about which of the promised changes have been implemented. And it worked.

The six-step action plan towards gender equality formulated by Pippa Noris and Mona Lina Krook from Harvard University were shared as a recommendation. It suggests starting with changes in the constitution to express universal equality. Secondly comes law reform to ensure implementation of anti-discrimination measures. The electoral system should be reformed to allow for equal opportunities, including political financing and the exclusion of dirty money used in politics, which puts women at a disadvantage.

Capacity development - defined here to include mentoring, not just training - and alliances to allow for idea sharing, engaging civil society, academia and government posts were the two last steps proposed.

In conclusion, the participants recommended measures to include women's rights in the constitution, electoral laws, party internal policies and consider quotas as means to speed up the process of inclusion. The role of capacity development, mentoring and support for the younger women further encourages them to enter to politics.

The energised congregation of women and men, politicians, activists, officials and guests all committed to seek to apply these recommendations through efforts in their own countries, and to continue to support women in their various roles.

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