Empowerment in politics

Women’s representation in national parliaments, local governments and peace processes is a critical measure of their political empowerment and of a country’s commitment to ensuring that powerful advocates for children can be heard.

But while formal barriers to entering national and local parliaments have been eliminated in virtually every country, this has been insufficient to address gender imbalances in governance. Even when political spaces and processes have opened up, the number of women in decision-making positions has not automatically increased. Beginning in childhood, women face discrimination that ranges from lower levels of education to prevailing social attitudes doubting their competence as decision-makers. This discrimination, as well as women’s significantly greater work burden, discourages and prevents women from entering politics and leaves them less time and energy for public life.

Governments, in conjunction with women’s organizations and political parties, have a vital role in promoting women’s political empowerment. They do so by promoting gender-sensitivity among officials or establishing comprehensive policy forums, such as women’s ministries and equal opportunity bureaus. However, changed gender attitudes and practices in government and politics, even where successful, must be accompanied by adequate resources as well as the requisite skills.

The importance of quotas

Whether legally mandated through constitutional or electoral law, or based on voluntary actions by political leaders, quotas have led to dramatic changes in women’s political participation throughout the world. Overall, of the 20 countries in the world with the most women in parliament, 17 are using some form of quota system.

The impact of quotas in particularly noticeable in countries formerly ravaged by conflict such as Afghanistan, (where women now account for 27.3 per cent of legislators), Burundi (30.5 per cent), Rwanda (48.8 per cent) and Timor Leste (25.3 per cent).

Quotas are also gaining increasing recognition as a potentially effective vehicle for ensuring women’s participation at the peace table. In 1999, for example, after women were key participants in helping settle hostilities in southern Sudan, the United Nations Development Fund for Women partnered with a local organization on the ‘People to People’ peace process, which reserved a third of the seats in local and regional peace reconciliation meetings for women. Similarly, in South Africa, 41 per cent of the commissioners of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission were women. Neither of these examples, however, involves formal peace processes.

To be truly effective, however, quotas must be supported by political parties and electoral systems that are committed to encouraging women’s participation in politics and government.

The role of women’s groups

Women’s groups are often powerful catalysts for change. They provide support to women who have been elected to political office, conduct their own advocacy efforts, and provide expertise and accountability mechanisms necessary to advance the rights of women and children.

In Afghanistan, for example, women’s groups have provided significant support in mobilizing other women to participate in the presidential and parliamentary elections and in monitoring the electoral process. They have also organized workshops for women refugees in order to expand their awareness of their rights. In Australia, women’s groups advocate for the rights of children in immigration detention. In 2002, in Rwanda, women parliamentarians and community leaders worked together to draft a national convention supporting women’s educational opportunities, small business loans provided by rural banks and the creation of a commission to help protect vulnerable young people.

Inspiring the next generation

Women’s participation in national legislatures, local government and peace processes is not only transforming the politics of the present – it is also altering its future, as women in politics are changing prevailing attitudes towards women and girls in decision-making roles.

In Rwanda, for example, women’s role in the transition to peace and democracy has paved the way for future generations of girls to assume public roles that would have been inconceivable only a generation ago.

In India, new associations are strengthened by elected women representatives, as well as women who were previously elected but who no longer formally participate in local councils.

These two countries represent just a sample of the growing involvement of women in politics across the world. Their influence is not just being felt in stronger legislation for children and women; they are also helping decision-making bodies become more democratic and sensitive. Despite discrimination and setbacks, young women and men who enter politics enter a realm significantly transformed by the presence of women.

One way women can inspire the next generations and act as catalysts for change is by mobilizing resources to care for children and realize their rights. Read about Alaíde, from Brazil, and the organization she created to help families and children living with HIV/AIDS.