Monday, 9 March 2009

The rise to the top

These are interesting times for those who take a global perspective to the role of women in politics.

On the one hand, in almost every region women’s low levels of literacy, pay, job security and political representation indicate that women still face a far more uncertain future than their male counterparts.

On the other hand, globally girls are catching up with boys in terms of primary school enrolment and at the same time, individual women seem to be playing much more prominent political roles. Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice set precedents for a female US Secretary of State, with Hillary Clinton already earning her stripes with trips to Asia and discussions in NATO. In the UK too, we should not overlook the significance of a female Home Secretary and a female Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, to mention only a few; in France, Spain and elsewhere, female politicians are increasingly rising to the top levels.

This is not just the preserve of more developed countries. In 2005, Liberia, a country emerging from a bloody and destabilising civil war, elected Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as President; in Rwanda, around 49% of its elected representatives are female; Mozambique, South Africa and Burundi have all had more than 30% of parliamentary seats held by women, compared to an average of 19% for contemporaries in Europe.

So, we know that women still lag far behind men according to most development indicators but there are rays of sunshine in terms of individual women achieving positions of strategic importance.

The big question now remains: how do the gains of the few get translated into measurable improvements by the many?

In part, Labour women have led the way. Vigorous campaigning once elected, on issues relevant to women whether maternity leave, childcare, pensions or domestic violence, have shown that Labour women remain committed to advancing issues which make a real difference to the average woman’s life.

But the real answer to the question may lie in something much less tangible. Ultimately, what women in politics need to secure is significant behaviour change on the behalf of political elites.

On a recent visit to Northern Uganda I saw this firsthand. Uganda introduced legislation in the mid-1990s to ensure that a third of all public offices were staffed by women, alongside quotas for women in Parliament. Some specific achievements have been secured but overall, these individual women have struggled challenge the political culture they are now a part of. Informal conversations revealed a common perception that elected women were aping the political behaviour of men; for example, using power to enhance their own status and wealth rather than any broader social agenda.

Ultimately, despite the gains of the few, political commitments to gender equality contained in agreements like the MDGs, and donor commitments to ‘gender mainstreaming’ in development, women in some of the poorest countries (and the richest) will not benefit until politics changes. This needs to occur on every level – local, national and even internationally in agencies like the UN and the World Bank.

Women like Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in Liberia, and Hillary Clinton, Harriet Harman, Jacqui Smith et al are leading the way, but many more may have to follow in their wake until real culture change is achieved.

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