The politics of getting women elected

EFFORTS to eliminate poverty in Africa and Asia are being undermined by the fact that women do not participate on equal terms with men in public and political life.

As world leaders gather at the UN to decide a new global development framework to follow the Millennium Development Goals, women’s participation and influence should be central to their discussions. There are lessons to be learned from the experience of Irish women in public life, and lessons we can learn from the experience of low-income countries as Ireland prepares for the introduction of gender quotas.

Worldwide, women make up just 20% of national parliaments; 17% of government ministers, and only 13 heads of government. This underrepresentation is not limited to countries in the developing world, and Ireland is currently ranked 89th in the world for female political participation.

Just 15% of TDs and 16% of councillors are women, and only 92 women have ever been elected to Dáil Éireann. What these numbers can’t tell us is how much real influence women have in determining public policy, or what impact this gender imbalance has on the policies that governments adopt.

Women everywhere face the same barriers to participation, many of which stem from a strong patriarchal culture, gendered social norms, and embedded structural factors such as cultural preferences around selection processes.

The ‘5 Cs’ of getting elected — culture, cash, confidence, candidate selection procedures, and childcare — are long-standing obstacles. Women’s progress is often impeded by the multiple roles they play in family and community life — as wives, mothers, daughters, carers, and income generators.

They are less likely than men to have access to money to pay for a political campaign, or to the sort of networks that would help them raise money. The cash barrier is critical in Ireland, where candidates are expected to contribute increasing amounts of cash to their campaigns. This means that women, who traditionally have less access to fundraising networks than men, find themselves behind before the race begins. These issues can be more acute in low-income countries.

Marriam Mutua from the Chipata District Farmers’ Association in Zambia reports that women often lack the ability to pay for transport to go to political meetings. In many low-income countries, obstacles are compounded by the fact that women are typically less educated than men, and many lack the knowledge and confidence needed to give public talks and promote their views.

Once women are elected, it does not necessarily mean that their voices will be heard in parliament or around the cabinet table. They can face bullying and intimidation by the media, sexual harassment, social stigma, and resistance by male family members.

Gender quotas are now in place in 108 countries and will be in effect for the first time in Ireland at the next general election. They provide a welcome opportunity for female candidates, but they come with risks. In Africa and Asia, quotas are often filled by women who are expected to act as proxies for their husbands or fathers. In Northern Ghana, for example, tradition dictates that women must sit behind men at community meetings.

Underrepresentation of women in public life has a real and damaging impact on policy. Research highlights the difference in approach to risk taken by male and female decision-makers and points to female decision-makers being more averse to risk.

In the context of the global financial crisis, this approach can provide valuable frameworks in determining strategies for economic development, and managing economic recessions.

When the voices of women are under-represented in decision-making, issues that exclusively or primarily affect women will inevitably be relegated to secondary importance.

In a global context, this is central to the fight against poverty. Women account for two thirds of the 1.4bn people living in extreme poverty, they perform two thirds of the world’s work and produce half of the world’s food while earning 10% of the income and owning 1% of the property.

Government cannot be effective or responsive in fighting poverty if it does not understand the differing needs of women and men and if it does not draw on the experiences and resources that they each bring when deciding on public spending, policy and legislation priorities.

Critical to addressing the ‘5 Cs’ is a mix of practical supports such as training and mentoring, and advocacy to raise awareness that this issue is critical to societal progress.

Overseas, a bottom-up approach of strengthening and supporting women’s rights groups and women’s participation in civil society organisations must be matched by an internationally-agreed development goal on gender, supported by targets that measure real representation and influence.

The Millennium Development Goals, which were agreed in 2000 as a roadmap for addressing poverty and inequality, expire in 2015. The process of deciding their successor begins in earnest later this month when the UN general assembly meets to review progress towards the MDGs and craft a new development agenda.

This is an opportunity, and a challenge, to build on existing agreements and ensure that the new framework retains a standalone goal on gender equality and backs it up with targets that look beyond the figures and measure real participation and influence.

*Malcolm Quigley is executive director of VSO Ireland. Niamh Gallagher is co-founder of Women for Election, a non-partisan organisation to equip women to succeed in politics.

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