At 2:30 this afternoon, we had the most amazing experience of attending our first event at the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. In a room designed to seat about 60 people, over 100 crammed in to hear the panelists speak about “Empowering Women Politically to Eradicate Poverty”. The event was hosted by the League of Women Voters.
Dianna, from Columbia, spoke about women’s participation in politics in her country. Her organization is devoted to recruiting, training, and supporting women in politics. Since 2003, there have been more women voting than men; yet even though legislation passed last year, mandates that all political parties run at least 30% female candidates, the number of women actually elected has not increased significantly. At the current rate of increase, it could take 35 years to achieve 40% representation. They are starting a “political leadership incubator” aimed at girls in high school to prepare them for a life in politics.
Begonia, of the United Nations Women – an organization started only one year ago, stressed that women’s political participation is a key issue to ensuring a better society. She identified three approaches to tackling this: 1) Human Rights approach 2) Democratic Approach; and 3) Strategic Approach. In the latter, if we are not using over half of the intelligence in our society, then we are not being very smart or strategic. The importance of data and information collection was stressed, with a note that the current analysis shows progress, albeit painfully slow. Her global estimates were even more dismal than Dianna’s projections for Columbia. In 40 years, we may reach 30% (critical mass) participation of women in politics.
Of those countries that do have a critical mass of participation of women in politics, the vast majority have used special temporary measures. These measures need to be implemented according to the political system in place, whether proportional representation, majority, etc.
In creating the United Nations Women, the mandate was to universally support ALL member states and help them to operationalize their policies on women’s political participation. Two years from now, the General Secretary of the United Nations will report on how each member state has addressed this resolution.
Ensuring women are registered to vote allows them to be citizens and provides access to other social protections and programs. Begonia also stated that the United Nations Women will train newly elected women politicians.
The role of media was introduced briefly, highlighting that the coverage of women candidates is not the same as that for men, creating an unequal playing field.
Zida, Director of the League of Women Voters, talked about the need to empower women to know their rights and to give them the tools to effect change. For instance, many countries have laws against domestic violence, yet they are rarely enforced. Women must participate in all levels of government. She also emphasized that one organization cannot do this alone. We must form strong coalitions of like-minded individuals and groups. By working together we can make a difference.
Olivia, an 18-year old high school student and President of Girls Learn International in the United States, spoke very eloquently and passionately about EDUCATION being the key to success. Her organization creates partnerships between schools in the US and abroad in order to promote solidarity and encourage young girls to stay in school. In the area of politics, she noted how few role models young girls have to look up to. In closing, she aptly commented that female politicians can speak up for me – as a girl!
Mary Lou Cherwaty is President of the Northern Territories Federation of Labour and Robyn Benson is Regional Executive Vice-President, Prairies, Public Service Alliance of Canada