Physical Threats Put Women Off Life In Politics But At What Cost?

By Belinda Goldsmith

 Faced with escalating violence, a lack of funding, and locked out of male-dominated networks, many women are reluctant to enter politics with growing concerns that a drive to get women into power globally is moving far too slowly, experts said.

In observance of International Women's Day, participants march from thr centre of Monrovia to the Temple of Justice, home of the Liberian Supremem Court, where they staged a peaceful sit-in protest against gender-based violence. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein
In observance of International Women’s Day, participants march from thr centre of Monrovia to the Temple of Justice, home of the Liberian Supremem Court, where they staged a peaceful sit-in protest against gender-based violence. UN Photo/Eric Kanalstein

Only about one in four parliamentarians worldwide is a woman, less than one in five government ministers is female, and the number of female heads of state or government is set to decline this year to 15 from 17, studies show.

Yet it has become widely accepted that when women rule, in local or national politics, it can make a difference, with women putting often over-looked issues like violence against women or women’s empowerment on the agenda.

With the United Nations’ global goals – the Sustainable Development Goals – aiming for women’s equal participation in politics by 2030, female lawmakers and experts on women in politics said it was time to change how politics work.

They said this included ensuring political parties take the lead in recruiting women, women politicians are given support, and parliaments lose their macho image and “old boys’ clubs”.

Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder of the Women In Parliaments a Global Forum (WIP), a network of women lawmakers, said the number of women in parliaments may have increased but this has not translated into policy change or decision-making powers.

“In some countries the real power circle remains untouched,” Koch-Mehrin told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“You find many women active in NGOs and other organisations involved in policy but when it comes to going into a political party they refuse because so much time is spent back stabbing and building friendships and less working on policy … They can earn more in business.

“But on the positive side the view women are crucial, for equal opportunity and development for all of society, in both developing and developed countries, is now a mainstream view.”

FIGHTING FOR WOMEN’S ISSUES

Data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the international organisation of parliaments, shows women held 23.6 percent of seats in 193 parliaments on Sept. 1 this year, up from 17.7 percent a decade ago and 11.8 percent in 1997.

There are no global figures on the number of women in local governments which is seen as a significant gap in knowledge.

But the IPU acknowledges it is disappointing to see women’s participation in parliaments increasing by less than one percentage point a year – more than 120 years since New Zealand became the first country to give women the vote.

“It is moving ahead but too slowly,” said Kareen Jabre, director of the division of programmes at the IPU.

“For women’s presence will often bring to the table issues that were not considered a priority. The first one that comes up is violence against women and particularly domestic violence. The mere fact that women have a voice changes the agenda.”

There is no global study to show the link between women’s political presence and policy changes but some national and thematic studies have indicated positive impact.

For example, research showed when peace processes included women as witnesses, mediators, or negotiators, there was a 20 percent increase in the probability of a peace agreement lasting at least two years.

Individual examples also abound.

Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet was key this year in getting a new law to legalise abortions when the mother is at risk, the foetus is unviable or the pregnancy results from rape. Previously Chile banned abortions in all instances.

While the women’s caucus of Malawi’s parliament played a major role in a constitutional amendment this year to outlaw child marriage. Previously children as young as 15 could marry with parental consent but marriage is now illegal under age 18.

Jordanian parliamentarian Wafa Bani Mustafa, one of 20 women in the 130 seat lower house, said her greatest achievements in her three terms had been fighting for issues that impacted women, such protecting women in divorces and ensuring sexual harassment is made a crime in the penal code.

CONTROVERSY OVER QUOTAS

But she is most proud of her high-profile victory in August when Jordanian lawmakers voted to abolish a law that let rapists off the hook if they married their victims – a change first spearheaded by Bani Mustafa in 2013.

An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) official shows a woman how to cast her vote during the Kenyan general elections at the Girgir primary school in Archers Post, Isiolo County in northern Kenya March 4, 2013. Polling stations opened up to Kenyans on Monday for a tense presidential election that will test whether the east African nation can repair its damaged reputation after the tribal blood-letting that followed a 2007 poll. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola (KENYA - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS) ORG XMIT: SIN801
An Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) official shows a woman how to cast her vote during the Kenyan general elections at the Girgir primary school in Archers Post, Isiolo County in northern Kenya March 4, 2013. Polling stations opened up to Kenyans on Monday for a tense presidential election that will test whether the east African nation can repair its damaged reputation after the tribal blood-letting that followed a 2007 poll. REUTERS/Siegfried Modola (KENYA – Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS) ORG XMIT: SIN801

She said parents often agreed to such marriages to minimise “family shame”, but she said no girl should be “presented as a gift” to her rapist.

“(It was) the second time I (ever) cried in the parliament … I felt like I was a mother again – it’s my baby,” Bani Mustafa told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, recalling the day the law changed.

“In Jordan and the Arab world women in politics should focus on women’s rights, and (not) be ashamed to … It is important that women are present in all positions, all places, including decision-making and leadership positions.”

Bani Mustafa also campaigned last year to increase the quota of reserved seats for women to 23 from 15 but was voted down.

For the idea of quotas for political representation remains controversial, even though the Stockholm-based International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance says half of the world’s countries now use some form of gender quota system.

Electoral quotas – that vary from reserving seats to legal candidate quotas and voluntary political party quotas – have gained international support as the most effective way to fast-track an increase in women in politics.

The IPU found women fared better when quotas were used.

In 2012, electoral quotas were used in 22 countries holding elections. With legislated quotas, women took 24 percent of seats and with voluntary quotas they gained 22 percent. Where no quotas were used, women took 12 percent of seats.

But some critics, particularly in liberal democracies, oppose quotas on the basis they discriminate against men and undermine the selection of candidates on the basis of merit.

Sarah Childs, a professor of politics and gender at Birkbeck, University of London, said quotas were not enough on their own.

“Quotas solve an immediate problem but you need a ‘quota plus’ system which is about tackling what is wrong with politics and what defines the making a good politician,” she said.

“Political parties should be doing more to create a supply rather than bemoaning the lack of women knocking on their doors.

“Also if politics is represented as a cut throat environment with late nights … you need a way to make it attractive for women … it needs to be clearer that this is a job that can be done by women with families.”

PHYSICAL THREATS

Even when women are voted into parliament, it can be hard to keep them in office.

“We see women leaving their seats or not standing again because in the political system there are so many obstacles,” said Julie Ballington, policy advisor on political participation at UN Women.

“The increasing incidence of violence against women in political life also keeps a lot of women from wanting to put themselves forward,” she added.

“But having women in power does change aspirations and shows that women can be leaders.”

Female lawmakers said rising numbers of attacks on social media, as well as physical attacks while campaigning, were a deterrent for many women – as was the constant focus on the appearance of female politicians.

A British tabloid newspaper was accused of sexism this year when it splashed a photo of Prime Minister Theresa May and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s legs across the front page with the headline “Never mind Brexit, who won Legs-it!”

While an IPU study last year found nearly 45 percent of women parliamentarians had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their term – and more than 80 percent faced psychological abuse, largely on social media.

In Nigeria, member of parliament (MP) Nnenna Elendu-Ukeje said she has experienced discrimination, sexual innuendoes, physical threats and insubordination, mainly from male colleagues.

She fears the treatment of women in politics in Nigeria, and the threats they face, is scaring women away despite a need to have them fighting for policies that affect women.

During the last election, people started firing guns as Elendu-Ukeje was campaigning and she was whisked away, unscathed, but some of her security personnel were injured. No one was arrested over the incident.

“If there’s no disincentives for the perpetrators of violence, my fear is that the political space for women is going to continue to shrink,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“We must have people who actually understand, who are the beneficiaries of these policies, being part of the policy formulation,” said the 48-year-old single mother.

FUNDING ISSUES

The country with the most women in its lower house is Rwanda where women held 61.3 percent of seats. The East African nation found itself composed of 70 percent women after a 1994 genocide. Before that women only held 10-15 percent of seats.

It is followed by Bolivia in Latin America where women hold 53.1 percent of lower house seats then Cuba at 48.9 percent.

But while Bolivia has more women in its national parliament than men, the Andean country has made fewer inroads at local government level where less than 10 percent of mayors are women.

Soledad Chapeton found herself in the firing line after becoming the first female mayor of El Alto, Bolivia’s second city, in 2015 – and says she was lucky not to be in her city hall office last year when an arson attack killed six people.

“It (the fire) was an attack that in our judgment was, and is, plagued with much political interest … it was a nightmare,” Chapeton told the Thomson Reuters Foundation under the watchful eye of her female police bodyguard.

Chapeton, a former congresswoman and daughter of a policeman, said women find it hard to get financial backing to run campaigns and often face personal attacks on social media.

Of El Alto’s 14 deputy mayors, three are women. Chapeton said her goal was to achieve gender parity only to find that some women deputy mayors left because of the intimidation.

“Several of the women declined to participate afterwards because it’s much easier to attack a woman,” Chapeton said.

“People elected me because I do things differently than how things were done in the past and this gives me strength.”

NO WOMEN

Still five countries from the IPU’s list of 193 nations have no women MPs at all, including Qatar and Yemen in the Middle East and the Pacific island countries of Vanuatu, Federated States of Micronesia, and Papua New Guinea.

Micronesia has never had a women in politics while an election this year in Papua New Guinea – which has some of the world’s highest rates of violence against women – ended with no women among the 111 MPs for the first time in 25 years.

Since independence from Australia in 1975, only seven women have been elected to PNG’s parliament and efforts in 2011 to introduce a system to reserve 22 seats for women failed.

“This means 50 percent of the population have no representation in the highest decision-making institution of the country,” said Julie Bukikun, assistant representative for UNDP, the United Nations Development Programme.

“It’s vital we have female leadership in PNG … women need to be represented to address the major challenges they face including unacceptably high rates of violence, fewer job opportunities and poor health outcomes.”

POLICIES FOR WOMEN

Another strong proponent of the need to have women in power is Chhavi Rajawat, an MBA holder who quit her city job at a multi-national firm to become head of her village of Soda in the Indian state of Rajasthan – making history as India’s youngest elected sarpanch, or village leader, in 2010.

“I know I don’t fit the typical mould of sarpanch which is a man, and usually an elderly one,” said Rajawat, dressed in leggings, a loose top and hiking boots in Soda village, 80 km (50 miles) from Jaipur, Rajasthan’s main city.

Since taking office, Rajawat’s council has built roads, constructed toilets and brought water, power and even a bank to Soda’s 7,000 residents, which she credits to a law which reserves at least one-third of village council seats for women.

“The villagers asked me to stand for elections as it was required that the sarpanch be a woman,” she said.

“If it wasn’t for the reservation policy, I don’t know if I would be here and whether the development we’ve achieved would have happened,” said Rajawat, who was re-elected in 2015.

“But it’s one thing to have reserved seats for women at village level, women should also be given these chances at higher levels of politics.”

Source: allafrica.com

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