It is a fact that women are lagging behind in politics. From time immemorial, women have been under-presented in parliaments across the globe. Globally, in 2005, women occupied 16 percent while men attained 84 percent of parliamentary seats.
In Malawi, the situation is not any better. In the recent May 2014 elections, only 30 women made it to the august House against 162 men. Unfortunately, under many governments, there has been a return to the Victorian idea that ‘a woman’s place is in the home’.
Indeed, while some have broken the glass ceiling and joined what was an all-men club, many others are still struggling. The big question is what goes wrong? What is the best way to achieve further change? Or should we blame our campaigners for their lukewarm approach to the women’s cause?
Obviously, we should not, at least for now. Gender activists and feminists alike appear to be vocal and relentless in their fight for women’s representation in Parliament and other influential positions. They apply various strategies to put their messages across and media is one of them. Books and various articles have been written about the need to increase the number of women in decision-making positions.
For example, in 1792, Mary Wollstonecraft wrote and published Vindication of the Rights of a Woman. In the book, she argued that if women had the gift of reason, they should be treated equally with men. Here gender is critical.
In Africa and elsewhere, women are slowly moving into top positions, and more interestingly, even women further much down the ladder are also moving up the career ladder, even though they are seeking promotion at much lower levels.
Despite these positive achievements, there remain bigger problems: gender inequality and oppression. So, is it all doom and gloom?
Not yet. New promising discourses have emerged to change the status quo. And electoral systems are believed to be key for change.
Capacity building among potential female candidates is of the essence. The nomination process itself must be thoroughly scrutinised. Importantly, there is need to reinforce various existing tools to enhance equal representation of women.
The 1995 Beijing Platform for Action is one tool that needs to be observed and reinforced. The platform talks about ‘discriminatory attitudes and practices’ and ‘unequal poor relations that lead to under-representation of women in arenas of decision-making’.
Another tool, particularly for the African Union (AU), is affirmative action. That is how the AU’s highest body, its Commission, comes to be 50 percent female. In fact, affirmative action is suggested as a possible means of attaining the goal of women’s equal political representation.
Some, however, are arguing that the arrival of women in decision-making positions in Africa makes affirmative action redundant. They cite Rwanda as an obvious example which has the highest proportion of women in Parliament in the world, with over 50 percent. South Africa, Mozambique and Burundi each boast over 30 percent.
Governments, as Darlerup and Freidenvall point out, should commit themselves to “take measures including, where appropriate, in electoral systems that encourage political parties to integrate women in election and non-electoral public positions in the same proportion…as men”.
Governments’ commitment aside, women politicians themselves have to be in the forefront campaigning for their fellow women. It is disheartening that not all women who enter politics support the aims of the women’s movement and equality for women. It is also worrisome to note that some campaigners, discouraged by the dismal performance of women in elections, are already throwing in the towel. This should not be the case.
The nature of politics is an important factor for the inclusion or exclusion of women in politics.
Vicky Randall defines politics as an “articulation, or working out of relationships within an already given power structure”, which is in contrast with the traditional view of politics that defines it as an activity, a conscious, deliberate participation in the process by which resources are allocated among citizens.
This conception of politics restricts political activity only in the public arena and the private sphere of family life is rendered as apolitical. This public-private dichotomy in traditional definition of politics is used to exclude women from public political sphere, and even when women are brought into politics, they are entered as mothers and wives.
Male domination of politics, political parties and culture of formal political structures is another factor that hinders women’s political participation. Often, male dominated political parties have a male perspective on issues of national importance that disillusions women as their perspective is often ignored and not reflected in the politics of their parties.
Again, women are usually not elected to positions of power within party structures because of gender biases of male leadership. Meetings of councils or parliamentary sessions are held in odd timings conflicting with women’s domestic responsibilities.
The larger democratic framework and level of democratisation also impacts women’s political participation. Secular democracies in Europe and also in some of the developing countries have created relatively more space for women’s participation in politics as compared to countries where religious orthodoxy has been shaping politics and democracy.
There is also an urgent need for the establishment of a women’s political institute as a possible panacea to this challenge where parties and all female aspirants and candidates should be equipped with relevant skills that underpin the positions in government they seek in elections.
It will further challenge them to improve their level of education to enable them to cope with the challenges that may be thrust upon them as they take up political leadership. This is imperative given the competitiveness of the various elective positions as opponents could intimidate them with overwhelming credentials.
The women’s political institute should be an independent body and preferably non-governmental and non-partisan to guarantee its independence and non-interference from the ruling party. Donations towards the running of the institute should be open to companies which should in turn entitle them to tax holidays, while names of individual donors should be published in the Institute’s website and newspapers. Newspapers, on the other hand, should be encouraged to publish such names free of charge in support of the cause. Donations from development partners should also be encouraged and published on the institute’s website/newspapers.
Above all, women must be supported at all cost if their representation in politics and other decision making positions is to be felt and meaningful. The much-touted 50-50 campaign must not be only on paper, but should reflect the reality on the ground. They should not be parachuted programmes but home-grown and well-anchored in the socio-cultural fabric and democratic agenda of Malawi, nor should they become chessboard on which greedy-mongers milk donors. All in all, women must lead the fight for change.
NOTE: The author is a civic education and governance expert, writing in his personal capacity.