Women and democracy: What does it take to change politics as usual?
Right now, countries around the world are facing a range of risks that threaten their stability, from rising environmental crises to deepening inequality and economic pressures. It’s also a time of brilliant possibilities. The hope and momentum for advancing women’s full and equal political participation have never been stronger.
Simply put, when women lead equally (as men) in the political arena, it makes for stronger decision-making and more representative governance. Women in politics work across party lines, even in the most politically combative environments, and champion issues such as parental leave and gender equality laws that strengthen communities now and for generations to come.
On International Day of Democracy, 15 September 2018, we are shining a spotlight on four countries that have stepped it up for gender equality in politics, and women leaders who are speaking up about what needs to be done to sustain the gains.
Earlier this month, women were elected to 61 per cent of seats in the Rwandan Parliament, making Rwanda the top country for women in politics.
Recently, UN Women spoke to Rwandan women leaders about the challenges that remain and what it would take to sustain these hard-won gains.
To counter this narrative and boost women’s leadership skills, UN Women and UN partners in Rwanda supported leadership training for women leading up to the parliamentary elections in early September.
Following the nationwide local elections in 2017, women occupy 41 per cent of posts at the federal, provincial and national levels of government in Nepal. Furthermore, more than 6,500 Dalit women, women of the lowest caste group in some South Asian countries, are among the more than 14,000 female elected representatives.
Ek Maya is one of 11 women elected to chairpersons of rural municipalities. She is now Vice Chair of Khajura Rural Municipality, and on one recent visit to her office, she was seen busy finalizing the new fiscal year budget and policy plans for the Municipality.
Although she looks forward to serving her community, Ek Maya points out that many challenges remain for women in politics: “Our society is not used to women leaders. When male leaders say something, people clap but when female leaders say the same thing, people laugh. We, the female leaders, now need more support from all sectors to prove ourselves.”
In the 2015 election cycle in Guatemala, the first openly lesbian member of Congress, Sandra Moran, and Irlanda Pop, the only indigenous mayor, were elected.
“Political violence against women is rarely discussed or recognized, but it exists, and there are no specific laws against it yet. We are proposing a law to address political violence, and it will include sexual harassment, discrimination, lower salaries and even the treatment of a female candidate or politician,” said Moran during a recent conversation with UN Women.
Leadership by these women is important for inspiring the next generation of diverse, empowered women leaders in Guatemala. Pop says, “People voted for me because they wanted to see change…Girls and young women are the future of Guatemala. Everything is possible if they set their mind and prepare.”
Following the May 2018 elections, women now make up 47 per cent of the local council positions in Tunisia. The dramatic increase in women members is the result of a 2016 electoral law that included the principles of parity and alternation between men and women on candidate lists for all elections.
It also took a lot of efforts to raise voter awareness and countering attitudes that traditionally did not back women’s leadership in politics.
In May, Ichrak Rhouma was elected to the Sidi Hassine Council in Tunis, the capital city. Prior to running for office, Rhouma attended a training on local governance and media relations. Rhouma says that the training “allowed us to deepen our knowledge on women's rights in general, but also to learn new concepts such as gender-sensitive budgeting.”
However, efforts to advance gender equality in politics must extend beyond elections. “Now that we have this high number of elected women in local and regional councils, we hope to continue supporting them with targeted training to help them succeed in their mission,” says Nejma Ben Kheher, Project Officer at the Tunisian League of Women Voters.
Tunisia is not alone in its challenges and gains in the Arab States region. In its highly anticipated 2018 elections, Lebanon saw a record number of women on the ballot. An unprecedented 113 women registered as candidates, and 86 of them made it to candidate lists. This was a whopping increase from 2009, when only 12 women candidates had registered.
In the May elections, only six women were finally elected to Parliament, reflecting hard-won victories, but also the long road ahead for women candidates.
Paula Yaacoubian, one of the registered candidates, and the only woman from civil society to be elected to the Parliament, said: “This year women themselves took the initiative to participate as candidates, to push things forward,” adding that without a specific quota for women and with the prevailing attitudes that prefer male candidates, women didn’t make it to all party lists.