Where are the women leaders?
The Guardian - Poverty Matters Blog
26 November 2013
Posted by Hilary Armstrong
If women are to achieve equality, they need a voice and a seat at the table. It's time to set measurable goals to affect change.
When I was first elected in 1987, I was part of an increased number of women in the UK parliament, but we still comprised only 5% of MPs. Even now, more than a quarter of a century later and in a country that has long prided itself on a commitment to equality, only one in five MPs is a woman. Far from leading the way, we are languishing at the global average.
This is a worldwide problem that demands action on many fronts. According to research by the anti-poverty organisation Voluntary Service Overseas, women will not be equally represented in parliaments until 2065, based on current trends, and will not make up half of world leaders until 2134.
This week, the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK (CPA) will bring together parliamentarians from around the world to discuss the post-2015 development agenda, with a conference on gender equality and women's empowerment.
Part of CPA's work is aimed at empowering women leaders. This is about tackling a basic injustice, but it's also critical to making the best, most informed decisions about poverty.
I visited Uganda and Tanzania last year as part of a commitment to support women parliamentarians to build their capacity in a range of ways. We shared stories, performed role-plays, and learned strategies to be more effective in the chamber, with the media, and in constituencies. We discussed ways of empowering women – that was particularly potent in Tanzania, which is in the midst of proposals to revise its constitution.
Yet the often courageous work of female activists and politicians, whether local or national, needs to be supported by commitments from international decision-makers, particularly now as they begin to decide on the framework that will replace the millennium development goals in 2015.
While most international leaders are happy to make a broad commitment to gender equality and women's empowerment, they have been too vague on the detail of what should be done and how. It is imperative that countries commit to specific, measureable outcomes, because, in the words of Hillary Clinton: "What gets measured gets done."
VSO's report sets out practical recommendations on how women's participation and influence in public and political life can be reflected in the next international development framework. It calls for an overall goal on gender equality and women's empowerment, and suggests using a combination of qualitative and quantitative indicators to track real change, including, for example, measures of public perceptions around female leaders.
How is this progressive, you might ask? To start with, making the change to measure the actual influence women have in decision-making is a step change from the MDGs, which only measured the number of women in parliaments. If women are to have real equality, then they need to have a voice as well as a seat at the table. Measuring influence challenges us to think about what roles women are filling when they do get into parliament or on local council or community boards. How many of them, for example, hold positions as crucial to public spending as minister of the exchequer?
International agreements alone will not address the barriers and prejudices women face in so many countries, or redress the social norms that set expectations for men to be leaders over women. We need accompanying action at grassroots level.
For example, female politicians and political candidates may benefit from training over a sustained period to gain the skills needed to mobilise public, political and financial support, be effective representatives for their constituents, and ensure they have the skills and confidence to influence policy development.
At the same time, women at grassroots level need to be informed of their political rights and how they can influence public and political decision-making in areas that are important to them. And women's rights organisations on the ground are best placed to undertake these educational programmes; they are known by their communities and can act without attracting the suspicion that sometimes accompanies foreign governments and international NGOs. This applies all the more in post-conflict and otherwise insecure contexts; Afghanistan, Syria and Pakistan spring to mind.
I hope that by including a target and indicator on women's participation and influence, both donor and recipient governments will ensure adequate funding for these civil society organisations, particularly those women's groups that act as such important facilitators for on-the-ground change.
The post-2015 process provides us with a once-in-a-generation opportunity to shape the kind of future we want to see and the tools that will achieve it; gender equality and women's empowerment must be central to this vision.
Lady Armstrong is a Labour party politician and UK representative on the VSO Federation Council
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