Women in Politics: Beyond Numbers

24/07/2014

Jenny_Edwards200Following David Cameron’s cabinet reshuffle, the UK government has moved from having three women in the cabinet to five: and these two new members are working mothers, a presence not there before. This still fails to improve the overall gender equity: according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union the UK currently ranks 65th globally for women parliamentary membership. Women comprise 22.6 per cen of the total UK parliament, compared to 51 per cent of the population. A focus just on numbers, however, doesn’t give us a complete picture. Even if countries have high numbers of women political representatives it doesn’t necessarily mean that the women are full, active members; they could just be there for window dressing, and they may not promote women’s rights once they get into politics. Recent research conducted in Bangladesh, Brazil, Egypt, Ghana, India, Palestine, Sierra Leone and Sudan suggests that exploring women’s political pathways from the ground up may provide a more comprehensive understanding.

What do we mean by politics?

Lessons from the eight country studies suggest that we need to have a broader understanding of the history of women’s political activism before they entered formal politics. Most of the women interviewed had been involved in community support professions before taking up politics, such as teaching, nursing and NGO work. Quite a few of the women had also been involved in student politics. Community service and charity work were also significant aspects of their lives before formal politics. In Bangladesh many of the local women councillors interviewed had helped in providing emergency relief and welfare, building them a reputation for aiding the disadvantaged. In Ghana one woman councillor explained how her work with the youth was important for appealing to a key constituency as 15-24 year olds constitute almost a quarter of Ghana’s population. It is important that political empowerment training programmes recognise the full extent of women’s experiences and help them to draw upon this in building their constituencies and working in formal political spaces.

Where and when politics happen

Politics happens in private and public spaces for 24 hours a day, not just in parliamentary headquarters between the hours of 9 to 5. For young girls growing up in a political family this can provide an invaluable early immersion into the political world. A councillor from India explained how she had an open house growing up, ‘with endless streams of people coming and going’. She, ‘enjoyed meeting people, talking to them, learning about their problems, listening in how [her] father and uncles solved these’. It can also, however, be exclusionary. In a recent article for Contestations, Mariz Tadros asserts that parliamentary sessions and council meetings held late into the evening block access for those women politicians with unpaid care responsibilities. She contends that if we are to be serious about inclusive political representation, ‘Processes of deliberation and decision-making be they at the local or at the parliamentary level need to be sensitive to unpaid care responsibilities and how they feature in timelines’.

Family support?

For women in the case studies, family support was key to their ability to carry out their political duties. Husbands provided moral, organisational and campaign assistance, even cutting across party divides. Few husbands, however, provided childcare support and their motives were not always completely altruistic. Power and prestige for the family were motivations for many of them. The support given does however go against much feminist literature, which often casts men in a disempowering light. But let’s also not forget that family importance can be less positive. Maintaining political power in the hands of a few powerful families creates an elitist system. It also reduces the women’s autonomy in terms of what they do once they are in government. Nevertheless, women’s relationships are a significant factor in how they operate within politics and recognition of this and support for these family networks is important.

Supporting women’s politics from the ground up

If we are to move beyond numbers and women getting into cabinet being front page news (rather than just the norm), we need to support women much earlier in their political careers. We need to recognise that politics begins informally and to support women’s roles in this and also their jump, should they choose to make it, into formal politics. We need to move away from ‘projectivising’ political empowerment training and support programmes and provide help for women over the long-term, not just focusing on elections and then abandoning them once the vote is over. This also means following up on what worked and what didn’t and providing continued support for those women who advocate a social and gender justice agenda who failed to get elected. Most of all we should recognise the importance of relationships. This includes recognising and supporting the roles of family members in helping women in their political careers, but also taking into account women’s unpaid care responsibilities. If we take this much broader and also bottom-up approach to women’s entry into politics, perhaps then we will begin to see a much broader, comprehensive spectrum of society within politics.

Further reading: Women in Politics: Gender, Power and Development by Mariz Tadros.

Jenny Edwards is Programme Officer for the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Programme, based at IDS. 

 

 


The paradoxical role of families in women and girls health in slums

09/07/2014

Pauline OosterhoffPauline profile

One of the things that strikes one most clearly in working in the slums in Kenya is that, as in many developing countries, the state is barely present in most people’s lives. For the women my colleague Emily Kahega Igonya and I encountered in Nairobi’s slums last week, the government was inactive while they were sold by their sisters or brothers-in-law, tricked into unpaid work with false promises of education, and kicked out of their parental homes as orphans.

Yet Kenya’s recent constitutional reforms are based on the idea that devolution, handing off central government responsibilities to municipalities, can solve people’s problems by bringing government closer to their lives. This seems doubtful, given that for most of the women in slums we talked to, it is family and friends, not the state, that provides them with support. It made us wonder how and to what extent state policies can interfere in dysfunctional families, when it is the family that provides for the services that dysfunctional states fail to provide.

The impact of the new Kenyan constitution on health outcomes

According to the new Kenyan constitution introduced in May 2010, all Kenyans have the right to the highest attainable standard of health. To realise access to health, the constitutional reforms prescribe “devolution”, a transfer of responsibility from the national government to the counties. Devolution should bring the government closer to the people.

Last week Emily and I examined the effects of Kenya’s constitutional reforms on access to HIV and AIDS services for women and girls in Nairobi slums. We worked with HIV-positive women, all young mothers, on digital storytelling to inform policy makers of the effects of these national policies on their health. All women described betrayal in their families –often by other women- that exposed them to HIV, violence, and destitution. Yet it is their sense of family –even if it is just their own children – that allows them to survive in the absence of a functioning state.

When Larissa, a widow with two children, completed primary school in a village, her mother was no longer able to pay for her school fees. She called her elder sister in Nairobi, who offered to pay for her education. Upon arrival in Nairobi, however, her sister told her that she would only pay for school fees if Larissa agreed to marry her husband as his second wife. When she refused, her sister’s husband presented Larissa with a widower with two children who would marry her and pay her school fees if she were to take care of him and his children. She ran away and met a man with a job in a restaurant who paid her school fees and married her. Shortly after the delivery of her second child, he fell ill with AIDS. He encouraged her to seek treatment from international donors but he denied that he was HIV positive to her until the very end. She has now been inherited by his younger brother. He takes good care of her, and she is pregnant with his child. Who is failing women like her?

The implementation of the devolution of health services began last year, with the election of governors and county principals, but it has barely affected these women. For sex workers -some of whom have been involved in sex work since their early teens – the effect on their health has been clearly negative. Municipalities interpret and enforce laws on sex work more harshly than the central authorities did, chasing women off the streets and detaining them. Police detention makes it harder for them to take their AIDS medicines. Sex workers reported having to stop their medication completely, or change to herbal medication. In their perception, devolution means that “law enforcement can now use their cars freely to extort more bribes from us later at night.”

Sex work, the family and state support

For sex workers, other sex workers and community-based organizations are the main form of support after their own family failed. Rose, a young mother, was taken in by older sex workers when she was orphaned at the age of 15 and rejected by her family. She has worked as a sex worker ever since. Sarah’s mother decided that her job was done after her daughter finished primary school. Sarah decided to go to Nairobi to live with her aunt, who could not pay for all her expenses. She had to look for money herself, and at the age of fourteen she found herself on the streets as a sex worker. When her aunt guessed how she made her money, she threw her out, leaving her at the mercy of different men who took her in until they were bored or she became pregnant. Linda finished high school and went to college, hoping to become a secretary. She came to Nairobi to look for work and live with her uncle. He had no money to pay for her. The only people who were willing to help her find a job and a home were bargirls who moonlighted as sex workers.

Women we spoke with –no matter how poor- had done their best to avoid the state health services for years. As Lucy, a young widowed mother of two, explains, “there is no confidentiality, the lines are long and the hours are short, and everyone can see you.” Instead, they obtain AIDS medicines through internationally funded and managed services like MSF and CDC. Kenyan community-based organizations, like HAKI and COTANET, help women to organise themselves and establish their own peer support systems. But for housing, food and other essentials, it is their own family they rely on first. And when that system fails- without any safety net offered by the state, charities or INGO’s – women are exposed to many risks, including HIV. Policies that aim to support the right to health of women and girls in slums need to recognize the central roles of families in responding to governmental irresponsibility.

All names in this article are fictional to protect the identity of the women.

Pauline Oosterhoff is a Research Fellow for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS. She can be found on Twitter as: @PPJOosterhoff

Previous blog posts by Pauline Oosterhoff:


Participatory Action Learning on Gender Mainstreaming in Kenya – Reflections from the Field

02/07/2014

By Patricia Njoroge

A little while ago, Robert Chambers blogged about a conference ‘Engaging with Crisis-affected People in Humanitarian Action’ that he attended. Robert reflected on the change from top-down measurement towards accountability to the people he has witnesses over. Patricia Njoroge, who met Robert at the conference got in touch afterwards to share about a Participatory Action Learning project which illustrates the difference a participatory approach can make to people affected by crisis.

In 2013 the World Food Programme (WFP) and IDS launched a Participatory Action Learning (PAL) project ‘Innovations from the Field: Gender Mainstreaming from the Ground Up’. The project is funded by USAID and is being piloted in five countries: Kenya, Malawi, Lesotho, Senegal and Guatemala. The project’s objectives are to learn and sharewhat already works to mainstream gender equality in WFP field programmes. And to apply the lessons to strengthen gender-sensitive practice within WFP.

In Kenya WFP staff identified four themes they wanted to research through the PAL process. In December 2013 the ‘Deepening Understanding of Gender Relations’ and the ‘Communicating with the Field’ PAL Teams undertook a field study at the coastal region, using participatory tools to engage with communities involved in WFP Kenya’s Cash for Assets (CFA) programme. As well as talking about a range of benefits associated with the programme, several programmatic issues were raised by the affected communities. The best we could do was to record these on small hand held video recorders – this had a great impact! On returning from the field these issues were shared with management and steps were initiated to resolve them.participatory action learning 1

Providing feedback to the communities
In March 2014, two members of the PAL teams returned to the study communities and provided feedback on actions taken. Community members very much appreciated that action had been taken on the issues they had raised and also that the fact that the Team was able to visit them again and provide them with feedback. Often researchers collect community members’ views but not all are able to return and give feedback on actions taken with the information provided. The team showed those interviewed a video developed with their recording/contributions. The joy of having a team listening to them, and taking their concern to management, action taken and then going back to give feedback was immense. They said they appreciated that the organisation was now listening to them. They were happy to see themselves on film, with one person commenting about one of the women shown in the videos ‘she is now known across Kenya!’

As part of the analysis of findings, the PAL teams reflected on the use of different participatory tools during the study.

Time Line (12 hour clock)
This tool helped to highlight how men and women spend their time in a day. Where there was a member in the Focus Group able to write, the team guided the discussion and the members would discuss freely and write on the manila papers provided. This was an ice breaker, often causing laughter as participants reflected on how men and women spent their time differently, as well as creating space for discussion on how WFP can engage more men in project activities to reduce the burden on women.

At the end of the session, the list of what men do and women do was distinctive with men having a shorter list while the women’s list was far longer. The men all acknowledged that women do a lot more than men in a normal day and are the first to wake up and last to go to sleep.

When I used this method I found it is very engaging, there’s a relaxed atmosphere and participants don’t focus on themselves but rather discuss and agree on a common general activity to write down. Also, as a start I tell them I want to learn from them (they have the power to teach me about their lives) – all in all a very rewarding and satisfying experience.

Gender Participation in Productive Activities
With the help of this tool participants mapped five main daily activities and through proportional piling they showed how many men and how many women participate in each activity. This was a very participatory exercise as it involved drawing signs of men and women on a manila paper to represent proportions of engagement in various productive activities. It elicited some interesting, and sometimes conflicting, results. For example, in one community a group of women concluded that for four out of the listed five activities (CFA, farming on own land, paid labour, charcoal burning for sale) women represented eight out of ten people doing the activity, while for the remaining activity – drinking boko,(the local brew) – men rated ten out of ten. This resulted in a hilarious moment as one woman tried to point out that there are a few men who look for paid work. Yet in a discussion with young and older men, while they agreed that men’s participation in CFA activities was low at a mere 1 out 10 men, they said they participated more than women in casual labour and equally in charcoal burning. However, they did acknowledge that women’s contribution to income generation on top of their participation in CFA activities meant that in general women were doing more than men.Community members participating in workshop

Problem Census in Communication Tool
The tool helped to clarify how affected communities usually communicate between each other, how they receive information about the CFA project and how information is relayed through different sources and means. The tool also helps identify the preferred/ideal information-flow, including what channels to use in order to ensure communities receive information about projects effectively. This information is not always easy to capture through just verbal focus group discussions, neither is it easy to make people understand what information you are trying to obtain from them. Hence, using this tool to engage people helps both the participants to understand the information they should try to give as well as it assists the facilitator in her/his task to guide the conversation and map out the issues in an easier way.

Benefits of using participatory tools in the project
To sum up, these participatory tools helped in engaging with community members, creating an open friendly learning atmosphere with them educating the team and clearly bringing out issues for discussion. The participatory tools bring the participants closer to the subject and elicit rich discussions on the subject matter. It also holds the participants’ attention and the moderator has less fear of losing their audience.

In the course of the discussion, interrelated problems are discussed and causality factors identified. This provides a good opportunity for those involved to identify measures which can redress the weak points. By using the tools the beneficiaries felt they were in control of the process, telling their story in their own words.

Patricia Njoroge is a Gender and Protection Advocate with the World Food Programme (WFP) in Kenya

Read Robert Chambers’ blog post: