Women in Politics: Beyond Numbers

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. 

 

 

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