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. 




Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling


Thea ShahrokhThea Shakrokh

“When people connect to political issues through personal stories, they see them in a different way. They don’t just see democracy in the abstract, they see ‘my democracy.’ The transformative potential of storytelling is written into the fabric of our lives.” Joanna Wheeler

Joanna Wheeler, until recently research fellow in the IDS Power, Participation and Social Change team, talked about Unlocking the transformative potential of storytelling in a recent Open Democracy article. The following summary is edited from Joanna’s Open Democracy post.

Joanna explains how people can understand democracy differently when they connect to political issues through personal stories. They don’t just see democracy as an  abstract concept, they see how it is relevant to them on a daily basis. Although stories may not provide all the answers, she emphasises that what is gained through their telling is important for social justice and democracy. They connect us to issues and to one another through the power of a narrative and the experience of empathy.

In 2013, she and Tessa Lewin helped to lead a collaborative process with citizens’ groups and government employees IDS partners MDPi and OneWorldSEE. They designed and supported a process that used creativity and technology to help people tell their stories about their experience of local governance (pdf). They called it ‘creative citizen engagement through storytelling’ and the examples bring to life the transformational power of stories. Telling a story in a safe space can be cathartic, revelatory, healing and empowering. It can also be unsettling, uncomfortable, and painful.  A collective process of creating and sharing stories becomes a crucible that helps to resolve these conflicting emotions. Furthermore Joanna’s insights provide an interesting reflection on how connections are made between personal stories and collective issues which are political, in the sense that they address relations of power. Read more about Participatory Visual Methods  and the work in Bosnia Herzegovina on participatorymethods.org.

Wider conversations on storytelling at IDS
In a previous blog, Hamsini Ravi, at that time a MA student at IDS’ MA in Participation, Power and Social Change course, sums up the learning from one of the sessions on ‘Reflective Practice and Social Change’ and lists the ways in which stories can have unforeseen impact.

Julia Day, Deputy Director and Head of Communications at the STEPS Centre based at IDS, explores the power of simplicity in storytelling through ‘Photovoice’, a participatory approach by which people combine narrative storytelling with photography, which is being used by their project partner Shibaji Bose, for the STEPS Centre’s Uncertainty from Below project.

The Participate Initiative engaged a series of participatory visual processes using digital storytelling and film to portray development issues through the stories and perspectives of those affected by poverty and marginalisation. These processes use multiple forms of creative media (images, film, audio, design, drawing, drama) in conjunction with participatory research processes to articulate, distil and communicate powerful messages.  For more information see their homepage  and the Work with Us online exhibition.

Thea Shahrokh is a Research Officer at the Participation, Power and Social Change team at IDS working on the role of visual methods in social change initiatives with Joanna Wheeler over the past 18 months..

Read more blogs by Thea Shahrokh:

Considering a Masters course? Interested in participation, development and questions around power and social change?


Susanne Schirmer

This week the IDS students for the 2012/13 course celebrated their graduation and I thought this is a good opportunity to introduce the MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) based at IDS.

The course is particularly geared towards professionals with at least three years of voluntary or work experience. It will enable students to critically reflect on their own practice and to explore the challenges of participation and power relations and what it means to facilitate change through an action learning project. Students come from a wide range of professional backgrounds, including community organisations, NGOs, social movements, governments, businesses and consultancies. They are based in the global South or North and work on diverse issues such as agriculture, health, HIV-AIDS, natural resources, climate change, youth, gender, community development, governance, communication, planning, evaluation and policy-making.

What makes MAP unique is the combination of academic study, practical experience and personal reflection. Two terms of teaching are followed by a four month period of work-based action learning or research, which could be in any country. Academic supervision for the placement is provided throughout by an IDS researcher. Devika Menon and Jessica Kennedy, two of last year’s MAP students, have blogged about their learning through their placements in India and South Africa.

To find out more about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change, watch a short video:

Visit the recently launched IDS Alumni blog to read about student’s experiences at IDS and how their time at IDS has influenced their careers.

Sue Schirmer works as Communications Coordinator for the Participation, Power and Social Change (PPSC) team at IDS.

Read other blogs about the MAP course:

What do kelp forests and Cape Town’s Regional Home Affairs Office have in common? Power and democratic mediation in South Africa


Jessica Kennedy imageJessica Kennedy

For the last four months I have lived and worked in Cape Town, South Africa as part of a ‘work-based learning placement’ for the Masters course in Participation, Power and Social Change at IDS (MAP). I am one of eleven Masters (MA) students scattered across the globe who are currently trying to undertake action research or learning projects to further our understanding of concepts of power, participation and social change.

I think the emphasis is on ‘trying’. Many of us faced challenges setting up action research inquiries or learning circles in new contexts; others struggled to keep focus on learning amidst the rush of action. Soon we shall each attempt to synthesise these experiences into a coherent, reflective paper. Wish us luck!

My focus has been on understanding the concept of democratic mediation. Those interested in social change have done much work to unpick the concept of power and reinforce its importance. In my interactions here, however, I see that our usage of terms and ideas can stick in unhelpful characterisations. Recognising it is useful to see power as everywhere, located in interactions, we still talk of ‘powerful’ or ‘haves’ opposed to ‘powerless’ or ‘have-nots’. We talk about ‘uppers’ and ‘lowers’ in different situations; really, are these identities not far more fluid and dynamic, changing over time and with different interactions? As a young British woman linked to a prestigious institution, interning at an activist organisation in Cape Town, am I powerful or not? Perhaps a better question is, ‘how am I powerful, in what situations and through what interactions?’

We often talk about power structures. This can be helpful: if you are in a position of relative powerlessness, this can expose the structural nature of your situation. You might then express your sense of powerlessness better, or start to explore how to work around those structures. It is important to recognise structural inequalities where they exist.

Yet this language obscures the dynamic nature of power – that relationships of power are affected by the interactions of various individuals, as they are by societal structures.

Previously I mentioned the situation of asylum seekers trying to access documentation at the Home Affairs Department’s Regional Office in Cape Town. With regular police checks on people who look foreign, and the risk of deportation, detention or fines if papers are not up to date, documentation is central to the lives of people seeking sanctuary in South Africa and other migrants. I have focused in Cape Town on understanding what happens in the spaces around the Home Affairs Department: where desperate individuals jostle with middle men, security guards and government officials – and others, such as myself – to get inside the office and leave with up-to-date papers.

Cradled by two oceans, Cape Town is surrounded by incredible marine life. In the aquarium you can see a controlled example of the vibrant kelp forests. Sharks, fish, kelp, sea urchins and phytoplankton jostle and feed off each other. Through my supervisor’s support, I started to see all the complicated, ambiguous interactions outside the Home Affairs Department as an ‘ecosystem’. Each element is sustained by and sustains each other, even if an individual aims to get out of that situation, or exploit someone in it. Each new interaction changes dynamics. Everything changes when a diver with a camera drops in, scattering fish and bringing curious sharks closer. I think I might be a remora, a fish that sucks onto another, swimming behind it.

You can take the metaphor too far. For me, it revealed something important about what was happening at Home Affairs. People’s interactions with each other were situated in a context that constantly changed through these interactions. Power dynamics were fluid. What seemed central was democratic mediation. Relationships appeared predicated on an individuals’ ability to provide access to something: a corrupt Home Office official; an extension to an asylum permit; inside the building; information about changes to policy; the wider public; or money. I was embedded within this ecosystem. A relational view of these interactions, recognising their complexity, allowed me to make better sense of what people were doing and saying.

For me, the concept of democratic mediation has been a ‘lens’ to shed light on these interactions. If I were to continue working as an activist to challenge injustice in the asylum system in South Africa, I am convinced that this understanding would allow me to design better strategies to increase people’s access to documentation and hold public actors to account. It would enable me to appreciate how any intervention exists in a complex, changing ecosystem, requiring a flexible approach. It would ensure I see everyone I interact with as an agent in this system, and understand how different actions can take someone from ‘powerful’ or ‘powerless’ towards mediating others’ access.

I have been fascinated by how an in-depth look at a particular situation, and my role within it, has revealed aspects of concepts I understood theoretically but not experientially. This action research placement has an invaluable opportunity to take concepts of power, participation and social change out into ‘the real world’. For me, the familiar context of social action around the asylum system and new situation of South African society, community and politics heightened my learning. I can’t recommend enough the experience of this MA as a way to deepen knowledge and learning. Only, maybe don’t ask me that in a month’s time, when the paper is due.

Jessica Kennedy is a student at IDS, currently undertaking the MA in Participation, Power and Social Change.

Spices and women’s empowerment: I have been surprised


Devika MenonDevika Menon

I’m currently undertaking a work-based learning placement as part of the IDS MA course in Participation, Power and Social Change and it has been one and a half months since I have started working at the Masala Center, or Spice Center, located in Lajpat Nagar, New Delhi. The aroma and feel of the spices is making this experience even better. My favorites are cumin seeds and dry mango powder.

I have developed bonds of friendship with the 14 women who work here. I have been documenting oral narratives, trying to gauge whether working here leads to their empowerment – at an individual and collective level. Many women at the center have been working here for over 15 years, spending most of their adult lives at the center. I had come in with many questions and the notion that the center would have sub-standard working conditions, the workers would have no knowledge of their rights, and would be completely disempowered. My time here has proven me wrong and I have been surprised by the women’s empowerment through their jobs

To begin with, working at the center is economically empowering. Through the money they earn, women are able to both run their households (in the case of female headed households), as well as support their family income. Expenses include rent, rations[monthly provisions], school fees, etc. They also have bank accounts, with savings facilities. As said by Roopa Devi, 40 years, ‘(Out of a monthly salary of Rs. 7900-approx. 88 pounds) I spend it all on rations, Rs. 500 (approx. 6 pounds) goes to the bank. I will make a house in my village with this money’.

Apart from these routine expenses, women are also able to use this money for themselves. Seema Devi says, ‘I can say that I am no longer dependent on anyone for money, I don’t need to look elsewhere. I can make my own clothes and jewelry now’.

This suggests that working at the center has enabled their children’s education, given them freedom of choice and made them more economically independent.

Another facet of individual empowerment is the value and respect these women get in society for their work. As Seema Devi further says ‘My relatives actually respect me for this work, because I can run the house with the money I earn at the centre. I am no more frightened of anyone, whether it is someone senior or junior to me’.

She is supported by Prem, 40 years: ‘No one is desperate once they start working, they can stand on their own two feet, and my children are being educated and well brought up. It’s good that I work, my needs are being met’.

This work is also emotionally empowering as well, as the center provides a space forinterview picture resized these women to vent their frustrations and share their joys and sorrows. Some of them come from troubled homes or from single income families, others they have children with health problems and some suffer from depression. By coming together and talking openly about their problems, these women are able to overcome their grief.

In the words of Gyani Devi, ‘When I come here, my tension reduces. When I go home, the same problems start again. A married son should be able to run the house, but there is no one to do that as he is ailing. All the money goes in his treatment. Laughing and crying is a part of life. But why should we cry? What is the point of that? When I come here, we laugh and make jokes together. That is why I never take holidays’.

The physical space is quite large and airy. The women have individual grinding wheels and enough mortar-pestles and sieves to work with. They also have a courtyard where spices are packed as well as a terrace for drying them. This goes against my initial viewpoint that they have sub-standard working conditions.

As far as workers rights are concerned, many of these women have joined the organised sector for the first time. They are able to raise their issues with the management, and have managed to considerably increase their wages over the years. This clearly shows their collective empowerment.

Apart from working at the center, I have also interviewed other women like my grandmother, two female chefs, one domestic help, and one working woman. Their views have also provided interesting insights into preparing and sharing food. All these women gain respect through sharing and preparing food, but for those whom cooking is livelihood, the relationship is different. They feel that cooking is a job for them, whereas for women who cook at home, it is also seen as an avenue to release their tension.

I still have a lot more questions to ask – do these women at the center have any attachment to any specific spice? If they were not doing this work, what would they like to do? Is there anything else that they want to tell me?

I hope these questions are answered by the time I write my next blog entry…

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

Watch a short video about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change and read other recent blogs:


Four Months in Cape Town Begin: Questions of race, xenophobia and positionality


Jessica KennedyJessica Kennedy image

It can be hard to explain a ‘work-based learning placement’. Usually people equate it with ‘research’ or an ‘internship’. Then come the questions: if it is research, where are your questionnaires and why is your question so vague? If it is an internship, why do you keep asking so very many questions and making so very many notes?

I am one of those ‘mappers’ that Rosalind referred to in her post about MA in Participation, Power and Social Change, or ‘MAP’. For the last few weeks I have been working with a number of NGOs and social movements in Cape Town, experiencing life here and generally absorbing what is going on around me. I hope to learn more about democratic mediation: the process of individuals and organisations mediating between the people with power, and those without. I want to find out more about how mediators work, what drives them, and the complex dynamics of accountability in which this action takes place.

One of the first things I noticed about this place is how, to a large extent, everything is about race. Standing, sitting, talking and interacting with other people I am acutely aware of my race in a way I haven’t been before.

The pervasive nature of issues of racial differentiation is most obvious in physical spaces. Space here is racialised. Most days I travel into the office by train. Trains have two classes at different prices. Given the intersection of class, race and wealth here, the people that sit in each class of carriage look very different. Gasps of horror from foreign interns when I explain I have got a third class ‘metro’ ticket and querulous looks from Metrorail staff when I say I do not want a first class ‘metro plus’ ticket suggest that, as a foreign white person, I have been crossing some invisible boundary by taking the low class of carriage. Even platforms become segregated: ‘metro’ and ‘metro plus’ carriages are at different ends of the train, so where you stand on the platform says a lot about who you are. If you looked up and down the platform each morning, not knowing about the different classes, you would ask why all the white people were standing together.

’Those are white people buses‘, someone told me about new MyCiti buses brought in for the World Cup. ’Still, it is a good a thing. This way when the buses break down black people don’t have to toyi-toyi[i], a white person just calls up to complain and it’s fixed straight away’.

The different experiences of life hinted at by that comment are evident if you move between spaces in Cape Town. Coloured, white and black people are physically separated in different areas: townships and suburbs. It can be difficult and dangerous to travel between these areas. Recent protests around poor sanitation in some townships caused uproar by physically bringing the stink of broken toilets into the white domain.

It feels like there can be no better place to learn what ‘positionality’ really means.

June 4 Home Affairs Huddle small

Queuing in the rain at Home Affairs office in Cape Town © Jessica Kennedy

This week I spent time at the Home Affairs Regional Office, which processes applications for asylum. Last week, huge queues led to chaos and violence, so as part of a refugee rights organisation I went down to monitor the situation. With me was one other person, a man who happens to be black. Our races underlay all our interactions: this man could strike up conversations with migrants from other African countries, who would ignore me or stop talking when I approached. In contrast, people from Pakistan and Afghanistan would approach me for conversation, then rapidly move away when my colleague approached.

 Our conversations hinged on South Africa’s ongoing problem of xenophobic violence. Issues of race have been complicated by migration. Hostile attitudes towards foreigners seeking refuge in South Africa make questions of nationality as valid as questions of race. This country’s history feels all around you: police practices of stopping ‘foreign-looking’ people on the streets, demanding to see papers and arresting anyone that is not carrying valid documents are often compared to apartheid-era pass laws. Having to run from a police check as I had forgotten to carry my passport added a new dimension to learning about what it means to be a migrant in South Africa!

Of course, race is not all there is to this country, or this city, and there already seems to be a dangerous tendency to bring everything down to questions of race, limiting political conversation. ‘You are from England, aren’t you? You should have stayed there‘. This conversation opening automatically makes me tense. ’Why?’, I ask anxiously. ’Because of the weather of course‘, comes the cheery reply. ’Isn’t it just getting sunny over there? It’s only going to get colder here!

[i] Toyi-toyi is a South African dance strongly associated with public protests.

Jessica Kennedy is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change. A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of month, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

Read other recent blogs about the MA Participation, Power and Social Change:

Preparing and sharing food – co-creating new recipes for women’s empowerment


Devika MenonDevika Menon

Can preparing and sharing food lead to women’s individual and collective empowerment? Does food have the power to enhance women’s agency, give them a voice, and enable their decision-making power?

As a student on the current MA Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP) programme, and having a strong passion for preparing food and a background of working for women’s rights, these questions have been running through my mind ever since I came to IDS last September. However, I previously always considered preparing and sharing food as an interest, and not something I can conduct research on. The MAP programme, and my experiences with peers and faculty at IDS has enabled me to also think about these questions from a research point of view, and has given me clarity to carry out my current field placement.

I am currently in New Delhi, working at a masala[1] center, a space where women come together to grind spices and pound flour. The masala center is a part of the activities of the Servants of the People Society, a well-established Indian NGO. The NGO employs fourteen women at the center, and is giving them a livelihood, along with promoting a small-scale industry. The entire process is done by hand, from pounding the spices, to sieving them once they are pounded, and then packing them up for sale.spices

Since the spices are made by hand, their quality is much better than other products in the market, but it is really hard work, and the women work long hours at the center.

My aim through this research is to understand what this space means to these women. Apart from giving them a livelihood, how else is this center contributing to their lives? Does this space give them the chance to reveal what they are really feeling, or do those feelings get hidden because some women may be dominating the space? I am also interested in understanding who has ownership and control over the space, whether it is the women themselves, or other staff members.

Along with visits to the center, I am also developing my knowledge on women’s empowerment, and reflecting on my own practice. Publications at IDS, brought out through the Pathways to Women’s Empowerment programme are proving helpful in this research journey.

As a young woman researcher, I have a lot of battles to fight. One of the women asked me how talking to me will help her in any way, and resisted to having me in her space. Other staff members are also intrigued by my research, not fully understanding the process. One of the ways I am overcoming this is by seeing this research as a co-learning endeavor, where all actors involved learn from each other.

I am also interested in the sensory aspect of food and how spices add to that – the feel, taste and touch of the spices, the aroma they add to food, and the many conversations they nurture. This is also related to communal eating, another concept I am greatly interested in.

For this purpose, along with visits to the center, I also plan to engage in conversation with strong women from my family, and other professionals who are involved with preparing and sharing food. Their experiences, along with my own cooking exploits in these months, will surely make for very interesting research.

Devika Menon is a student at IDS, currently doing a MA in Participation, Power and Social Change (MAP). A core component of the MAP course is the 4 month period of work based learning during the summer term. In the next couple of months, she and other MAP students will be blogging about their experiences during their field placements.

[1] ‘Masala’ is a hindi word for spices