Addressing Women’s Elitism in National Politics Requires us to Start Local

The case of the Costa Rican domestic workers perfectly illustrates the need to shift the debate beyond numbers to consider how inclusive and representative our political systems truly are – at all levels.

Whilst the advances made in women’s parliamentary representation worldwide is no doubt a cause for celebration we know full well that ‘bums on seats’ are not enough. Attention must increasingly turn to ensuring women parliamentarians reflect the diversity of societies in which they live and that their increased participation translates into actual influence.

One starting point is to look beyond the chambers and corridors of national parliaments to the localised and more informal decision making spaces that arguably have greater – if not more immediate – impact on women’s lives and those of their families. From school boards and producer cooperatives through to water use committees and village councils, women are typically in the minority and typically in the margins. At this level the barriers to women’s participation are equally as entrenched – the burden of unpaid care, negative public attitudes, lack of available training, support and resources to name but a few. However, what a focus at the local level does offer is a window through which to explore, support and promote different trajectories for women to enter national decision-making.

At VSO our programmes are using a variety of strategies to help increase women’s voice and influence in local decision making, ranging from direct support to women and women’s groups through to efforts to change community attitudes and discriminatory practices. Our focus on those who are most excluded from decision making – and often completely invisible in national policy – has brought us to work with widows in Cameroon, sex workers in Tanzania, or lower caste women in Nepal.

We have found that connecting grassroots women’s organisations to national women’s organisations is key. In Kenya, for example, we are currently supporting greater collaboration between our partners the Kenyan Women’s Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA) and Sauti Ya Wanawake, a now sizeable movement of local women’s networks in Kenya’s rural coastal region.

We have also observed the powerful connection between women’s economic empowerment and their political empowerment. In Tanzania, our work with women solar engineers for instance has shown how improvements in women’s financial security and economic status have increased their political standing within the community. As Fatuma, a solar engineer and now treasurer of the project committee in her village puts it: “For the first time, we are being respected when we speak, people are listening to what we have to say, and the engineers are setting an example for other girls in our village who want to be like them”.

Fatuma may or may not aspire to become a parliamentarian, but until we begin to address the barriers she and other women face locally, we cannot hope to tackle the diversity of women’s voices nationally.

In terms of shifting the debate on the international stage, one significant and immediate opportunity lies with the global sustainable development framework that is set to replace the MDGs when they expire next year.

An obvious omission within the current MDG framework is a dedicated target on women’s participation in political and public life. At VSO we are therefore advocating for its inclusion within a standalone goal on gender equality. This needs to be accompanied by indicators that measure progress not only in terms of women’s formal representation in decision making institutions, but also in terms of proactive support for women’s participation and leadership - whether it concerns training and mentoring, public attitudes or investment in women’s groups and collective organising.¹

As with unpaid care, global targets and indicators will by no means provide the ‘magic bullet’. However, they will help move the conversation on from quotas and serve as an important catalyst to foster the political will and resources necessary to support the transformative change we know is needed on the ground.

¹ For detailed proposals on how women’s influence in political and public life can be reflected within the post-2015 framework see: VSO, 2013, Women in Power: Advancing Women’s participation and influence in political and public life through the post-2015 framework.

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