Still striving for equality

Feb 102004
Authors: Meg Burd

“Nowhere in the world, is women’s involvement in the political process proportionate to the 50 percent of the population they approximately represent,” said Nana Oye Lithur of the International Federation of Women Lawyers in Ghana as she discusses women in politics with the BBC.

While over the last 100 years the participation of women in politics (from grassroots campaigns to voting to actual office holding) has increased incredibly worldwide, it is still disturbing that, as Lithur says, women are under-represented in political systems almost everywhere. As we all continue in the 21st century, this trend of exclusion of women from the political sphere should not continue.

In looking to the future of women in politics, the accomplishments of women in the past century can be seen as something to be built upon.

“Women have made great improvements in representation and participation in global politics. Thirty years ago, women in the United States, for instance, composed less than five percent of all state legislatures; in Senegal, there were no women in the National Assembly,” according to Amy S. Patterson, assistant professor of political science at Elmhurst College, in a USA Today article.

Indeed, looking back even further to 1893 when New Zealand became the first country in which women gained the right to vote, women have achieved much in politics. Women since then have achieved the position of prime minister or president in countries such as Sri Lanka, India, Israel, Portugal, Norway, Bolivia, Iceland, Netherland-Antilles, Poland, Pakistan, Ireland, Haiti, Turkey, Bangladesh and various other nations around the world. Today, more and more women are finding seats in national and local legislative bodies in many places throughout the globe, or making their voices heard by starting local political action groups.

It is vital for these trends of women becoming involved in all levels of politics to continue for many reasons. Perhaps most crucially, women today and in the future may offer a perspective that pays more attention to the needs of the gender that makes up more than half the population of the world. While, as Patterson cautions, it is dangerous to think of women in politics around the world as a homogenous group that is interested in the exact same issues, she and others do note a trend that women who achieve political voices “from industrialized countries concentrate on issues such as access to birth control and child care, equal pay for equal work, affirmative action and policies against sexual harassment… Women in developing nations often concentrate their organizing efforts on issues such as access to childhood immunizations, clean water, primary health care services” and other social issues.

While not to suggest that issues of family are uniquely women’s issues (or that they are the “natural” concern women in any way) there does seem to be an increase in attention on social matters that traditionally impact women in many societies. “I think more social areas would be better developed if women were in more decision-making positions because theses are areas that really touch women and their families and their children,” suggests Edna Adan Ismail, the foreign minister of Somaliland in a BBC interview.

Today, women hold only a small percentage of many legislative and executive roles worldwide. For example, as BBC correspondent Jyotsna Singh said, while there are many influential and important female leaders in Indian politics, “the number of women candidates remains low… and the national parliament percentages for women stands at only 17 percent.” This number is roughly the same in most places around the world (even the U.S. has only 13.6 percent total in both legislative houses).

These small percentages Vrinda Karat, general secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, said “should not be seen as reaching a par with men but only the beginning of that road.”

As we look to the future of women in politics throughout the globe, we can see that many achievements have been made, and there are still many more that must be made. The voices of many different kinds of women from different backgrounds should be heard more loudly in politics, and representation for women should become more commensurate with the population of women in the world.

Women have made historic steps in the last hundred years, but that should not be the end. This is only “the beginning of that road.”

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