Women MPs from Arab Countries review efforts to end gender violence

Representatives from 13 Arab countries, the Tunisian Ministry for Women, Family and Childhood, and the Coalition of Women MPs from Arab Countries Combating Violence Against Women gathered in Tunis for a two-day summit on 16 and 17 November.

The summit, supported by Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), took stock of recent progress made in Tunisia and Lebanon and adopted a Tunis Declaration with legislative recommendations to help combat violence against women in the region.

Violence against women remains prevalent in the Arab world and globally, taking various forms in both the public and private sphere; as parliaments across the region are emboldened, it is necessary to develop legislative systems that secure women’s rights in principle and in practice.

Significant progress has been made so far and this conference convened in the context of real legislative achievements in the Arab region including the recent repeal of the rape marriage article 522 of the penal code of Lebanon and article 308 in Jordan, and the passage of the pioneering Tunisian Domestic Violence bill which recognises domestic violence for the first time and places a responsibility on the state to act in situations previously considered part of the private sphere. Where, according to the National Family Office of Tunisia, 43.6 percent of women between the ages of 18-24 have been victims of violence at least once in their lifetime, this law has the potential to have significant impact.

It is in this context of legislative change that this summit convened to explore and share experiences of implementation mechanisms across the spectrum of violence against women and to affirm commitment to an integrated system of adoption, implementation, and monitoring.

The summit was held in partnership with the Tunisian Ministry of Women and was opened by the Minister, Naziha el Obaidi, who said:

“Tunisia is a country of democracy, it is a nascent democracy but it is establishing legislative systems that preserve the rights of women, children, the elderly, and paves the way for a society where mutual respect prevails. We are proud to belong to this large crescent that is a cradle for civilisations. There is a common dream in the Arab countries to speak in a common language, endorse our responsibilities to our societies; there is a burden on us to act diligently and seriously in fulfilling the responsibilities to our societies, and to our women.”

Experts from across the region, Morocco, Jordan, Tunisia, Iraq and Lebanon, presented best practice on implementation with a focus on the provisions of women’s shelters, harassment in the workplace, and the specific forms of violence perpetrated against women with disabilities or women caring for those affected by disabilities.

As well as regional expertise, Sundari Anitha from Lincoln University shared the results of her research on domestic violence in the UK and in India, exploring the concepts of continuums of violence and intersectionality, introducing language and ideologies prevalent in the international community.

Although great strides are being made in legislative terms across the region, effectiveness of implementation remains to be seen and WFD’s Regional Director Dr Dina Melhem emphasised the need to commit resources to implementation and to post legislative scrutiny. Application can be hindered by many factors, including the ambiguity of the legal text, lack of coherence with other legal texts or other national laws and lack of human resources and other resources to implement however there needs to be a clear and unified understanding of the expected outcomes of the law to measure success.

In bringing together women representatives of 13 Arab countries, the meeting facilitated continued consultation on the draft Arab Convention to Combat Violence against Women; the Convention is the first of its kind to be ratified and reviewed by national parliaments during the drafting stage and attendees were encouraged to share their feedback.

The summit agreed a Tunis Declaration:

  • Our support for the adoption of the draft Arab Convention against Violence against Women and Girls and Domestic Violence
  • We look forward to the Tunisian presidency of the Committee on Women in the League of Arab States next year to upgrade this mechanism to become, in accordance with the proposal of Tunisia, a Council of Arab Women Ministers
  • We encourage States that have not yet adopted legislation and comprehensive frameworks to eliminate violence against women and girls and domestic violence to work towards the establishment of national systems in this field that are in conformity with international standards and are consistent with the contents of the draft Arab Convention
  • We have endeavored to adopt a broader definition of all forms of violence and discrimination and to avoid the narrow concept of the victim to ensure the protection of the rights of all victims,
  • Emphasizing the importance of ensuring special protection against violence for women with disabilities and tightening the sanctions against perpetrators,
  • We call for taking the necessary measures to eliminate cases of violence and sexual harassment in the workplace and to work towards the establishment of legislation in this framework, especially in the labor laws and penalties,
  • Emphasize the role of the judiciary in general and judges in particular to combat violence and to ensure the protection of women and work to develop jurisprudence bold and supportive to protect women and girls from violence and domestic violence,
  • Our emphasis on the need to allocate shelter centers for women and children victims of violence and domestic violence and to monitor the human and material resources necessary to safeguard the dignity of women and children,
  • Our belief in the need to spread the culture of women’s human rights among all the circles concerned with protecting them from violence and domestic violence and our emphasis on the role that national human rights institutions, educational and cultural institutions, media and social media can play in raising societal awareness and changing attitudes in order to ensure respect for women’s human rights and dignity.

Tunisia will assume the Presidency of the Arab League’s Women Committee in 2018 and will continue to be a key partner for the Coalition of Women MPs in their efforts to combat violence against women.

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“It does what it says on the tin” – Reviewing laws to advance equality

What do a 1994 TV advert for wood stain and the legislative process have in common? The importance of delivering on a promise.

Opening a Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD) expert seminar to explore a gender-specific approach to scrutiny of legislation, the Scottish Parliament’s Deputy Presiding Officer, Christine Grahame said:

“There is an obligation on governments when passing legislation to allow it to be put into practice and see if it does what it says on the tin.

 

The only way to do that in my view is through post-legislative scrutiny, where we can ask: is this doing what our parliament intended?”

Christine Grahame’s question is particularly important when it comes to matters of gender equality. Globally, substantial legislation has been passed that should lead to better lives for women and girls. Sadly, many of these laws are not being implemented.

As a young institution with a strong commitment to inclusion, the Scottish Parliament provided the perfect setting for the 10 November investigation into whether a more gendered approach to post-legislative scrutiny can help bridge this growing gap between what a law commits governments to do and what actually happens. 

The seminar brought together leading experts in parliamentary procedures, policy development and gender equality from more than six countries to explore what best practice might look like in integrating gender analysis and post-legislative scrutiny – two key aspects of good governance. Together, they identified six recommendations to lawmakers in every country.

  1. Start early

Rather than waiting until a law has been passed and then trying to assess who it might have helped or hurt, gender analysis should be embedded in the policy development and legislative processes from the very beginning.

Restructuring these processes to ensure an equality lens is applied from the earliest stages is not only good practice, but saves parliamentarians from the most dreaded of fates: legislating in haste, but repenting at leisure.

Equality impact assessments (EQIAs) are used by many parliaments as an ‘early warning system’. While they’re not perfect, they do offer a useful mechanism to identify and address potential problems at the outset of the policy development cycle.

  1. Get the numbers right

Measuring equality and inequality is a developing science and it depends on high-quality data, which isn’t always there. Identifying what data needs to be collected and in what forms is an important part of getting both gender analysis and post-legislative scrutiny right.

Equally important is having people in the relevant institutions who understand how to read and use the data – not just what the figures say but what this means in terms of peoples’ ‘lived experience’. As Dr Angela O’Hagan remarked, “Just because you have a gender doesn’t mean you understand gender.” Collaboration among parliamentary committees and/or government departments can help improve the range of evidence used for gender analysis of legislation, as can pro-active collection of useful data by statistical agencies.

  1. Impact assessments should have impact

Interestingly, there were differences of opinion as to whether the findings of an EQIA obligated legislators to act, or if bad news from an EQIA was little more than a ‘heads up!’

The majority agreed that when potential inequalities are found, members of parliaments and other legislatures should be compelled to either address these or change the course of the policy or law.

  1. Outreach and inclusion should be deliberate and active

One of the reasons that legislation has historically created disadvantages for women and girls – and other groups as well – is that they are vastly under-represented in decision-making processes. Addressing this is not just about getting more women elected, but it is also about making sure women are integrated into all aspects of the policy process. This means actively ensuring that they are called as expert witnesses by legislative committees, that they are fully engaged in policy consultations, and that they have a chance to help decide what the most important issues are.

Achieving this requires parliaments and government departments to seek out women and girls of all backgrounds – pensioners, disabled young people, recent immigrants, rural women, and so on – to ensure their experiences inform decision-making processes. They should not be invited to engage only when what are perceived to be women and/or family issues on the table, but no matter the issue under consideration.

  1. Money offers profound evidence of commitment

Want to know how genuine a government’s commitment to equality is? Follow the money.

Gender budgeting is often misinterpreted to mean spending more money on policies that will help women. But it is really about measuring impact and ensuring that government is spending and raising money in ways that are fair and that advance equality. Austerity measures, for example, frequently have a vastly disproportionate impact on women’s income.

  1. Political will makes a difference

Both equality and good governance make real progress when there is strong leadership behind them. Even if this type of leadership is not present at the top, government departments, legislative committees – the executive and parliament – can find ways to collaborate to advance equality through legislation, policy and good practice. Sharing techniques to monitor and report on equality-related issues is essential for progress to be made quickly.

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Democracy can help us end gender violence in the Arab world

By Wafa Bani Mustafa MP, Chair of the Coalition of Arab Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women

Our girls and women who fall victim of violence, including domestic and sexual violence must deal not only with the life-changing consequences of abuse but also with legal systems, which, instead of providing prevention and protection to victims, help perpetrators.

For over three years, I have been working with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as part of their support to the Coalition of Arab Women MPs to Combat Violence Against Women. The Coalition brings together legislators from thirteen countries and aims at ending the discrimination women in the region face in law with a focus on violence.

“When adopted, the Convention will be the first regional treaty to protect women from violence.”

As committed women lawmakers, we are determined to change legislation at both national and regional level. At national level, we have seen great success in Jordan, with the progress on the repeal of Article 308 of the Penal Code which meant perpetrators of rape within marriage escaped prosecution. Similar efforts were made through members of the coalition in Iraq and Lebanon. At regional level, where we can make the biggest difference, we achieved an important milestone in February, with the formal submission of the draft Convention to Combat Violence Against Women to Member States of the Arab League. When adopted, the Convention will be the first regional treaty to protect women from violence.

The landmark initiative, which benefitted from the support of WFD from the beginning, is unique in its kind and as we await approval, it is worth sharing with you its key features and the lessons we learnt to date:

International and regional treaties can advance standards.

During our preparatory phase, when WFD helped us study international charters and principles, it emerged how standards are particularly important when it comes to the protection of women and girls from violence. Existing efforts in other regions, like the Council of Europe’s Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, or the Inter-American Convention on the Prevention, Punishment and Eradication of Violence against Women, are prime examples of how regional efforts can help consolidate women’s rights.

The Convention was initiated by parliamentarians and is gaining support from Arab Parliaments.

At international level, this represents a new approach to the process of developing treaties or conventions, which usually originate at the executive level. Parliaments are often absent from the basic stages of treaty development, which can lead to difficulties in getting legislation ratified. It is important to involve MPs from the beginning of the process of drafting and debating to avoid such difficulties. I am particularly proud that our work on the Convention is part of this new generation of bottom-up cross-national parliamentary work.

Alliances were built with male MPs.

The Coalition adopted an inclusive approach for getting the Convention considered, by working with male colleagues and leaders as well as with the Arab Inter-parliamentary Union (AIPU) to gain the broadest possible support for the initiative, by demonstrating how without progress on equality it is harder if not impossible to achieve wider progress for all. The AIPU gave the Coalition permanent observer status at the AIPU, which was a testimony to our efforts and signalled commitment to support our cause.

The Convention meets international best practice.

The Convention has been written with the intention of becoming a source of international law for combating gender-based violence. There is an important pioneering role the League of Arab States can play in this field, especially in light of international interest to develop an international convention on gender based violence.

Gender Based Violence requires a comprehensive approach.

The Convention addresses all forms of violence against women and girls, including domestic violence. Importantly, the draft includes a commitment to ensure the articles are in force during times of peace, war or insecurity.

When the Convention is adopted, it will be a very important step that will contribute greatly in laying the foundations for further development in the Arab region and achieving security and peace by guaranteeing fundamental and humanitarian rights to all women.

We are thankful for the support WFD has afforded to our efforts to bring change for women and girls in the region. Democracy can help us end violence against women.

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Helping women run for office in upcoming Sri Lanka local elections

“I had heard about the new women quota but had little knowledge on how local government operates and the opportunities for public involvement”, says Ms. Jeeva Nishanthini, a 26-year-old local Tamil resident from the Nuwara Eliya district, Central Province of Sri Lanka.

Between October 2016 and March 2017, Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD), in partnership with the Federation of Sri Lanka Local Government Association (FSLGA) organised five workshops targeted at potential cross-party women candidates.

Local government elections are due in 2017; the last elections were in 2011 and held without a compulsory quota for women candidates. The introduction of the quota by the Cabinet in 2016 is widely supported by political parties who welcome the requirement to nominate a minimum of 25% women candidates to compete in provincial council elections.

As a result of the WFD workshops , prospective candidates such as Jeeva have a better understanding of how the 25% quota , along with practical knowledge of local government, could help Sri Lankan women become more active in political life.

“My political interest started when I was a 20-year-old” Jeeva explained, “I had tried once to contest the local election even though I didn’t have sufficient knowledge of local government”. Sri Lanka’s system prior to the introduction of the quota could not guarantee support for women candidates from party structures or from traditional patriarchal communities. “Unfortunately, I didn’t have enough support of my family or party leaders” Jeeva said, “I was helpless and disappointed very much”.

The workshops supported capacity building amongst marginalised groups, particularly women and different ethnic backgrounds in regional and rural Sri Lanka who were offered the opportunity to develop their political knowledge and skills. As part of the training, participants were encouraged to develop a joint action plan focusing on policies relevant to women in the local area.

Participants were also encouraged to form a cross-party network of women candidates to continue supporting one another until and beyond the provincial elections. WFD provided a venue for Sri Lankan civil society and individuals to engage with political representatives who also attended.

“I am thankful to the coordinators who have helped me and my other colleagues” Jeeva says . Efforts by Jeeva and other pioneering women candidates in the upcoming local elections will help make women’s voices heard in Sri Lankan’s politics and invite more and younger women engage in the public domain. For effective democracy to root, women must gain representation and become actively involved in the decisions affecting their own communities.

WFD and the FSLGA are hopeful that this initiative can contribute toward greater gender equality by empowering more Sri Lankan women to get involved in politics. Once a bigger pool of female candidates is established at local level, opportunities increase for women, and more women become inspired to compete in the 2020 general election.

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Why regional networks are important for women’s empowerment

(Above: Representatives from sister parties in Africa, the Middle East, and Western Balkans attend Women’s Political Participation Day in Parliament organised by the Labour Party International Office)

Political parties play a fundamental role in ensuring women are represented at all levels of decision-making.

A key area of the Labour Party’s Westminster Foundation for Democracy work is supporting and developing the skills set of social democratic women to play a more active role in party politics and public life.

The establishment of regional networks like the Women’s Academy for Africa, the Arab Women’s Network for Parity and Solidarity, Tha’era, and the CEE Gender Network for Eastern Europe and the Western Balkans have allowed the Labour Party to facilitate mentoring, learning and best practice exchanges between women activists operating in very different contexts but facing very similar challenges.

In a recent visit to the UK Houses of Parliament to engage with UK politicians and women activists from different regions ahead of International Women’s Day 2017, all three groups explained what it is like to be a woman activist in their region and what they get out of international support.

Fatemah Khafagy, a representative of Tha’era from Egypt felt regional networks “are the only way to change things for women.” Improving women’s rights in the Middle East “is not an easy job; there is a lot to be done and a long road to go down” Fatemah explained, “But there is no other way.”

Tha’era has received support from the Labour Party since its inception in 2013. In two years, it has formally trained 150 women through a bespoke training programme, and hundreds more informally through the space created by the network.

Fatemah added that they “benefit so much from exchanges with different countries in the region, especially the ones who are more advanced.” Referring to neighbouring countries like Tunisia and Morocco whose parliaments are already tackling discriminatory legislation, described as “crippling women from being active in public life” by Laila Amili, a member of Tha’era from Morocco.

(Above: Members of Tha’era visit the Fabian Society on a previous best practice exchange organised by the Labour Party’s International Office)

Traditional attitudes and culture, including the violence and economic discrimination women face, play a huge role in shaping all women’s political experience. The Regional Commissioner of the Southern Africa Women’s Academy for Africa, said “a change in mindset, attitudes and beliefs is needed. Women can do things – not just what society has told them to do.”

The Women’s Academy for Africa (WAFA), a network of eleven Labour, Socialist, and Social Democratic parties from nine countries, is promoting gender equality, empowerment and political advancement of women in Africa, with more established members supporting newer parties through trust-based relationships and ideological connection.

Fellow WAFA member and Deputy Secretary General, Daisy Bathusi, explained that the exposure regional networks and engagement with international partners, like the Labour Party’s International Office is crucial for women’s development. “Women are stronger by networking, by sharing experiences and learning” Daisy said. “It is not only an opportunity to share what is going on in Africa or our region, but to learn from others and what challenges they face. Together we can find better solutions” she added.

The importance of sharing and engaging with other women activists was echoed by Sonja Lokar from Slovenia, who has been engaged with the Labour Party’s work from 2002. “We can’t do it without the support” Sonja added, “it’s not only money; it’s know how, best experiences, relationships with other networks. Without this we are not capable of connecting, of being in real daily contact to learn from each other.”

Representatives from the Western Balkans placed an emphasis on the role political parties can play in transforming attitudes towards women. “For us the never-ending question is how to achieve gender equality within the party and then how to act outside the party externally” Dajana Bakic, a member of the SDP in Bosnia and Herzegovina explained.

“Without the support of the Labour Party/WFD, and some other international groups, our parties would never had made the progress which has been done” Sonja added, but more work is required to ensure gender mainstreaming happens.

The Labour Party remains committed to supporting women around the world become active members of political life, through their WFD programming. The mainstreaming of women’s voices in politics might not be there yet but with women from around the world working together for change through regional networks significant change is long overdue.

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Uganda: Why the women’s parliament mattered

(Above: WFD supported the first ever women’s parliament to take place in Uganda in July 2015)

“Their trend of advocacy is different, their trend of passion is different” said former MP, Olivia Kabaale about women’s role in politics, “for example, in our parliament when the budget is being passed the women look at the health sector, or education of the girl child.”

Olivia Kabaale participated in the first ever women’s parliament to take place in Uganda organised by the Westminster Foundation for Democracy in July 2015. At the time, she was a sitting MP in charge of the women’s desk in the Ugandan Parliament. in the Ugandan Women’s Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) who were instrumental in ensuring the buy in for the first ever women’s parliament to take place in East Africa.

Almost two years later and despite losing her seat in the February 2016 elections, Olivia is convinced that the women’s parliament brought real benefits to the women of Uganda. “We are very grateful that the women’s parliament took place” Olivia said, “if it could be an annual thing that would be very good, as we [Olivia remains an associate member of UWOPA] are looking at bringing together women in a united front for advocacy, for lobbying and to ensure that they are really entrenched in a democratic system of governance.”

The opportunity the women’s parliament provided for rural women, grassroots activists and members or parliament to connect and discuss issues that are truly important for Ugandan women, Olivia described as “a real milestone” in Uganda’s 52 years since independence.

“The challenges that rural women face were articulated, in fact the women were given good time [to talk] as we debated for the whole day and captured several things” Olivia explained. From healthcare to land rights, education of the girl child to domestic violence, the women’s parliament provided an opportunity to hear real testaments from women who had suffered and attempts to get these issues discussed at the national level. “Local women who come from the village articulated their issues and they felt involved, they felt considered and they felt they belonged in the country, so that was great” Olivia added.

(Above: Women from civil society participate at the Women’s Parliament alongside women MPs)

UWOPA played a key role delivering next steps; ensuring the debate was captured in an official record by the UWOPA Secretariat and encouraging members to table a report on the issues to the Gender Committee , through a motion tabled in the tenth parliament. The report covered “domestic violence, gender based violence and they also articulated about child abuse” Olivia explained, adding that “successfully two months after the women’s parliament the children’s act was amended .”

The benefits of the women’s parliament, however, were not only about getting issues that are important to women on the national political agenda. “They became leaders of sub-counties, so we feel happy that the first women’s parliament, organised to empower women, organised to make women gain that confidence, was a success” Olivia said. Inspiring and empowering women from different backgrounds in Uganda to get involved in politics was a fundamental goal.

Especially given that in any election period the number of women MPs can change , “we have around four women who made it” Olivia explained; “they contested, they went back after that empowerment and became members of parliament.” But, as Olivia found out when she unfortunately lost her seat it is not always that easy.

Despite this personal set back, Olivia remains committed to empowering other women parliamentarians in Uganda. “We give them support, as much as some of us are out [of parliament] we still encourage them” she said, explaining how she had provided training on the legislative process to new women MPs. “I passed on the skills and when they call on me I always come and assist” Olivia shared proudly, adding that her top tip was to focus on issues where you can really make a difference, like the education of the girl child.

Despite the success of the women’s parliament, there is still a long way to go in Uganda and around the world to achieve equality for women. “We need more women chairpersons of districts and we need more women leaders in various categories” Olivia added, “we feel that if we encourage the leaders, we sensitise the leaders then domestic violence can be reduced.”

WFD’s EU funded programme has ended but we remain committed to supporting women, youth and other marginalised groups in Uganda to engage fully in a democratic system that works for them.

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How does the cost of politics impact on marginalised groups?

(Above: Commissioner from Nigeria’s Electoral Commission addresses the Cost of Politics regional conference)

Money remains one of the single most important barriers to political participation, but there are other non-financial costs associated with being active in political life that need to be considered too.

We often forget about who is excluded from politics because they can’t afford to run for office, or who is discriminated against when they choose to engage.

The impact the increasing cost of politics has on marginalised groups such as women and disabled people was explored at Westminster Foundation for Democracy’s regional West Africa conference on 31st January and 1st February 2017. The two-day event explored the West African perspective with case studies from Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal and Sierra Leone.

The term ‘mainstream politics’ and how marginalised groups are thought of as fringe perspectives – to be brought in from the peripheries when needed – it was argued limits the expansion of views in political dialogue, often leading to key issues like healthcare, education and support for vulnerable people being ignored.

As Professor Abubakah Momoh, Director General of the Electoral Institute noted at the conference, anyone who does not have the financial resources or capital to insert themselves in the mainstream is effectively marginalised. The distinction between inclusion and participation is therefore crucial. While inclusion is about valuing all individuals, giving equal access and opportunities to all, it does not capture the agency of the individuals involved to actively participate and engage.

Women very often have the social capital – the meaningful relationships and networks within their communities – that is mobilised for their male political peers instead of for their own campaigns. In a workshop carried out in Gaborone, Botswana aimed at supporting current and prospective female candidates, I witnessed just how integral women are to the campaigns of their male peers – organising door-to-door leafleting, rallying, networking and campaigning. The question then is not about whether women are capable of contesting and holding political seats, but rather about supporting women to mobilise the skills they do have, and helping them to identify innovative ways to access the necessary financial resources.

(Above: Representatives of people with disabilities address the regional Cost of Politics)

When contesting a seat women or persons with disabilities are often attacked on a personal rather than a political basis suggesting the cost of politics are not only financial. Prospective women politicians often face higher levels of abuse and scrutiny when compared to their male counterparts. This was a point reiterated by a female MP who spoke candidly at the event of how she and her family had been threatened and a close relative kidnapped because of her frank and vocal political views. Women face far higher risks and are often criticised for defying traditional gender roles like looking after the family. This moves the dialogue away from the political capability of candidates to deliver on electoral issues and promises towards personal characteristics.

Persons with Disabilities, in many countries particularly in Africa, still face a lack of understanding and awareness from other citizens about what having a disability actually means. While countries have ratified international conventions and agreements to safeguard equal rights and fight discrimination, this is too often undermined by a failure to translate these into everyday practices, for example, braille versions of government documents; services for the hearing impaired, wheelchair accessible buildings. Until political and public spaces are more accessible it is difficult to meaningfully facilitate political participation amongst these groups.

The social cost of exclusion, marginalisation and the denial of fundamental rights to equal political participation is a real concern prospective candidates face around the world. Westminster Foundation for Democracy hopes our research into the full cycle of political participation and the costs associated at each stage will encourage active participation and engagement by people from all groups in political life. To do this we need to re-focus on the politics and not the personal.

 

By Tobi Ayeni, Programme Officer – Africa

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Supporting women councillors in Uganda to advocate for women’s rights

(Above: Betty Atim, former district councillor and Chair of the Women’s Caucus in Gulu, Uganda)

“If a man gets with you and wants to stay together then you should get some documentation” Betty Atim, former district councillor in Gulu and Chair of the Women’s Caucus, explains to her female constituents who face homelessness due to land rights disputes in Uganda.

Betty Atim participated in the Westminster Foundation for Democracy EU funded programme that supported local civil society organisations to raise awareness among district councillors about the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The training on CEDAW delivered by GWED-G has provided local councillors with knowledge about existing international legislation, including on Land Rights, and how it can be used at the local level to protect women.

Raising awareness: What are women’s rights?

“What we [the women’s caucus] are now trying to do – is to sensitise our women and pass it over to them” Betty said. “Please don’t just sit with a man and think that you are settled, you must have something attached to you and that man, we say – and our women are now doing this” she explained.

In Uganda, half of the battle in protecting women from discrimination is ensuring they know what their rights are and that there is legislation in place both nationally and internationally to protect them. WFD’s work in Uganda centred around building the capacity of civil society organisations to ensure that laws designed to protect women were actually implemented at the local level.

“On Land Laws, most of us who were in the council didn’t know that we had the rights. We thought you could only talk about these issues in Church” Betty added “The support [WFD] gave GWED-G on certain components such as land was sobering for the women”.

Rosa Mon Abili, Secretary for education, health, sports and community based services also participated in the training added – “For us as district leaders we always believe that knowledge is power, so once we are invited to meetings like this we don’t want to miss out because we get a lot of information that really empowers us to do our work better and effectively.”

(Above: Ms Angwech Pamela Judith, Executive Director for GWED-G facilitates workshop in Gulu district, Uganda)

United for change: Working as the women’s caucus

Having the knowledge to act is the first step, but what was equally important for Betty and Rosa was being able to work with other women leaders from different political parties and sub-counties to advocate on behalf of women, something that was made possible through WFD’s support to GWED-G.

Through the women’s caucus, women councillors have worked together to support women in their community facing land disputes. “We move on to say how we can help a women” Betty added “with the grounds that yes she is a widow, but you cannot send a child to come and take over her property.”

Having representatives at the local level who understand the problems you are facing on a day to day basis because of your gender is so important for the women in Gulu that need help. “[She] then feels relaxed from talking to us and us saying that we can go to court, that we will get this issue sorted and that we can identify some good lawyers” Betty explained.

“To win this case you need to come as a unit, I think women are really picking up on that” Betty added reflecting on the importance of working as a caucus. The issue of gender based violence is fundamental to the CEDAW training too and Betty and Rosa felt the caucus was best placed to help with these cases.

“Most of our district leaders were so united that we were not looking at our party level” Rosa Mon Abili reflected on the changes in the district following the training and establishment of the caucus. “We were [focused] on the basis of service delivery and making sure that we throw one voice as women, because every women has the same kind of challenges” she said.

(Left: Participants at workshop learn about Land Rights and how they relate to CEDAW)

Working together for a brighter future

The sustainability of these changes, which are in their infancy, was something Betty, Rosa and their fellow women councillors knew they would not achieve on their own. Having the knowledge about international legislation, the solidarity of working with other women and the support of male champions are all key to seeing the long-term goal of improved women’s rights in Uganda.

“At least we know that to handle the issue of gender based violence we need men on board” Betty said “by sensitising us women alone, men are looking at it like they are not vulnerable, so by bringing a few men down they are adding to our polling.”

Okelo Peter Douglas Okow, District Speaker in Gulu was one man who played a key role in supporting the women’s caucus last year. “If women and girls do not participate in decision-making then their issues will not be incorporated into the district counties agenda” he explained.

The relationship the women’s caucus developed with the Speaker was crucial as it allowed for key issues, like land management or gender based violence, to be put on the local council agenda. “As the speaker, I interacted with them [the Women’s Caucus] and I am happy to say that this caucus helped the women in lobbying, advocacy and in championing women’s issues at the local government level” he continued.

WFD’s support to GWED-G has ended but we hope the skills, training and support provided to women councillors, male champions and GWED-G itself will continue to help women in rural Uganda. Betty, for example, is just one councillor who now feels confident enough explaining to women why they should not be physically abused, or thrown out of their homes. If she continues to pass on this knowledge and explain to women who come to her for help that they have been treated badly and that they can do something about it, then the future will be very different for women.

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From Northern Ireland to DRC: Women and the peace process

(Above: Members of the delegation from DRC in Belfast, Northern Ireland )

All civilians suffer in conflict, but women and children often bear the burden.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Democratic Republic of Congo where citizens have suffered since 1994. Women were exposed to the harsh realities of conflict, but when it came to building a lasting peace agreement were denied a seat at the table.

In January, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy invited a targeted group of women political and civil society activists from DRC to learn important lessons about the role they can play in bringing about lasting resolution to conflict. Outbreaks of violence still occur in some regions even today, but we hope through best practice exchanges with key institutions involved in bringing about peace in Northern Ireland women activists will be encouraged to participate fully in the process.

Empowering women leaders with the knowledge, skills and confidence to facilitate meaningful change through their work was at the heart of WFD’s previous programme. Our support to Dyfcoside, a group composed of 8 women MPs and 12 representatives of women CSOs led to the submission of the first ever non-budget related edict in Province Orientale submitted by women representatives. This demonstrates how MPs and CSO activists can overcome traditional social barriers and work effectively together to advance issues of social justice on behalf of citizens. A model that could apply significantly to bringing lasting peace in DRC.

By facilitating the sharing of lessons from the Northern Ireland peace process, the delegation were encouraged to engage in inclusive dialogue with excluded parties from different communities and exposed to ways in which women build influence the peace process at home and abroad.

“The visit to Belfast was very beneficial as we were able to see women first hand who have taken charge when experiencing their own difficulties” Nasha Mulangala who has held various roles in civil society said. Meeting with women who initiated dialogue in Northern Ireland resonated with members of the delegation. Nasha added “I believe they can provide us with the tools to help lobby for our own cause and organise ourselves back home, both in Kinshasa and in the provinces.”

(Above: Participants at WFD organised workshop in Province Orientale, DRC, 2014)

Reflecting on the time in Northern Ireland, Eve Bazaiba, Secretary-General for opposition party Movement for Liberation of the Congo explained that “seeing how they get the community together is very important.” She added that “the conflict in Congo is very different because it was mostly political conflict but the consequences and the way of dealing with it are the same.”

As a post-conflict democracy that has received wide acclaim for its ability to successfully negotiate peace terms after more than three decades of sectarian violence, the Northern Ireland Assembly is an important case and reference point for modern peacebuilding efforts.

Monique Kapuwa Kande, member of Alliance of Christian Democrats (ACHRED), also participated in the visit explained that this experience “helps to guide [women in DRC] and show them the path that would help them see the direction they need to go on” she added that “by taking us to places like Belfast we were able to see things outside of the box and that there are opportunities available.”

To date, peace-building in Northern Ireland has utilised a range of actors working with various target groups at all levels of society to address the causes and dynamics of conflict through reconciliation and reconstruction, state-building and political and social transformation.

Sustainability of any peace-agreement is crucial and the Northern Ireland model points to this. Ms Kapuwa Kande noted in DRC “we get bogged down in the conflict and can’t really see anything that is beyond the immediate but this visit has given us ideas for a long-term approach.”

In the future, WFD wants to engage grassroots activists in DRC to engage communities in solutions that can lead to sustainable peace. Women often bring a different perspective to negotiations that men are missing. “By helping women and educating women you are helping the community, it has that cascading effect” Lucie Basonea Isude, member of New Alliance of Democrats (NAD) explained, “The presence of women in these political discussions is necessary.”

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From presence to influence: Beyond International Women’s Day

(Above: Shannon O’Connell has joined the Westminster Foundation for Democracy as Senior Policy Advisor – Gender and Politics. With over twenty years’ experience in the field of politics, governance, and international development, Shannon has particular experience in women’s political empowerment and gender mainstreaming.)

In the 1990s, I worked in the House of Representatives in the United States. I purposely sought a position with the staff of a Member of Congress who was considered one of the most progressive of the 435 representatives. Among other important issues, his voting record included consistent support for initiatives to protect and advance the interests of women and girls.

One day, a group of school girls from the Congressman’s constituency came to visit. They were given a tour of the Capitol, told a bit about the functions and history of the legislative branch and then ushered back to our office to meet the Congressman. They asked questions about how the House worked, and then one of the girls asked the Congressman, “Do you think I could ever be a Member of Congress?”

Immediately, without taking a breath, the Congressman replied, “No. I’m the Congressman from this district. This is my job.”

The girl was about twelve years old. By law, she could not even run for the House of Representatives for another thirteen years. Yet even then, in an unguarded moment, a very senior, experienced, well-established and (theoretically) progressive Congressman saw her as a threat.

During that time, I also dated a guy who was a strong proponent of Valentine’s Day. It’s not that he was particularly romantic (he wasn’t), but he felt it was a useful reminder that, once a year at least, you should say or do something endearing for your partner.

(Above: Shannon participates in a WFD organised round-table for marginalised groups in Uganda)

How are these two meandering memories linked? Oddly, they’re linked by International Women’s Day.

International Women’s Day in many ways serves as one of these kinds of reminders. Once a year, we stop and remember to say laudatory and important things about women and girls, and about the state of their well-being in the world. But if this is where our focus and our agency stops, what we are offering is of little more value than the Congressman’s voting record.

In recent years, the conversation about women’s participation has focused on the numbers – getting more women into elected and appointed offices and into executive positions. Globally, the news in this regard is good. The number of women in national legislatures stood at 23% in 2016, up from 17% ten years earlier. Affirmative action efforts in Uganda, for example, have raised the number of women in parliament to 34%; Rwanda leads the world at 61%.

This is the quantitative side of moving towards more equal and inclusive decision-making. It is a start. It is the Valentine’s Day equivalent of women’s participation – a nice gesture that injects a bit of energy and strengthens the connection, and without which the relationship would not be particularly vibrant.

But the real romance is not about quantity, it is about quality – the quality of women’s participation. This means not just increasing the presence of women, but also increasing the influence of women.

Worldwide, political systems are stumbling. Problems range from general voter discontent and disengagement to genuine instability and chaos. The call for change, for reform, for stronger more engaged systems that deliver real benefits for voters, is loud.

Democratic activists are responding to this call and part of the answer, unequivocally, is about supporting women’s leadership and injecting their influence into these systems – not just as window dressing, but as a core component of the architectural restructuring that needs to happen. Women (and other groups who tend to live outside decision-making frameworks) are part of an opportunity to do things differently, and do them better. We know there are multiple benefits to more inclusive decision-making systems and that these are not just limited to the well-being of women and girls. All of society gains.

This is not a silver bullet that will solve all our democratic woes, but figuring out how we not just let women in but also let women lead means we are asking the right questions – the ones that will get us all on the path to stronger systems of government that will deliver for all citizens.

This International Women’s Day, ask yourself and the organisations that you influence what you can do to help women be part of doing things better.

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