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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