Ensuring more girls get a good quality education is vital for allowing them greater opportunities and agency over their own lives. That’s why the UK has helped over 5 million girls around the world attend school. But the women they become are likely to be excluded from participating in politics.
That’s not just frustrating. It matters who we elect to lead our communities and our country. Their values and priorities shape our future. If all those leaders all have the same life experiences, then democracies not only miss out - they are weaker for it.
Women are the largest underrepresented group in every democracy in the world. Countries that are not making sure their democracies equally include women are tackling the challenges they face with one hand tied behind their backs.
Gender equality is not just good for women and girls. It is the foundation for just and equitable societies, where everyone can thrive. Research shows that women policy makers prioritise issues such as healthcare and the environment; increased representation of women in elected office is associated with counteracting corruption; and, states where women hold more political power are less likely to go to war and less likely to commit human rights abuses. Women’s political leadership is essential for free, democratic societies that are more stable and prosperous for everyone. That is why women’s political leadership internationally and domestically is so important for Britain.
2021 saw some encouraging developments. Canada, France, Sweden, Mexico, and Spain all announced their intention to adopt a feminist foreign policy. In the US, the Biden administration established a Gender Policy Council in early 2021, tasked with advancing gender equality at home and abroad.
At the G7 last summer, the UK succeeded in getting the leaders of some of the world’s largest economies to agree to a shared belief in open societies. They also agreed that the economic and political empowerment of women is inherent to achieving that goal. The communiqué signed up to in full by all G7 members recognised that thriving democracies and open societies must be founded upon gender equality.
The US-led Summit for Democracy which took place in December marked a critical moment when leading democracies came together to discuss how to advance women’s political leadership. It was good to see dedicated space in the summit and at side events to discuss women’s political leadership, and there was a welcome announcement that the US is planning to establish an initiative to provide up to $33.5 million to support greater democratic representation of women and girls. Now, we need to see ambitious deliverables during the year of action following the summit.
Events like the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan make it clear that the achievement of open, free and stable societies relies on genuine, consistent ambition for gender equality. Advocates of freedom and democracy must work with a baseline that they cannot develop – let alone thrive – without gender equality. There is no substitute for progress in this area.
It was also heartening to hear the Foreign Secretary’s announcement in December that when the UK launches its new development strategy this year, it will focus on “providing women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed and … ensure our development policies support our belief in freedom and democracy.”
In 2021 alone, the UK Government launched its Girls’ Education Action Plan, secured G7 endorsement of global girls’ education goals, led resolutions at the Human Rights Council on girls' education, and co-hosted the Global Education Summit, among other things. While support to girls’ education pays big dividends, this cannot be an end in itself. There are reasonable questions as to whether gains in girls’ education can be sustained if pathways for these girls to move into political leadership as women are not laid. Providing women and girls with the freedom they need to succeed requires laying pathways to political leadership.
Out of 193 UN member states, there have never been more than 19 led by a woman at any one time. Women account for just one in four political representatives around the democratic world. The role that women’s political leadership plays in creating and sustaining sound governance, freedom, democracy, and meaningful human rights is not a ‘like to have’ option – it is a need to have. Very little of the security and stability we strive for can be achieved without women’s equal and unapologetic participation. That’s why we need to help make sure girls in school can become women in politics. It’s 2022 – time to start making it happen.
Header image: David McClenaghan/VSO / DFID / Flickr