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Political rights of women

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The United Nations Declaration of Human Rights states “the will of the people shall be the basis of authority of the government”. Half, even less than half of ‘the people’, are women. Yet for far too long, women’s will, women’s views, women’s interests, priorities and needs have not been heard, have not determined who governs, have not guided how they govern, and to what end. Since women are among the least powerful of citizens, with the fewest social and economic resources on which to build political power, special efforts are often needed to elicit and amplify their voice.{{more}}

—Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of Liberia.

International Women’s Day will be celebrated once more on Monday, March 8, with a number of activities all over the world. At UN Headquarters in New York the 54th Session of the Commission on the status of Women is fittingly taking place, reviewing progress in achieving gender equality. The latter is one of the 12 Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), “to promote Gender Equality and Empower Women”. Speaking in this light, the deputy Secretary general of the UN, a woman, Ms. Asha-Rose Migiro, had this to say:

“More and more people now understand that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is not just a goal in itself, but a key to sustainable development, economic growth, peace and security.”

This issue of the empowerment of women is very relevant to our own situation here in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. Politically, women are the bedrock of political party support. They are the ones who staunchly follow their parties’ campaigns and who make the largest in-kind contribution to whatever fund-raising efforts are undertaken by their respective parties. They are among the most vocal, at public meetings and on the air-waves, and often constitute the most active contingent of their groups. As our country moves along towards the next general election, widely expected to be next year, women are very much in the vanguard.

Yet in spite of this prominent role of women in the day-to-day politics, that same level of prominence is not reflected at leadership level. Where the passing of legislation is concerned, in the House of Assembly there are only two of 15 elected Parliamentarians. One other female sits as a Senator, making it 3 of 21 MPs (14%), with the Attorney General, the government’s legal advisor also being female. That figure of less than 15% female representation in Parliament places our country below the global average for women legislators, 18.4% according to the UN agency UNIFEM. However, the Beijing Platform for Action, the UN yardstick for measuring women’s progress, has set a target of 30% representation of women in Parliament. Only 22 countries worldwide have achieved this target.

It appears that in order to achieve many of the lofty goals, there must be first fundamental reform of political, social and economic systems. Electoral reform is certainly one such area. Research shows that electoral systems based on proportional representation (PR) tend to produce a higher percentage of female MPs. Out of 176 countries researched in 2007, women constituted an average of 20.7% in Parliaments where there is a PR system as against 13.3% in non-PR countries. It is an issue that cannot be overlooked whenever we as a people choose to revisit the truncated constitutional reform process.

This discrepancy between women’s participation in politics as foot-soldiers and their visible presence at the leadership body is being addressed in a variety of ways. In some countries, women’s movements are adopting Manifestos as a challenge to political parties. One such emerged from the Irish Women’s Movement in 2007, making five demands of parties: (1) more women in decision-making bodies; (2)zero tolerance of violence against women; (3)the sharing of childcare and household duties; (4) economic equality; and (5)equal respect and autonomy for all women.

Each country will have to examine and elaborate its own strategies but as we approach yet another general election, we cannot be satisfied that our women must be mere cannon fodder for our politicians. This is where women’s organizations will have to demonstrate their advocacy and promotion of the rights and interests of women. Elections cannot be just about advancing the interests of this or that party, the interests of particular sectors, their needs and values must also be advanced. There is no more deserving segment of our population for priority treatment than our long-neglected, exploited and abused women. It is time for our women’s organizations to collectively strategize and organize to do this.