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An initial look at women’s place in worldwide politics paints a bleak picture. There are 195 countries in the world. But just 10 have a woman Head of State, Thirteen have a woman Head of Government and only 23.3% of members of parliament worldwide are women (UN statistics).
Yet if this reality was changed ꟷ if girls across the world could grow up seeing more women who look like them represented in public life ꟷ this would reinforce a sense of possibility, get them thinking about how to aim higher and rise to new heights, changing the course of their own lives, as well as benefiting others. As the proverb goes, seeing is believing: having more women in politics would go a long way to counteract entrenched perceptions of politics as a male- dominated minefield ꟷ and contribute towards breaking the cycle of poverty.
The 2022 World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report states that it will take 145.5 years to attain gender parity in politics globally, but with cross-sectoral collaboration, enabling more women to participate, this can be dramatically accelerated.
As well as taking on governmental leadership positions, there are many other ways in which women can participate in political life. They can engage in civil society, cast their vote, campaign for a cause, serve on boards, or simply engage in open discussions about politics – no matter how seemingly small the act, every time a woman gets involved, there is a ripple effect across society.
Women and the vote
Of all these routes, women turning up to vote can be seen as the first step to making their voices heard and having an active say in the way their country is governed. Voting is widely recognised as a fundamental human right and opens the door to countless possibilities as it carves an entry to the political realm.
1893 was a crucial year for women voters: New Zealand officially became the first nation to grant suffrage to women over the age of 21. And now, despite the slow progress, women all over the world can vote. Saudi Arabia was the last country to allow women this right in 2015.
In focus: Pakistani and Kenyan women navigating the barriers
There are still many barriers to the voting experience for women post-suffrage. In Pakistan, where women were granted the right to vote in 1947, just 10 per cent of votes in the 2013 elections were cast by women, with female turnout as low as 3 per cent in some areas. In the most recent elections there was also a clear disparity between women’s voting turnout in cities and rural communities.
In the aftermath of the 2007 election in Kenya, demonstrations protesting against the official result erupted into scenes of violence – and acts of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), a form of political violence directly targeting women, were carried out over a number of weeks, on an unprecedented scale.
Demonstrations can be dangerous events for Kenyan women who want to make their voices heard and, understandably, this influences whether or not they choose to engage politically.
Acts of SGBV were also inflicted on women in their local communities who did not partake in these demonstrations, in an attempt to exercise power. In 2020, in a ‘landmark judgement’ four women subjected to sexual assault during a demonstration were granted compensation after a long wait for justice.
In terms of the act of on-site voting itself, although often perceived as disparate geographically, voting looks remarkably similar all over the world at a surface level – paper ballots, plastic tubs, human counters. However, as this article highlights, for women in some nations, simply reaching the ballot box can be fraught with logistical difficulties.
Ultimately, women voting and thereby making their voices heard and subsequently actioned in public life will affect them, their families, and their communities, and play a role in empowering societies and economies.
Politics, poverty, health and education
Gender parity in politics presents a clear case for global sustainable development. Investing in women and girls exercising their rights to political participation is a necessary step to achieving global gender equality – and evidence shows that it leads to poverty decline.
At the macro level, increasing women’s political participation has been credited for growth in a country’s GDP. One study showed that women legislators in India raise economic performance in their constituencies by about 1.8 percentage points per year more than male legislators
Another example of more women in politics leading to poverty reduction is the decline in global maternal mortality rates. Studies estimate that “the introduction of quotas for women in parliament results in a 9% to 12% decline in maternal mortality”.
Access to a decent education also plays a crucial role in improving women’s ability to, and likelihood of participating in politics. As illustrated by Concern’s focus on ensuring this happens, even in conflict-affected areas, education enhances numerous factors supporting political engagement, such as access to high-income jobs. Concern Worldwide works to keep girls in school to give them the best chance of seizing all opportunities.
At a grassroots level it is important for women experiencing poverty to have their voices represented and actioned – and to play a role in poverty-reduction efforts. The inherent agency and knowledge that women have due to their lived experience is often overlooked by policymakers as they create and carry out poverty reduction plans. Concern believes that women must be given equal representation in decision-making.
Paving the path to equity
Women with real-life experience of living in poverty and conflict, trying to engage with politics and fight power dynamics have inspiring stories of leadership in politics – and show it is possible to enact change.
Internationally known as Africa's ‘Iron Lady’, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was the first female head of state to be democratically elected on the African continent, in Liberia. A Nobel peace prize laureate, her work promotes peace, reconciliation and social and economic development and has had a lasting impact. Her declaration speaks volumes, “To girls and women everywhere, I issue a simple invitation. My sisters, my daughters, my friends; find your voice.”
Dr Alaa Murabit is a Libyan-Canadian physician and the youngest appointed UN High-Level Commissioner on Health, Employment and Economic Growth. “If we include women, peace processes are 35 times more likely to last 15 years,” she said.
Nanaia Mahuta is the youngest Maori woman to be elected to the New Zealand parliament, aged just 26. Now serving as Foreign Minister alongside Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, she has overseen greater investment in education, employment and training opportunities, particularly for young people in a nation that is leading the way for women in politics.
Women will be heard
The three inspiring women profiled above are among many making space at the tables of government for future women to follow.
We must remain confident that, through our collective effort, smart investment and targeted upskilling, women will no longer be stuck on the margins of the political sphere; which in turn has the potential to drive development and stop the vicious cycle of poverty on a global scale.
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