Power, Voice and Rights- Women’s Political leadership

Sep 20, 2012

Speaker: Ms. Pratibha Mehta, UN Resident Coordinator and UNDP Resident Representative
Time:      9:25-9:40am
Date:       September 20th, 2012
Event:     Charting a Path for Political Equality in Asia

Honourable Members of Parliament,

Distinguished Participants from Viet Nam, Mongolia and Thailand,

UN colleagues,

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am pleased to be with you this morning at this launch of the report on Gender Equality in Elected office in Asia-Pacific.

In the course of the workshop you will hear about the findings and the recommendations of this report. The organizers have asked me to speech from my perspective as UN Resident Coordinator who has worked on women’s political empowerment. 

My first exposure to a large number of women coming together to talk about their issues was as a young girl in 1974 in a small city in India. Of course, at that time I did not realize that all these women had come together in preparation of the first World Conference on Women. My role was simply to make sure that every woman had enough paper and a pencil. I was stuck by the level of bonding, excitement and laughter and the amount of discussions in this room. I could sense that they were all talking about health, education and safety.

I saw the same level of passion whenever women came together to discuss issues that affected their and their children’s life in every continent I visited. Wherever and whenever women had an opportunity to participate and to be consulted, they had a viewpoint and practical solutions to offer. And I often wondered what would happen if all of these women had the opportunity to be in formal decision-making institutions such as in parliaments. What kind of change would they bring to the political agenda?

A lot of achievements have been made since the first World Conference on Women, but a lot more needs to be done. One of the significant achievements of the last century in the area of gender equality is the increase in participation of women in all spheres of life, but in particular in politics and their role in setting the policy agenda. 

This is a result of many actions, including greater awareness and understanding of women’s rights, and the pressure from women for equality in all areas. I have seen that wherever women have come together as a critical mass in decision-making, issues that were not previously addressed have become priorities.

For example, women’s increased representation in parliaments has resulted in the adoption of laws on gender-based violence, better maternity leave provisions, amendments of land laws to provide women with better access to land and the adoption of gender-based budgets. All of this suggests that if there are more women in decision-making positions, more such issues will become top priorities for parliamentarians.

As I mentioned before, all of this has happened especially where there is a critical mass of women who are able to voice their concerns in the public space and who are in a position to influence the policy agenda. For example, when in Costa Rica the number of women exceeded 30% a law on adolescent mothers was passed to provide young women with free health services and education. In India, female politicians have allocated more resources to water and sanitation as compared to their male counterparts as they understand the daily drudgery of a woman who has to walk miles to get drinking water for her family.

In places where women are underrepresented in formal decision-making structures like in Yemen, where I served for nearly four years, women have found ways to come together to discuss common concerns such as the age of marriage, violence against women and political representation. In these contexts, I have seen that networking, including face to face and virtual such as social networking, have played a major role in creating a virtual political space and a critical mass of women who could voice common concerns and create alliances with like-minded male parliamentarians and through them have managed to push their agenda, such as the revision of the marriage law to set a minimum age of marriage for girls as well as quota for women in parliament.

And because women, at least in urban areas, were coming together informally in their social spaces they very quickly became part of the political demonstrations of 2011 which were essentially raising issues of human rights and dignity. In fact, the first demonstration was led by a woman who later received the Nobel Peace Prize. She was one of the leading activists and active in many of the informal forums and networks. Now with the political transition and political reforms in the country, these women have a lot more space and are leading the national dialogue about the future of Yemen as well as the revision of the election law which will introduce a quota for women.

Women’s involvement in Yemen is remarkable, but still limited to urban, educated and often well-off women. Hence, the challenge remains how to reach and represent women from different social and economic groups and rural and urban areas.

I am now serving in Viet Nam which places a strong emphasis on gender equality and its achievements on women’s empowerment and the MDGs have been well regarded internationally. Women play an extremely important leadership role and have one of the highest shares in the labour force in the world. However, the number of women represented in the National Assembly has declined in the past ten years. In 1997, Viet Nam ranked amongst the top 10 countries in the world with regard to the number of women in parliament, but by 2012 Viet Nam has fallen to the 44th rank in the world at 24.4 %.

At a recent international conference of women parliamentarians in Viet Nam, a common barrier all MPs from Western to Eastern countries highlighted was the difficulty in balancing parliamentary work and family responsibilities. The patriarchal nature of parliaments makes the institutional behavior gender-insensitive and this makes it harder for women to actively participate and contribute to the parliamentary work at the same level as their male counterparts.

One of the recommendations in this workshop was to commission more research on how parliaments as an institution can become more gender-sensitive, how to make working conditions more gender-sensitive with flexible working hours and child care facilities so that women do not have to give up their political ambitions or change themselves to adjust in a “macho” environment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is important to recognize that women are not a monolithic group and that they voice their concerns in various spaces and that women’s activism therefore takes place at many levels. The question is how to nurture these spaces, how to connect them and how to bring women’s voices to appropriate decision-making levels including parliaments.

While the absolute number of women in parliaments has globally increased, it is also true that in countries like Switzerland and Viet Nam the number of women in parliament is going down. It would be worthwhile to analyse the reasons for this trend. Is it only because of a lack of financing to contest in elections, lack of capacity or that without gender-sensitive reforms of the parliament women find it difficult to balance their family life and parliamentary work?

In this workshop we will understand more about the six actions to expand women’s empowerment and we will have an opportunity to share experiences in various countries in the region.

I wish you a successful workshop and fruitful discussions.

Thank you.