Can we at least talk about women’s political participation?

14 Jul

Last year, I was involved in promoting women’s political participation during the elections in Sierra Leone and Ghana. Women’s representation in parliament in both countries is low, in Sierra Leone it dropped to 12.4% following the election and in Ghana it raised marginally to 10.9%. In both countries, the belief that women are not suited to politics has created many barriers to women’s political participation. Women are marginalised from political party networks which often act as ‘old boys’ clubs; there is frequent verbal (and sometimes physical) violence against female candidates; and the often inflexible demands of political life make it difficult for many women to balance a career in politics with childcare responsibilities.

Before working on this, I had no idea what the rate of women’s representation in parliament was in New Zealand so I looked it up one day. It was 32%. That’s low I thought, someone should talk about it. Then I forgot about it again until it was brought up a week ago when it became public that a proposal from Labour’s national council to use affirmative action policies to increase the number of female Labour MPs would be voted on at the party’s annual conference in November. As part of the proposal, a target would be set to have women make up 45 % of Labour MPs by 2014 and 50 % by 2017. Along with this, a list moderating committee would ensure the correct ratio of women get into parliament and Local Electorate committees could ask the NZ Council to assign certain seats as only open for women’s selection.

Someone labelled the latter policy, a quota of sorts, the ‘man ban’ and things went downhill from there. David Shearer announced soon after that it would be off the conference agenda. He gave some concessions, saying he still supported the goal of 45% female representation but “It’s really about the targets and not so much about the mechanism”. But this ignores that the method is just as important than the goal. If Labour came out saying they have a goal to ensure affordable housing, but have no strategy for how this will be put in place, how well would that be received?

In both Sierra Leone and Ghana, women’s groups have been pushing for the implementation of quotas to ensure higher female representation in politics. It can be easy to get caught up on the numbers and how to increase them quickly. In doing so you can lose sight of the importance of not just increasing numbers of women, but of trying to change the culture of politics away from its combative nature which continues to be “inherently masculine”. From what I’ve seen, most women working on the issue here in West Africa know that, but they also know that the wider societal change needed for the political systems to become more accommodating to those outside of the norm of the male politician takes a really long time.

In the meantime, quota’s can work. In Rwanda and Senegal, the introduction of quotas (along with other measures) means that there is now 56% and 42% female representation in parliament respectively. No one that I’ve seen working on women’s political representation loves the idea of quotas; they are often simplistic solutions to complicated problems. But with a complex and messy issue like this all solutions will be imperfect, and you need a range of approaches. So quota’s can work in increasing women’s representation, not by providing ‘special treatment’ to women, but through recognising that the system and society is rigged against them, that the playing field is already uneven and by implementing a measure to address this. In the case of Ghana, during the election there was discussion about a commitment that the former president had made to attaining 30% women’s representation, but without any concrete policies to ensure that it happened, they’re left with 10.9% female representation.

Within New Zealand, there are so many discussions about women’s representation and treatment in politics we should be having, which haven’t been had because of the continued illusion that women have equal opportunities to men in New Zealand society. 32% though, that’s not really equality. Labour’s introduction of affirmative action policies could have been a start to these discussions.

Instead though, discussions about how affirmative action take attention away from the ‘real’ issues people should be thinking about like “affordable housing, soaring power prices and job creation”, shut the debate down from the outset.  Bryce Edwards talked about how it was more evidence of Labour’s move to be more “politically correct” and how focusing on “issues of identity politics has, arguably, been to the detriment of more substantive issues concerning economics, inequality and power”. Colin Espiner argued that “the Opposition needs to be talking to the electorate about jobs, housing, incomes, and hip-pocket issues. Not navel-gazing about its gender balance”. And, Steven Cowan asked, “Does it really matter what the gender balance is when it will still be the same old right wing neoliberal party that we have all come to loathe?”

Within all of these comments, there is a suggestion that women’s representation should be secondary to the ‘real’ issues such as the economy, inequality and wage rates. Framing the issues in this way sets up a false opposition by suggesting that focusing on women’s equality somehow takes away from the focus on other issues. But how does introducing a quota system affect Labour’s policy on jobs, housing and incomes? And how is women’s marginalization from politics not an issue of inequality?

More than that, you cannot address problems in the economy, inequality and wage rates without looking at their gender dimensions. How can you think about increasing wage rates across the board unless you close the gender pay gap? There is no guarantee that increasing women’s representation in parliament would mean that that the gender pay gap and similar issues would be paid more attention, as is sometimes suggested. Regardless though, suggesting that issues related to gender equality are somehow less important than ‘the economy’ continues the false idea that they can be separated.

Many of the commentators suggest that the issues preventing women’s equal participation – such as how incompatible the parliamentary schedule is with parenting – are too deeply entrenched to be addressed with just quotas. This is true, and Josie Pagani’s article is particularly convincing in this respect. But the fact that a lot of the arguments accuse introducing quotas of being just ‘navel gazing’ frames the debate in a way that trivialises women’s right to equal participation in politics.

In framing the issues this way, people have followed the same pattern that has been used in the past to discredit attempts made to attain gender equality. It’s always suggested that they are ‘side issues’, things to be dealt with after the ‘important issues’ have been resolved. At the 1967 National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, for example, Shulamith Firestone and some other women leading the emerging feminist movement created a resolution that called for, among other things, a 51% quota for representation of women. The chairman skipped over saying “move on little girl, we have more important issues to talk about here than women’s problems”. Just like now, with the elections approaching, there’s more important things to talk about than women’s issues.

But promoting women’s right to equal participation in government isn’t just ‘navel gazing’ and ‘political correctness’, its real women’s lives. Introducing a quota, however flawed of a policy choice it may be, is still a decision that has been made on the basis of women and girls’ experiences within a political system that continues to be hostile to their participation. You just have to look at way both Helen Clarke and Julia Gillard were treated, and the constant gender-based attacks they received, to see this. In this environment, maybe quota’s can help to normalise women’s presence. They can show that political parties recognise that women do have a right to be there and that they are prepared to put in place polices to ensure this. Maybe quotas won’t do this, but we should at least be able to talk about it without it being treated as a joke.

So to the people in Ghana and Sierra Leone who continue to push against a resistant parliament to implement quotas and other measures to increase women’s political participation, these tools aren’t “outdated”. The thing that continues to be stuck in the “1970s” is too many people’s continued inability to take women’s political participation seriously enough.


One Response to “Can we at least talk about women’s political participation?”

  1. Darel July 14, 2013 at 9:41 pm #

    Your article creates some false dichotomies eg “Labour’s introduction of affirmative action policies could have been a start to these discussions”. Labour already has a very good record of affirmative action. Also the paper in which the most controversial element is the “man ban” contains the more easily adoptable use of the list seats as a balancing mechanism. There are also mechanisms including mentoring and promoting women.

    The suggestion that a gender analysis can’t and doesn’t take place because the “man ban” proposal got dumped is simply not true within Labour.

    The attacks on Helen Clark got bad and she said it was worse from Jenny Shipley than Jim Bolger. Politicians try and find a weak spot that gets a reaction. Gerry Brownlee gets it for being fat, John Key gets it for being ethically dubious, The weak spot is not always gender-based eg Judith Collins and Hekia Parata are tough give it out but get attacked on different fronts.

    My own ramble through the issues is here:

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