On #WomenandPower

On #WomenandPower

Hillary Clinton and PowerHillary Clinton is probably one of the most high profile and powerful women in the world at the moment, and is moving towards becoming America’s first ever female Presidential nominee. It is not, however,  the smooth path to the White House that she might (not unreasonably) have expected. Bernie Sanders crushed her in the recent New Hampshire primary—thanks in large part to female voters, 55% of whom say they voted for Sanders. The loss was undoubtedly a tough one for Clinton; she won the state in the 2008 race and it put her husband on the path to the White House in 1992. In her concession speech, Clinton looked forward, saying, “It is not whether you get knocked down that matters, it is whether you get back up.”

She subsequently won  major victories on ‘Super Tuesday’ in seven out of eleven Democratic primaries and caucuses, including Texas and Massachusetts. Her wins are credited to her popularity with minority voters and her kinship with Southern Democrats from the two decades she spent in Arkansas. There’s more on her campaign trail in this interesting piece from the BBC.

Elsewhere in the world, a new report suggests that women continue to face a double hurdle to gaining political power. While there has been an increase in women’s participation in politics across the globe, it has not necessarily resulted in an increase in their power and influence, a study by the Overseas Development Institute has found.

Although participation in political systems is a prerequisite for influence, women’s presence alone does not mean they have actual power or are able to make advances in gender equality. Women elected to public office are often seen as “troublemakers” and not “like other women”, are judged more harshly and can face violent backlashes for being politically active. The performance of individual women leaders can also affect public perceptions of the abilities of women in general.

Through interviews and observations in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Malawi and Kenya researchers found numerous examples of where women have brought about positive changes through their involvement in male-dominated political and judicial systems. The report concludes that the major factors in women achieving real political power are (my italics) advances in education and technical knowledge, economic independence, feminist organisations and political skills, combined with changes in social structures and rules.

ODI research fellow Tam O’Neil said:

“Women have more rights and representation than ever before, with democracy and quotas as key drivers. But women leaders must be credible in the eyes of their, mostly male, peers to have real power – and this means having higher education, technical competence, and economic independence. Increased representation is a shallow gain unless women also have access to resources, and unless widespread beliefs about women’s role and capabilities change. Policy-makers need to pay more attention to these issues.”

Some of the report’s key findings include:

  • Village courts in Bangladesh now have at least one woman on all cases involving women and minors in project areas. However, social norms and structures prevent women from engaging in what are seen as male issues, such as land and property disputes.
  • In 2010, the women’s movement in Kenya succeeded in negotiating a constitution that was so progressive on gender issues that it was known as the ‘Women’s Constitution’. One of the key changes was a requirement that the Kenyan parliament include at least one third female representation.
  • Much of the backlash against increasing numbers of female Kenyan politicians is expressed through bullying, which is often sexual in nature. And even with increased representation in parliament, women remain a minority so must work hard to lobby male politicians to support legislation that treats men and women as equal.
  • An indication of the uphill struggle Kenyan female MPs face is the passing of a controversial marriage bill in 2014 which legalised polygamy.
  • A new survey of women MPs in Malawi shows that female candidates often face prejudice and gendered abuse during election campaigns. Once elected, women MPs can find it difficult to progress their own career or women’s rights in general. To be accepted by voters and keep their seat, MPs need to conform to expectations of a “good woman” in dress and behaviour. Women MPs however have worked in politically smart ways, using restrictive gender norms strategically to achieve rights and benefits for other women.
  • Women MPs made the case for a new Divorce, Marriage and Family Relations Act (2015) by appealing to male MPs as fathers, stressing the dangers of child marriage to girls. At the same time they did not draw attention to some of the more controversial provisions in the bill, such as those relating to marriage by repute, custody of children and marital rape.
  • Most Malawians have socially conservative views about women and gender relations. However, around half of the women MPs said they share domestic responsibilities, such as childcare and cooking, equally with their husband – showing the importance to women’s leadership of both women and men being prepared to challenge gender stereotypes.
  • In Afghanistan, the Ministry of Women’s Affairs, women activists and international actors lobbied for the law (2013) on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which criminalised violence against women for the first time.

As the week of International Women’s Day draws to a close,  this report is a timely reminder of the gender based work still to be done and the power based progress still to be made in many countries around the world.

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