International Women’s Day presents an opportunity to take stock and reinforce the sought-after goals for women’s empowerment in all spheres of life. The global pursuit to #BalanceforBetter can only be attained when there is zero tolerance for any form of discrimination against women and girls, when there is no impunity for violence against all women and girls, not because they are daughters, sisters, wives or mothers but simply because they are human.
International IDEA’s contributes towards the vision of #BalanceforBetter through multi-dimensional initiatives on levelling the playing field for the inclusive political participation and representation of women in democracy building processes and institutions at all levels. Levelling the playing field initiatives place emphasis on unpacking the entrenched barriers that women encounter in politics, particularly to be elected into leadership and decision-making positions.
The barriers are numerous and entrenched, for instance within a countries’ social and cultural systems and practices, political parties and systems, electoral systems and processes and political financing frameworks. The need for sustained and systematic socio-cultural, political and legislative transformative reforms in several countries across the world cannot be overemphasised.
Some critical reforms are needed in electoral systems and processes, political party laws and intraparty democracy processes and systems and political financing. For instance, the equal access and participation of women and men in political and electoral processes is largely determined by the intra-party democracy cultures, systems and processes, particularly the identification, selection and nomination of candidates. In many instances the low participation and representation of women is in fact part of the broader issue of cultural and traditional attitudes that are entrenched within and perpetuated by political party norms, systems, practices, procedures and access to leadership positions which are male-dominated. In addition, women often have less access than men to the resources needed to successfully contest for a party nomination or in an election and political parties tend to nominate men for elective decision making positions.
The fact that political parties are regarded as the real gatekeepers to accessing positions of power and the advancement of women in politics, entails that it is at the political party level that women’s empowerment and gender equality principles must be put into practice. Political movements or parties as institutions that can support democracy building should therefore provide an enabling environment for the meaningful participation of both men and women.
A country’s constitution provides the framework for its legal system, which shapes not only the political status of women, but their economic and social status as well. The #BalanceforBetter goal calls for a closer examination of several constitutions across the world in terms of the constitutional provisions for equality and non-discrimination of all women and girls. In addition, the extent to which any of the constitutional provisions are translated into substantive equality needs to be monitored because the articulation of equality and non-discrimination is not enough to guarantee the equal treatment of women.
One of the strategic approaches towards levelling the playing field to attain the #BalanceforBetter goal is the institutionalisation of gender quotas to increase opportunities for women to participate in political and electoral processes and ultimately access the positions of power and decision making at all levels. Affirmative action measures/mechanisms such as legislated gender quotas are globally defined measures that are anchored in the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Due to the slow pace at which women’s representation in political decision making is growing, there are increasing calls for more effective measures to address the representation gap in positions of power and decision making at all levels. Many countries are currently applying gender quotas for elective decision-making positions, with half of the countries of the world applying some type of gender quota for their parliaments.
The undisputable advocacy on women’s participation and representation is about two equally important aspects, firstly, the physical presence of women, “the politics of presence” as actual human beings in politics and decision-making institutions and processes. The focus on the physical presence of women is grounded in the recognition that women’s participation and representation is a democratic imperative as they constitute half of the world’s population. Secondly, it is about the presence of women’s concerns and strategic interests on the political agendas and in the outcomes of decision-making processes. It is evident that men, however well informed and sympathetic to women’s concerns, cannot represent women in all respects due to different life situations and experiences. Women should, therefore, be able to contribute their perspectives on policy and public decisions that affect their lives. #BalanceforBetter is long overdue!