Women are grabbing the headlines – and the reins of power

Frankly Speaking

Picture of Shada Islam
Shada Islam

Managing Director at New Horizons Project

It may have started with Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood but stories of women’s harassment are grabbing the headlines worldwide, prompting a much-needed end to the “culture of silence” which has surrounded the issue for far too long.

The problem is global – and the belated scrutiny is welcome. It’s not just about women as victims, however. Across the world, despite the endless obstacles, women are grabbing the reins of power in politics, business, and just about everywhere else. It isn’t easy. But there’s no going back.

The message of women’s empowerment was hammered home to me at a conference on women’s political rights, organized last month in Tunisia by the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), in cooperation with the Centre of International and Mediterranean Studies.

The women (and men) I met were from Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. Again and again, they highlighted the daily challenge of being a female politician in a political landscape where men call the shots. Sometimes, literally.

Their stories of predatory male politicians who think it is okay to stalk, abuse and harass women were strikingly similar to those being exposed in Brussels, London, Paris, and Washington. So are their demands for stronger laws – and a stronger implementation of laws – to protect women.

Their stories of predatory male politicians who think it is okay to stalk, abuse and harass women were strikingly similar to those being exposed in Brussels, London, Paris, and Washington

The women in Tunisia spoke of the physical, psychological and cultural violence they face in the political arena. “Violence before and during elections deters women from joining politics”, an African politician underlined. There is also gender stereotyping due to the “subordinate position” that many women hold within their families. Female politicians find it more difficult than men to gain access to funds needed to finance their election campaigns.
In addition to the much-cited “glass ceilings” or invisible barriers that prevent women in the West from achieving high office, African and Latin American women spoke of “cement walls and ceilings” that enclose them as well as “sticky floors” or cultural barriers that keep them bound to domestic life.
Laws and constitutions often guarantee equal rights to men and women in many parts of the world, but tradition, culture and religion put the brakes on their implementation and enforcement. Women point to the difficulty of living in “patriarchal” cultures and the conservative and erroneous interpretation of religious beliefs. Equality and parity begin at home, they say, with sons and daughters being treated equally.
Just getting on the list of a political party can be difficult for a woman. Gender quotas help but aren’t enough. To be effective, quotas should be combined with skills development in leadership. Some countries run a system of financial sanctions or rewards for parties that do or don’t proactively recruit women.
In some ways, Africa is leading the way. Rwanda is the first country in the world to have a majority of women in the legislature. Female parliamentarians in the country have enacted major reforms in banking and property laws to end discrimination against women.
There are recommendations for ensuring change. The role of political parties in actively looking for female politicians is highlighted. Women politicians from across party lines must work together to promote women in politics, said speakers at the conference. But they also admitted ruefully that not all “sisters” show solidarity with the female cause.
There were references to the negative role played by the media – still a male-dominated sector- which treats women politicians much more harshly than their male counterparts.
And the unequal treatment does not stop once women are elected. Female politicians are preyed on by their male colleagues, put under endless scrutiny by the media, and even if they do make it to the top, are often given “soft” portfolios such as family affairs.
There is talk – as in Europe – of tougher sanctions against perpetrators and stronger guarantees for victims.

There is talk – as in Europe – of tougher sanctions against perpetrators and stronger guarantees for victims

Clearly, the scandals swirling around Western politicians and US President Donald Trump’s contempt for women are not helping women’s struggle for equal rights in other parts of the world.
But as European Commissioner Cecilia Malmström, told the recent European Parliament debate on sexual harassment, there is indeed a “real global movement in which women denounce the unacceptable.”
The EU has put the rights of women high on its list of priorities both within the EU global strategy and the European Consensus on Development. It must now start implementing these goals in relations with its partners but also practice what it preaches at home.
As an example, it is essential that all EU states ratify the 2011 Istanbul Convention, which provides for action against violence against women. All 28 EU member states have signed it, but only 15 have ratified it – Germany did so only earlier this month.
Significantly, this year’s annual colloquium on fundamental rights organised on November 20-21 by Frans Timmermans, the Commission’s First Vice President, and Vera Jourová, Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality will also focus on “Women’s Rights in Turbulent Times”.
Passion, perseverance and a thick skin are required to join the rough and tumble world of politics. “We just do everything that men do, we just do it backwards in high heels”, said Virginia Garcia Beaudoux from Argentina, referring to Ginger Rogers who danced with Fred Astaire. Life is tough but women are tougher, everywhere.

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