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The Animal Kingdom of Politics

Breaking the glass ceiling for more female voices in parliaments.

The vibrations of anticipation and excitement were quite literally palpable as I lined up for the security check at the European Union Development Days (EDD16) in Brussels. I stood amongst my fellow EDD16 Young Leaders, and the responsibility of representing the world’s youth amalgamated with wide-eyed enthusiasm. I found an immediate commune with the team from Netherlands Institute of Multiparty Democracy (NIMD) to capitalise on this energy. My inner feminist and ‘international politics nerd’ felt right at home as I joined their early morning panel titled ‘Achievements and Challenges in Women’s Political Participation’. This panel discussed the mid-term findings of the four-year joint NIMD and International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance programme: Respect for Women’s Political Rights. The Respect for Women’s Political Rights programme (2014 to 2017) aims to improve women’s political participation in Columbia, Kenya and Tunisia by safeguarding an enabling political environment where all political rights are upheld. Despite the existence of international and national laws including affirmative action initiatives, the participation and representation of women in politics and leadership around the world remains extremely low only at 22% as of 2015 (Inter-Parliamentary Union). This backdrop, that holds direct ramifications for implementing the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 Gender Equality, informed the discussion of NIMD’s report as well as the panel discussion on the status of women in politics across different regions with Martha Karua (Kenya), Carlos Baena (Columbia), and myself (India) as speakers.

The Women’s Political Rights Programme aptly summarized the roots of key challenges and possibilities within this thematic space with two metaphors: ‘Taming the Lion’ and ‘Transforming the Elephant’. The lion refers to formal rules, policies and regulations at the level of political parties that can obstruct women from assuming political candidacy and leadership, and the elephant implies cultures within political parties that are marked by patriarchy. This observation fits like a glove in not only India but many developing nations striving to make parity in politics possible. One may raise Africa as a contrast here, in that many nations have successfully achieved gender parity in their parliaments by means of affirmative action. Yet, these two metaphors in my opinion always act together. Equal representation is meaningless if parity is devoid of voice. The political jungle will always have ‘elephants’ in need of transformation even if the ‘lions’ have been tamed.

Previously, I was involved in running a social media campaign reaching out to 400K people from across India during the 2014 General Elections which brought me face-to-face with these inhibiting cultures both within the parties and the electorates, subsequently motivating me to thereby highlight these problems for the public to recognize and address. It was thus interesting to further hear of similar challenges from crowd favourite at the panel, Martha Karua -the National Chairperson of NARC-Kenya and potential 2017 presidential candidate, who spoke with raw honesty about her experience running for elections in Kenya. While she received incredible positive support from the masses, she was subject to the routine stereotyping by media and closed doors from the existing political elite. Yet, undeterred she proclaimed ‘we have to shatter the glass ceiling, and I am going to be the one doing it’.

She embodied the very essence of why we need more women in politics- i.e. to play a new game. Politics often reflects the society’s deepest gender stereotypes and a socio-cultural fabric that suppresses voice. And so, like Ms. Karua explained ‘a woman raised in patriarchy will also perpetuate patriarchy’ we are at risk of women trying to match the existing double standards of excluding political party systems or cultures and closing doors of opportunity behind them. This ‘elephant’ means we, as young girls and women, disengage from the beginning. We have indeed made progress having doubled the percentage of women in parliament over the last 20 years. However, for the world’s efforts at achieving Goal 5 to be long lasting and sustainable, we need women’s voices to be truly heard and responded to in parliaments. Thus, in conclusion, solutions must increasingly rely on three forms of action:

1. Gender is not on the agenda; it is the agenda. Recognizing women in politics as an important development issue with significant consequences on inclusive policy making is a crucial start governments need to make across the world in their stride towards good democratic governance. Engaging and building commitment of male party members and leadership will be instrumental for this new paradigm to unravel.

2. Break the patriarchy by hitting closer to home. Contextualise gender within the family and in the education system thus uprooting gender inequality and breaking the cycle of stereotypes early.

3. Enable girls and women themselves from within to assume positions of leadership. And this perhaps is the easiest and most pertinent action to start with. Transforming our thinking and particularly our understanding of SDG Goal 4: Education in the context of women’s empowerment will bring a dynamic shift in how we prepare young girls and women for leadership. Empowering girls and women to be bold and fearless as they contribute to their community will change how our society operates; because those 3.5 billion girls and women will open up 3.5 billion opportunities for change.

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