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How many women in 2019?

How many more women will enter the political sphere between 2014 and 2019 depends on how creative and focused civil society’s efforts are—to find the women, convince parties, support campaigns and build women’s confidence and capacity, writes Swarna Rajagopalan

 women in politics

As we count down to the deadline for meeting the Millennium Development Goals and Beijing+20, the goal of gender equality will have to get a middling score, especially on the question of political participation. Undeniably, across the world, we are looking at dramatic gains, especially in post-conflict contexts where the UN has helped to put together a new dispensation informed by UN Security Council 1325. As analysts and activists, our inclination is to look at the road ahead and to list the work not done.

We need look no further than the April-May elections to find reasons for pessimism. There was a great deal of self-congratulation on there being more women than ever before in the elections, in parliament and in the council of ministers. But if we look at the percentage they make up of all candidates, parliamentarians and ministers, it is still far short of equity. And this is in a country where women do hold positions of power.

To those of us that are not easily pleased, this says the countdown for the next election has just begun. The question now is, what are we going to do to ensure better participation by women the next time? In this article, I want to look at four initiatives that have found ways to enhance women’s prospects.

The first is EMILY’s List, a private American initiative to help pro-choice women Democrats get elected to office. What does EMILY’s List do? In their words, “We recruit the strongest candidates, support campaigns that can win, study the electorate, and turn out the vote.” Their work begins with identifying and mentoring women for leadership at every level of the US political system. But what has always impressed me is that their objective is to win—not just to dabble but to go all out. They raise funds and support campaigns all the way from start to finish, and they work hard to get women to go and vote. Last year, EMILY’s List launched Madam President, a campaign to get a woman elected to the highest office in the US in 2016. A woman president is important for many reasons, not least because of the message she would send out to girls everywhere that a woman can do anything.

Would it help in India? The inability to raise money is one of the reasons women do not get ‘tickets.’ If they had recourse to support, that would certainly improve their chances of nomination. The most common excuse in India though is, “We want to nominate women but where are the women?” An initiative like this makes women visible. It would also make a difference to women candidates to have systematic support through the period of a campaign, given that they tend to be left largely to their devices by their political parties unless they are prominent members.

It would help to have an Indian EMILY’s List, but would it work? The first hurdle to get around would be registration and tax rules that limit civil society’s engagement with the political system. A private charity would have to take on such a mandate. Such a charity would also have to start with a solid endowment because while EMILY’s List depends largely on individual donors, an Indian charity could not raise the necessary volume of funds on 100- and 1,000-rupee donations. But I have always thought EMILY’s List was a great idea that was worth adapting in India.

Writing about efforts to implement UN Security Council Resolution 1325, I came across another wonderful initiative from the Philippines: the Women’s Peace Table. Worldwide, women are active in conflict-affected communities, working to sustain the community, organise relief, minimise conflagration and build peace. When formal negotiations begin, however, they are rarely ‘at the table’. In the years of the negotiations between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the Mindanao Commission on Women set up the Women’s Peace Table as a “a parallel and 'connecting' organisation to the formal government and MILF tables” that brings to the formal table the voices of women affected by conflict. Local women’s peace tables bring together women from various sectors to build a shared interest in peace and to give them the exposure and experience of talking on issues, lack of which becomes an excuse for exclusion. The Women’s Peace Table also takes on the larger mandate to “act as a bridge among different sectors including those whose support for the final peace agreement will be crucial such as business, international institutions, the religious sector, media, labour, cooperatives, academe, widows and orphans, the elderly, and the youth.” With the conclusion of a peace agreement in March 2014, the Women’s Peace Table has turned its attention to making known the peace and post-conflict reconstruction work done by Mindanao women.

In India too, we have conflict zones with the same story—many activist women who become invisible when the time comes to constitute peace negotiating teams. But even beyond conflict zones, the idea of creating platforms where women can find and frame issues in terms that are inclusive and sensitive is a good one across policy areas. For instance, could a major urban centre have a women’s table on infrastructure issues that liaises with local government bodies?

The challenges in India begin with funding. The Mindanao peace tables are funded by a foreign aid agency, a harder proposition in India. But the work itself need not cost a lot and a few dedicated local corporate or individual donors could make it possible. The greater challenges include building access to government. In India, this is most easily done by getting the ‘usual suspects’ (former government officials, celebrity activists) on board, but that would defeat the purpose of bringing new perspectives to policy debates. Another challenge is size and scale; across this large continent-sized country, we would need innumerable local tables and we would need to work on networking them for impact on state and national levels. It is not impossible, but it is not easy. Beyond this, the hardest challenge would be to make sure the lines of communication through this network remain genuinely open and people in state and national capitals do not simply gain legitimacy to speak for others.

A third practice that can help with the “where are the women we can appoint” excuse is the compilation and maintenance of up-to-date directories. There was one that civil society organisations in Nepal prepared of peace activists but there is also now one maintained by UN Women in Nepal. There may be others not in the public domain, but in Chennai, outside the peace context, there is a directory of local women’s organisations. It is possible to create local lists of women who possess general or technical experience and also possible to aggregate them somewhere. Even if just 40 towns and cities were to join in this exercise, there would be a large enough pool of women whose exclusion would need deft explanation. This can be a very low-cost activity that can be undertaken across the country by women’s organisations.

Funders have enabled the last kind of initiative—capacity-building. Following the reservation of seats for women in the panchayats, several organisations have been organising training programmes for panchayat members to strengthen their leadership and capacity. From what I see, several gaps remain. Hardly anyone I see is working with state assembly members. Moreover, political activity and policymaking are different skill-sets and women rarely have the opportunity to develop expertise in policy. We need to build technical capacity across policy fields; policy workshops and round-tables focused on specific policy concerns—beyond ‘women’s problems’—for new entrants into the public sphere. This would help address the ‘competence’ bar that only exists for women in politics. Finally, we need to create platforms where women can learn to express themselves confidently on policy issues. It takes confidence for a woman to enter politics, but that needs to be consolidated so that women legislators do participate in parliamentary proceedings.

Elections, the MDGs and NGO Summits will come and go. How many more women will enter the political sphere between 2014 and 2019? That depends on how creative and how focused civil society’s efforts are—to find the women, to convince parties, to support campaigns and to build women’s confidence and capacity.   

 www.infochangeindia.org, September 2014