Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Women in Politics - The Irish and Kenyan cases

Women in Politics - Global Trends
Women make up less than 10% of the world's leaders. Out of the 193 countries that are members of the UN, only 21 have either a female Head of State or Government. Globally fewer than one in five members of parliament is a woman. And the 30 percent critical mass mark for women’s representation in parliament Despite decades of enfranchisement women represent a small fraction of political representatives around the world. I want to explore this issue in this post, looking at why this is important and what is being done about it, in two very different examples - Ireland and Kenya.

Why is women's participation important?
Leaving aside the fact that everyone should have the right and opportunity to be a political representative, and women make up just over 50% of the population of the world while occupying only 20% of political positions, there are a number of benefits that come with female participation in politics.

Women, as the primary caregivers in households and communities tend to advocate more strongly for children's issues, as well as women's issues. Countries with more women in parliament and government tend to have more equitable laws and social programmes. Budgets tend to better benefit women, children and families.

But even beyond that there is evidence to suggest that counties with greater gender equality (in all areas, labour, politics, education etc) have higher GNP (Gross National Product) per capita, just in the same way that women's leadership in the corporate world tends to result in improved business performance. Research shows that, in general, the greater the representation of women in parliament, the lower the level of corruption. Involving women in decision-making, especially political decision-making just makes good sense.

A quote from the Executive Director of UN Women, Michelle Bachelet, sums it up nicely in a speech she gave in August 2012:

"When more women are leaders, decisions better reflect and respond to the diverse needs of society. As I have learned: When one woman is a leader it changes her. When more women are leaders, it changes politics and policies'.

What can be done?
One of the most tried and tested ways of increasing women's participation in the political arena is quotas. Quotas can take effect at three levels:

  • Political candidacy - quota systems at this level mandates that from the pool of aspirants, a certain portion must be female.
  • Nomination - quotas (either legal or voluntary) which ensure that a certain percentage of nominated candidates on a political party's ballot must be female.
  • Election - certain seats in a political body are 'reserved' and can only be filled by women.
Quota systems increase female participation in politics and governance. Of the top ranked 20 countries in terms of female representation in government, 17 of those countries use some form of quota system to ensure female participation. The case of Rwanda is a striking example. In 1995, the country ranked 24th in the world in terms of female representation. Not bad. In 2003, after introducing a quota system the country leap-frogged into 1st place.  Other countries - Argentina, Iraq, Burundi, Mozambique, South Africa have experienced similar jumps.

All evidence points to that fact that quotas work. I cannot argue with the research. And yet, as a woman I can't help but feel a bit uneasy about them. Having been brought up to believe that I am exactly the same, exactly as smart, exactly as talented, driven, motivated, as the boys sitting next to me at school and college, I find it hard to believe that I now need special treatment. That I now need a leg up. Aren't quotas discriminatory? What about the principle of merit? And what about other under-represented groups? Should there be age quotas? Quotas for different ethnicities?

But the fact remains that there are huge barriers to women's participation in the public sphere, and for me and my female peers, quotas seem to be one of the simplest ways to begin to level the playing field. It's not the only step, but they are an important first step. To be truly effective they need to be combined the improvements in education for girls and women, better access to healthcare and childcare for mothers and families.

Ireland has a poor record on women's participation in politics. In the 2011 election, only 15% of the candidates were women (86 out of 566) and similarly only 15% (25 out of 166) of those elected were women And this is the best representation that women have ever had in Dail Eireann! The situation is no better at a local level either. In Europe, Ireland ranks 20th out of the 27 countries of the EU for female political participation, and 87th out of 187 countries in a worldwide classification.

(Despite all this negativity I did find one fun fact related to Ireland when writing this blog - Mary McAleese's election to the Irish presidency in 1997 was the first time that a female president directly succeeded another female president, Mary Robinson - g'wan MacAttack and Robbo!)

The weekend before last (February 16th and 17th) the Constitutional Convention met to discuss proposed changes to the Irish Constitution. The convention comprises 66 citizens - chosen on the basis of age, sex, geography and social status, 33 politicians (from both the Republic and Northern Ireland) and chaired by Tom Arnold, CEO of Concern Worldwide. They will meet throughout 2013 to discuss and vote upon proposed changes to the Irish constitution, which was drafted in 1937 (although amendments have been made in the intervening years). Among the propositions on the agenda last weekend were a number of proposals which dealt with women - their participation in politics and their place in the home were among the issues discussed.

As part of the deliberations a number of presentation were made to the delegates including research by political scientist Professor Gail McElroy on women in politics, and more specifically the role that constitutions can play. Her research dispelled, among other things, a prevailing myth that Irish voters won't vote for female candidates, and pointed to the fact that in countries that have much in common with Ireland - the USA, the UK, Canada, there is little to suggest that gender is a decisive factor in voting.

Delegates at the convention narrowly (50 no, 49 yes, 1 no opinion) rejected a proposal to amend the Constitution which would compel the State to take positive action to enhanced women's participation in politics. However a second question 'Leaving aside the Constitution, would you like to see more government action to encourage greater participation of women in politics and public life'. Other propositions related to women which were approved included a proposition that the Constitution be amended to include 'gender-inclusive' language, and an 'explicit provision on gender equality'.

So if constitutionally mandated quotas are unlikely to make an appearance within Irish legislation any time soon, what are the other ways in which women can be encouraged to enter into politics and public life?

Groups such as Women for Election and the 50 50 Group have been advocating a range of alternate ways to encourage female participation in the public sphere. According to Women for Election, research conducted on this issue identifies 5 Cs which account for women's under-representation:

  • Confidence
  • Cash
  • Candidate Selection
  • Culture
  • Childcare

In order to address some of the 'Cs' Women for Election runs programmes to 'Inspire', 'Equip' and 'Inform' women who are considering entering into political life, as well as those already involved.The sessions aim to give practical advice on fundraising, media relations and campaign management as well as developing women's 'soft skills' - confidence, resilience. Rather than focusing on lobbying and advocating for top-down change (although the group does undertake some of these activities) the focus of Women for Election is squarely on women themselves. Female mentors are identified to provide support to younger, less-experienced candidates, cross party networks of interested women are created and help to access potential donors.

In the aftermath of the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007/8, the issue of re-drafting the country's constitution was revisited (having stalled in the mid 2000s). The new constitution, which was approved by 67% of voters in August 2010, enshrined within it women's rights throughout, but especially within the 'Bill of Rights' section.

Among the main advances made are:
  • Discrimination on the grounds of gender is prohibited and violence against women explicitly prohibited
  • Equality in marriage and equality in parental responsibility are both enshrined in the new constitution
  • Increased numbers of women in all decision-making organs, including devolved government is guaranteed.

In contrast to Ireland, the Kenyan constitution expressly lays out a commitment to increased gender parity in political representation, and also lays out how to do it. Below are some extracts from the Kenyan constitution to illustrate this:

Article 27 Clause 8
'the State shall take legislative and other measures to implement the principle that not more than 2/3 of the members of the elective or appointive bodies shall be of the same gender'

Article 90
Compels the IEBC (Independent Electoral  and Boundaries Commission) to ensure that 'each party list comprises the appropriate number of qualified candidates and alternatives between male and female candidates

Article 97 
States that the National Assembly should consist of 'forty-seven women each elected by the registered voters of the counties, each county constituting a single member constituency'.

(These are the so-called 'Women's Rep' positions that will be voted upon on March 4th.)

These new commitments represent a significant shift in Kenyan politics. The number of women in the current Kenyan parliament is 22 or 9.8 % of the 224 members. After the election next week this will increase to at least 33% - a significant jump.

However my reservations about quotas remain. One of my concerns, in Kenya's case, is that the creation of Women's Rep positions might mean that women are tending to vie for that position and therefore less likely to compete for other roles. Only 1 of the 8 candidates for President is a woman, and only 2 of the Vice-Presidential candidates are women. From looking at the posters that line every wall of Nairobi I see few female faces - those running for Governor, County Rep, Senator are predominately men. What measures can be taken in Kenya to change this? Without the support programmes that tackle issues of culture, access, education I do not see the faces on the posters changing any time soon.

Andrea in Politics?
As a young woman who studied political science at university, and has maintained a strong interest in politics every since, I can honestly say that the thought of ever entering into public political life is one that I have never seriously entertained. And many of my female peers are the same. I believe I am much more likely to see my male colleagues enter into public life in years to come. Personally, the hurdles for me are related to the high value I put on my privacy and my personal/social life but I can't deny that my own personal confidence levels and the pervasive 'old boys club' culture are also barriers.

Cathy Newman of Channel 4 news in the U.K. was quoted in the Guardian this week as saying
'Get a lot of blokes together in one place, add copious amounts of alcohol and add the fact that home/wives/partners are are far away and it's not surprising that the atmosphere is more public school than public service.'
(Sorry I can't find the link to it anymore.)

Quotas, as we've seen in the first section do work. However they are not enough by themselves. For women's participation in politics, and public life more broadly, to be increased substantially the other Cs of confidence and culture need to be addressed alongside quotas. And neither Ireland, nor Kenya, has begun to address these in my opinion.


  1. I love this post. And would totally vote for you if ever given the opportunity. :)

    The quotas thing does feel icky, but at the same time... there are such penalties, socially, for women trying to 'make it in a man's world' - they'll get tarred with negative labels much more easily (for being fake - for being arrogant - for being pushy - for not knowing what they're talking about - not to mention all the inappropriate comments re: appearance) than the menfolk will for the exact same behaviour. And I think quotas are a way to speed up the process of getting to the point where we can have a merit system (or as close as you can in the murky world of politics...).

  2. Claire I think you are absolutely right. If things are going to change within a reasonable timeframe quotas are needed to push the process along, but I'd like to think they would not need to be a permanent solution. In the interim though they would create a pool of female candidates and representatives making it easier for the next generation of women to break through, especially when backed up with other support structures.

    Your point about the portrayal of women is such an interesting one too, especially in relation to politics. Confidence and assertiveness in men is often re-designated as bossiness, pushiness in women and don't even get me started on the obsession with female politicians' appearances, it makes me so cross.