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PeaceTimes Edition 87. More Sway and Less Swagger: Women in Governance, 2008 and Beyond

15 November 2008 No Comment

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Sarah Palin

Sarah Palin

- by Mary Liston Liepold

US vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin envisions a role larger than that of the typical Veep if her party wins. And Palin’s ambition is just one drop in a tide that is sweeping the world. After the long, long struggle to win the vote (still being waged in Saudi Arabia, where 2009 is an election year and some look for change), women everywhere are moving into politics and moving from politics to governance. We are steadily approaching a world with “more sway and less swagger,” in Swanee Hunt’s memorable phrase. This former US Ambassador and founder of Inclusive Security expects the increase in womanpower to result in a “call from arms”: a more peaceful and equitable world.

Are We There Yet?

Right now, no matter where we look, the challenges are daunting. “When the situation is very bad, the women are needed,” Finnish Prime Minister Tarja Halonen told a Forbes reporter firmly, in an interview published September 26. Halonen is holding her country on course through the good (the selection of Finnish diplomat Martti Ahtisaari for the Nobel Peace Prize), the bad (spillover from Iceland’s economic meltdown), and the ugly (a school shooting on September 23 unprecedented for this nation whose school system others envy).

Even in hard times, Finland’s assets outweigh its challenges. In Finland, where female suffrage was won in 1906, as in India, Ireland, Germany, and other relatively established democracies, women have moved up gradually through decades of social progress. In other countries, like Haiti and Rwanda, women seem to have been invited to the table as a last resort. The places where women hold political power occupy both ends of the peace and development spectrum as well as its center.

How many women lead governments around the world? The answer depends on what we call a government and what we call leading. If we include microstates like San Marino, provinces like The Åland Islands, figurehead monarchs like Elizabeth II of Great Britain, Margrethe II of Denmark, and Beatrix of the Netherlands, and governors-general, like Quentin Brice of Australia and Michaelle John of Canada, as well as elected leaders, the total comes in above 25. But the answer also depends on what day it is. Ten new leaders have joined the women’s club since January 2007, including India’s Pratibha Patil, Ukraine’s Yulia Tymoshenko, and Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner. With Tzipi Livni on the verge of forming a new government in Israel, the tally will rise again.

Yuri Kokoiko, who in September announced her intention to run for president of Japan, would rule a country where progress and tradition have equally powerful claims. The title of one of her publications sums it up: “Climbing the Pyramid in a Kimono.”

Can We Have It All?

Should women—suited, swathed, and kimonoed—take charge everywhere? Former (and first female) White House Press Secretary Dee Dee Myers says so, at least for the sake of argument, in Why Women Should Rule the World (Random House, 2008). Her rationale: We are better communicators, better listeners, and better consensus builders than men, and all three skills are essential to any nation. Most of us are willing to defer that discussion until we reach political parity with men. And the happy day, according to UNIFEM’s calculation, is just 37 years away.

A UNIFEM study released September 16 shows that the proportion of women in national legislatures worldwide has gone up 7 percentage points since 1995, after decades with only about 1% annual increases. We hold 18.4% of parliamentary seats worldwide. If the trend holds, this report estimates, women in developing countries will reach parity in 2045 and those in so-called developed ones as soon as 2028. The United States, however, with a legislature that is 16% female, has yet to adopt quotas. And quotas, where they are being applied, make a tremendous difference.

Basma Fakri

Basma Fakri

As many as 97 nations now have some kind of quotas for women in government, and 46 have constitutional quotas at the national level. In the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s ranking of 188 nations by percentage of women legislators, Rwanda, where, as of September 15, women hold 45 of 80 seats in the lower house, currently leads the world.  Sweden, Cuba, Finland, and Argentina round out the top five nations. The US ranks 69th.

Nahla Arif and Basma Fakri, Iraqi members of Peace X Peace, have been closely watching the negotations on quotas in the Iraq constititution. Today they see quotas as one indication that democracy is truly taking hold. “Our constitution specified a quota of 25% women for the national legislature, the Council of Representatives,” Nahla told us. On September 23, we learned that provincial councils will also require 25% representation.

Though quotas vary in the thresholds they set and in the degree to which they’re enforced, the quota itself sends a message that women are entitled to representation. The Beijing Platform for Action specified 30% as the point at which policy begins to look different, though minimums of 40% women and 40% men, as in Spain and Norway, seem to give the most effective balance.

Winning Isn’t Everything

Women don’t even need to win the seats they run for to make a difference. The campaign, like the quota, creates new images and new expectations for the electorate. It’s also a valuable learning experience for the candidate and the team that supports her.

Elsa Carrio

Elsa Carrio

Elsa Carrio, whose 2002 run for president of Argentina was documented in Peace by Peace, Women on the Frontlines, was the first runner-up to Cristina Kirchner in 2007, and will certainly be heard from again.  Notably, Argentina was the first country in Latin America to establish a quota for its legislature: 30%, in 1991.

At Omega’s Women, Power, and Peace conference last fall, Rigoberta Menchu Tum commented wryly on the reactions to her 2006 Nobel Peace Prize and her 2007 presidential campaign. “When you win the Prize, they say, ‘Come, sit up here; sit by me.’ But when you try to touch the power. . .”

She came in seventh, and she was proud to have disregarded the advice of would-be handlers, who told her she had to get thin and get a suit.

Dr. Karambu Ringera, a Peace X Peace member who ran for office in Kenya’s ill-fated December 2007 elections, can’t wait to try again. “God places us where we can do the work we have committed our hearts to,” she explains. This year Karambu is teaching peace and conflict resolution at the University of Nairobi.

As long as women are the minority in a government, they tend to be relegated to committees that carry out “women’s work” — health, education, women’s and children’s affairs—rather than those that control finance, international relations, and other typically male areas. The 15.6% who have achieved ministerial-level or head-of-agency positions worldwide similarly cluster in the “softer” departments. Belgium, with 55%, is the only country with a majority of women ministers in its national government.

Tipping the balance like this, or making it to the top position, as Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Chile’s Michelle Bachelet (whose cabinet is 50% female), Ireland’s Mary McAleese, and others have done, is the one sure way to get out of the kitchen and into the control room with the big-money spigots.

Whose Power Is It . . . and for What?

Dr. Karambu Ringera

Dr. Karambu Ringera

So, what looks different when women rule? “Iron Mags” Thatcher seemed more inspired by the bellicose Boadicea (or the Amazons of Dahomey, or the Chinese Mulan, whose legend inspired the 1998 Disney movie) than by Rigoberta, Betty Maguire and Mairead Corrigan, or other modern heroines of peace. Holding sway, even at the highest level, is ultimately worthless unless it leads to progressive policies that are adequately funded and put into place on the ground—unless it changes people’s lives for the better.

The excellent social services and generally high quality of life in the Scandinavian countries, where women are strong in government and the social sector, is one indication. Still, no country in the world today is completely free from the culture of militarism or completely egalitarian. Our belief that the world will look different when women hold sway is still a hypothesis. But it’s one that deserves to be tested.

The Fawcett Society, the UK’s leading advocate for gender equality, identifies four C’s that slow women’s progress towards political parity around the world: cultural prohibitions and lack of confidence, childcare, and cash.  The good news is that all four are things women can overcome with concerted efforts. As Dee Dee Myers noted, we talk, we listen, we solve problems, and we stick together. And we have something called common sense in common.

International organizations like Peace X Peace are multiplying the power of women by the power of the internet so we can all win together. In an increasingly democratizing world, we lift a few to the top so they can serve the many. For as Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.”


[In the map on the masthead, from the website Jezebel, countries where women are or have been full-term heads of state are shaded in dark pink, and those with acting female heads are shaded in light pink.]

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About the Author

Mary Liepold is the Editor-in-Chief at Peace X Peace. To reach Dr. Liepold, email maryl@peacexpeace.org.
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