Justice, Pluralism, and Participation

Sun, Apr 2, 2006


World Movement for Democracy

WMD Fourth Assembly
Plenary Session on “Empowering Women to Fulfill their Roles in a Democratic Society”
Organizer:Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace – U.S.
Moderator: Asma Khader – Jordan
Rapporteur:Anne Mugisha – Uganda
Presenters:Mahnaz Afkhami – Iran (U.S.-based)
Larry Diamon – U.S.
Mariclaire Acosta – Mexico
Miria Matembo – Uganda

The session opened with an invitation to the participants to reflect on women’s participation in public life. Asma Khader remarked that women are central to democratic development and that they require real power and effective participation to move the democracy agenda forward. Yet world statistics indicate that women are still a minority
in national legislatures with percentages as low as six percent in the Middle East. She argued that democratic principles should extend not only to the public sphere, but also to the private sphere and the daily life of all women. Women are the driving force for change in society, and when they are elected to decision-making positions directly or through affirmative action, and in large numbers, they will cause positive change to happen. The need to ensure that women who take up public office are empowered to represent other women by promoting gender sensitive policies and elimination of discrimination against women was also emphasized. While having more women in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government is good for shattering stereotypes of gender roles, Asma Khader argued, there is a need to ensure that in these positions they represent women’s needs.

Miria Matembe, a Ugandan parliamentarian and former cabinet minister who serves in the Pan Africa Parliament, shared her experience as an African woman politician and legislator for the past 18 years. She explained how her roots as a women’s rights activist had prepared her for a political career that has spanned nearly two decades. She stated that inequality and discrimination against women was evident in the political arena where some male counterparts felt threatened by women politicians who did not conform to stereotypes of submissiveness. Ms. Matembe said she was able to meet the challenges of her role because she had a clear mission and goal for gender equality and empowerment. She is proud of her achievements during her political career, which included drafting and passing a gendersensitive constitution for Uganda in the mid-‘90s, but she regretted the inability to translate the constitutional provisions into laws that promote and protect the rights of women in spite of her unwavering fight in Parliament. She attributed this failure to a lack of political will on the part of the government and the failure of women who benefited from a quota system to stand up for women’s rights when they became legislators.

In his remarks, Larry Diamond emphasized the importance of having a significant proportion of women in parliaments and that women legislators be empowered to work independently by representing their constituents’ interests rather than those of party leaders. He said it was crucial to design electoral systems so that they facilitate and guarantee the election of a minimum percentage of women, and that a critical mass of women is needed at all levels of governance, from local to national. He argued that women will be empowered to work for other women if they are chosen by their constituents rather than by male party leaders. He also observed that women get elected in bigger numbers in proportional representation systems. He referred to a study by Harvard scholar Pippa Norris that shows that in majority election systems women MPs hold 8.5 percent of parliamentary seats on average, while in proportional representation systems they hold 15.4 percent. Dr. Diamond also highlighted the importance of designing party lists of leaders to ensure that women are fairly represented, and argued that open or partially open lists allow voters to choose women candidates in party elections. He also spoke about the importance of raising consciousness and confidence among women, as well as political training and assistance as essential elements in increasing women’s political participation.

Mariclaire Acosta addressed the issue of raising women’s voices and concerns effectively. She presented a case study of the women of Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican town on the Mexican/U.S. border in which over 300 young women were violently murdered. One hundred of the women had been sexually violated in serial murders, but the crimes were not given serious attention by the police or the government for a decade. The victims were assumed to be involved in prostitution and the murderers went free because of prejudices in the community against women who were economically empowered by an industrial boom in the city in the 1990s. Ms. Acosta discussed the strategies that women’s groups and civil society used to mobilize action to end such impunity. In 1993, the groups engaged in public mobilization, but were ignored by elected officials for nearly five years. The human rights community picked up on the initiative and took it first to the ombudsman, and in 2000 the case was raised at the United Nations and attracted international attention. In 2002, the issue was mainstreamed by a coalition of civil society groups and allies in government as a human rights issue. A national commission was appointed and the issue became a rallying point for activists and the families of the murdered women. The report from the investigation described most of the deaths as domestic violence crimes, however, thus reducing their significance as human rights violations. Therefore, the root causes of the problem were never addressed by the investigation.

Mahnaz Afkhami addressed women’s democratic participation from the perspective of culture. She observed that women’s status around the world has its roots in history, not culture, and historically the role and status assigned to women have been remarkably similar until relatively recently; nowhere in the world could women choose to work in education, train for a job, get a job, get paid equally, marry, have children, get a divorce, own property, or travel of their own free choice. Until the end of the 19th Century, nowhere in the world did women have the right to vote or hold elected office. From China to Ecuador, patriarchy was the basic foundational structure for human relationships, and that structure was based on the idea that men and women are different by nature and that women must therefore play roles that are complementary to men. Given this assumption of unequal and complementary gender roles, the system was quite rational and based logically on the division of roles. The patriarchal structure was reinforced by religion, myth, literature, and political and economic institutions. According to Ms. Afkhami, therefore, to bring about full and equal participation of women, in all decision making affecting their lives and the lives of their communities and societies, requires a complex and multifaceted reworking of all aspects, socio-political, economic, and cultural. She argued that over time scientific progress has reshaped roles of individuals, families, and communities, and a new, equally rational, system must be designed to address economic and political matters so that it is responsive to community needs. Societies need to develop a shared vision in the struggle for change, applying the best minds in all fields, and this requires partnerships across various organizations concerned with social justice issues. Ms. Afkhami stated that the task is possible because modern information technologies make communication easier and networking is therefore possible to build solidarity and work for change. There is also a new consciousness that women should be involved in decision making, and the struggle for change is also facilitated by the involvement of scholars and activists working together.

• Civil society provides a solid base for nurturing women political leaders.
• Women leaders must be equipped with knowledge to take up the challenges of political leadership and decision making.
• Affirmative action and quotas for women leaders is important, but they should be designed to empower women to act independently of male political leaders.
• Women leaders should have clearly defined missions and goals.
• Electoral systems can and should be designed to promote women’s effective participation at all levels.
• Open party primary elections enable more women to participate as party candidates and mobilize women to support authentic voices.
• Proportional representation with open or partially open lists and moderately sized electoral districts give women a better chance of participation.
• Innovation of systems like the “single transferable vote” in Ireland support women’s participation.
• Women need training and resources to participate meaningfully.
• Women’s rights are human rights, and they must be guaranteed and protected for women to be contributors to development in their societies. Justice systems should be overhauled to end impunity in cases of violation of women’s rights.
• Governments should be mobilized to provide real solutions to women’s problems, rather than leaving them to the market to solve; this can be done through the provision of social security nets to address some of the root causes for violence against women.
• Women’s issues are issues of the whole society; they are broad and deep and concern matters of justice, development, class, globalization, institutional development, culture, human rights, equity, and equality.
• Scientific progress has reshaped the roles of individuals, families, and communities, and an equally rational social justice system should be designed for progressive economic and political change. This requires the best minds in all fields of human endeavor.
• There is a new consciousness of the need for women’s participation in the private and public spheres, and change can be mobilized by scholars and activists working together.

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About Mahnaz Afkhami

A lifetime advocate for the rights of women, Mahnaz Afkhami works with activists across the world, especially in Muslim majority societies, to help women become leaders. She is Founder and President of Women’s Learning Partnership for Rights, Development, and Peace (WLP), Executive Director of Foundation for Iranian Studies...more

Quotables – Human Rights

"We must pose the question: why is it that the denial of the most rudimentary rights to civil treatment for women is always based on some fundamental point of culture? Is this culture real, or is it a fetish that is used to maintain some economic, social, or simply psychological privilege?" - A Vision of Gender in Culture

"Women's status in society has become the standard by which humanity's progress toward civility and peace can be measured." - Architects for Peace

"The crass infringement of women's rights we see in the Muslim world has more to do with power, patriarchy, and misuse of religion as political weapon than with religion properly understood as individual faith." - Gender Apartheid, Cultural Relativism, and Women's Human Rights

"Rights and empowerment are interconnected: unless a substantial number of women in a community come to believe that they have rights and demand to exercise them, right remains an abstraction." - Faith and Freedom

Quotables – Political Participation

"Quotas are a good starting point. But they are not the end-goal." - Mauritania Moves Toward Political Empowerment of Women

"Women’s representation in political life worldwide is less than 14 per cent" - Women's Conference Opens in Jordan

"Activism women realize that awareness of rights is the first step in gaining a political voice and the political power to gain rights." - Muslim Women and the Politics of Participation