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Political transition – hope or defeat for women?

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In times of political transition, gender equality often balance between gaining ground or losing even earlier achievements. The will of the incoming government, the language of the new constitution and effective measures to make family responsibilities easier to handle, shows the 2013 report from the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

The Working Group (WG) was established in 2010, and is dedicated to ”identify, promote and exchange views, in consultation with States and other actors, on good practices related to the elimination of laws that discriminate against women”.

In the beginning of the summer it presented its first thematic report which had a focus on political transition. According to this report, although there has been much progress since the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) entered into force in 1981, there are still huge gaps to fill before women are able to participate in political and public life on equal terms with men.

In fact, as recently as last year the United Nation’s General Assembly was so concerned by the marginalization of women, that it once again dedicated a resolution (66/130) to promote women’s political participation. And in Europe, where many countries pride themselves of being far ahead with women’s rights, the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, stated its alarm over the underrepresentation of women in the EU’s legislative council and leadership positions, as well as the stagnation of women’s representation at one third or less in parliaments across the region.

Gains and losses

When it comes to gender equality and political transition, experience has varied greatly between countries. In Eastern Europe during the 1990s, as well as in some of the political tranistions taking place recently in the Middle East and North Africa, key gains for gender equality and/or numerical representation of women was reduced. In contrast, the introduction of quotas within political transition in some countries in sub-Saharan Africa, led to some of the highest percentages of women members of parliament.

According to the WG report, good practice in the latter states included ”the active engagement with the international community in the peacebuilding process and an emphasis on democracy, human rights and women’s rights as human rights”. This of course demands of the incoming government to have a responsive political leadership regarding women’s rights. In this work the report highlights the importance of autonomous women’s movements that can raise concerns regarding gender equality issues and that the government listens to and acts on these concerns.

Crucial areas

Among the several other areas crucial for women’s equal participation in political and public life that the report takes a closer look at, are:

Constitutions – ”A constitutional guarantee of equality for women,in line with international standards [like CEDAW] is essential” the report states, and exemplifies with the 2011 Moroccan constitution that expressly and systematically confers constitutional rights on women as well as men, and a constitution in the Latin American/Caribbean region which contains approximately 34 references to the rights of women.

Legislation – The report especially warns for family laws that, often with reference to religion, deny women equal rights to citizenship, owning property etc, or that deam their husbands or other family members to be women’s guardians, thereby hindering them from being full members of society. Here an explicitly written constitution also can be of help. Good practice mentioned in the report are some constitutions in sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia, which, where they incorporate recognition of religious values or traditional custom in the text, nevertheless provide that they will not override the right to equality.

Violence – Stigmatization, harassment and attacks have been used to silence and discredit women who are community leaders, women’s rights defenders, politicians etc, sometimes with the silent approval or even active participation of state agencies. As good examples to fight this, the report mentions legislation in the Latin America and Caribbean region prohibiting gender-based harassment and violence against a women candidate, as well as pressure on her family.

Unequal caregiving responsibilities – Women are disproportionately responsible for taking care of household and family. The report acknowledges that ”both the reality and the a priori belief that this is the way it should be put women at a structural disadvantage in entering and participating sustainably in political and public life.” To come to terms with this the report lists good practices like childcare support and institutional family-friendly scheduling, including some states changing the scheduling of parliamentary sessions to allow a work-life balance for Members of Parliament who have parental responsibilities. It’s also worth noticing that the highest performing countries in terms of proportion of women in public office have the most generous entitlements for maternal and parental leave.

Political parties – ”The most effective strategies for women’s political empowerment involve reforms to incorporate rules that guarantee women’s representation within political parties” writes the WG. It notes that good practice in this area includes ”a legislative, and preferably constitutional, requirement that political parties place women in realistic positions for election, apply quotas (…) and condition the funding (…) on their integration of women in realistic positions on their candidate lists” and especially mentions Ecuador, which has a constitution that includes the principle of parity in all policymaking mechanisms.

Download the 2013 report from the Human Rights Council’s Working Group on the issue of discrimination against women in law and in practice.

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