Women’s political participation doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box

Abigail Hunt | Dec 01, 2015

The UK cinema release of Suffragette, brings the story of women’s fight for the vote to the big screen. Providing a striking account of the violence, imprisonment and abuse of the Suffragettes at the hands of an increasingly repressive state, the film is a tale of revolution – and ultimately success. The film is also a reminder of the central role of the women’s movement in almost every advance in women’s rights throughout history. Just a few months ago Saudi Arabian suffragettes were celebrating women’s first opportunity to register to vote in elections.

Yet we must be careful not to believe that achievement of women’s right to vote is the end of the story. As with all legal rights, there can be a huge gap between a de jure right enshrined in law, and a de facto right which is realised ‘in reality’, or ‘in practice’. As in so many aspects of women’s lives, women’s ability to exercise their right to vote can be subject to the effects of unequal and gendered power relations between men and women, notably within the family and immediate community.

In many countries, the central tenet of a democratic election process in which those eligible are able to participate ‘freely and fairly’ is undermined by patriarchal practices restricting women’s ability to exercise free choice. In practice women may be constrained to vote within family or clan-favoured parties or individuals. In some cases women don’t even get to see their ballot paper, with male family members engaging in ‘proxy voting’ to cast a vote in the name of women.

Perhaps more crucial still, though, is making sure that focus on increasing women’s electoral participation does not come at the expense of supporting their engagement at all stages of the democratic cycle. Every election is an unmissable opportunity to increase the number of women voters and candidates. However, focusing only on elections misses the point that most democratic ‘work’ happens between elections.

Elections are a vital opportunity to get people who want to make positive change for women into a position from which they can do so. As a new paper from the Overseas Development Institute outlines, substantive representation doesn’t inevitably flow from increased numbers of women in decision-making roles. Yet there is a definite connection. For example, a 2003 study analysing data from 31 democracies showed that greater political representation of women leads to overall higher importance being placed on issues such as gender equality in political and social rights, equality in marriage and divorce laws, as well as the availability of maternity leave.

Once again, securing better laws and policies isn’t the end point. Continued pressure is often needed to make rights into reality. For example, in many countries domestic violence laws have been hard-won, yet subsequently proved paper thin for many women due to lack of enforcement, lack of access to justice, and other forms of discrimination which restrict women’s basic freedoms.

Enter the women’s rights movement, which works tirelessly to increase the gender-sensitivity of governance structures. Notably, women’s rights organisations – such as Womankind Worldwide’s partner organisations – bridge the gap between women and the institutions governing their lives.

By representing women’s views in the policy process and supporting marginalised women to participate directly, these organisations drive change by ensuring decision-makers (women and men) working at all levels are held to account and deliver on their promises. As our recent report outlines, these organisations also work to generate awareness and pressure, provide specialist legal advice, and strengthening women’s capacity to have their voice heard as policy is developed. The results of this work are there to see in a 40 year longitudinal study, which recently found that mobilisation of feminist movements is more important for change than the wealth of nations, left-wing political parties, or the number of women politicians.

This doesn’t mean that the achievements of the UK suffragette movement and women’s suffrage campaigns around the world shouldn’t be celebrated. Without question, securing women’s right to vote is one of the most fundamental markers of a country’s commitment to gender equality.

But the work of the women’s rights movement to ensure that democratic systems are responsive to women’s needs and demands is consistent and ongoing. As the struggle of the suffragettes shows, women’s political participation doesn’t begin and end at the ballot box.

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