Participation and leadership


Women have a right to an equal say in the decisions that affect their lives, whether its deciding how their household income is spent or how their country is run.

But discrimination, violence, poverty and gender roles often prevent women from speaking up,or mean they struggle to be heard when they do.

Barriers facing women in politics

Just 22 per cent of all parliamentarians are women and fewer than 25 of the worlds 196 countries have a woman leader. Around the world, women are underrepresented as voters and as leaders, whether in national, regional or local government. Even at the community level, women's voices are not heard.

There are many obstacles which prevent women participating in politics. Women are more likely to be poor, to have greater caring responsibilities and less education than men. In some countries women's movement is restricted, or they are forbidden from appearing in public spaces.

During elections women may be forced 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.

Discriminatory laws and institutions still limit women's options to become involved in party activism or to run for office. And when they do, women are less likely than men to have the contacts and confidence to help them succeed.

Even when they reach leadership positions women leaders often face prejudice, discrimination, harassment and even violence because they represent a challenge to traditional gender roles and power relations. Women leaders can play a vital role in clearing a path for all women to speak and be heard. 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.

Enabling women to have an equal say isn't just about gender justice, it is a crucial part of both reducing structural poverty and ending violence against women and girls.

Building equality from the ground up

Women's full and meaningful public and political participation can be enabled by a range of institutions, including a country's Constitution, the electoral system and temporary special legal measures such as gender quotas.

While improving the representation of women in national and international leadership can deliver broad change, its at the local level where many of the decisions affecting women's lives are made. It is crucial that women's voices are also heard at the community and local levels. Informal, community spaces and local women's groups are important arenas for developing leaders, providing skills, experience, relationships and networks for women to become public and political leaders themselves.

Building women's participation and influence means ensuring decision-makers are accountable and respond to women's priorities and needs. Women's rights organisations help to strengthen the links between leaders and the women in the communities they represent. 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) at all levels are held to account and deliver on their promises.

The results of this work are there to see in a recent 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.

Participation isn't just about numbers, but influence

Women's right to equal participation has been agreed internationally across a range of human rights treaties, international resolutions, national constitutions and laws. However, there's a long way to go before this right becomes a reality for all women.

Following the inclusion of an indicator on women's representation in national legislatures in the Millennium Development Goals, efforts were made to increase the numbers of women in politics and decision-making. However, progress in this area has remained extremely slow, and equality with men is a still a long way off.

Perhaps the biggest challenge is ensuring that the voices of the most marginalised groups of women are heard at all levels. An unprecedented level of public debate and discussion around international women's rights still largely excludes the voices of women from the global South, women with disabilities, rural women, indigenous women, widows, lesbian, bisexual and transgender women and women from lower classes or castes.

Ultimately women's public and political participation is about more than just numbers, they must have real influence over decisions. A truly equal future means transforming existing power relations at every level of society. This means challenging the traditional gender roles, attitudes and beliefs which limit women's role in public and political life.