Opinion: Time to push for equal representation of women in positions of power

031914_woman_tech11-crop-600x338By Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) Ireland Executive Director Malcolm Quigley

A survey of women politicians carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union involving 187 women from 65 countries showed that 89% of these women believe they had a special responsibility to represent the needs and interests of women.

The forthcoming local and European elections have prompted a conversation in Ireland and elsewhere about the representation of women in positions of power.

In Ireland, there have been efforts by political parties to increase the proportion of female candidates on the ballot paper, with mixed results. Elsewhere, women are dramatically under-represented in decision-making at all levels and dramatically over-represented in the number of people living in extreme poverty. Worldwide, women and girls make up almost two thirds of those living in extreme poverty, but women account for only one in five parliamentarians worldwide and only 20% of elected councillors at local government level are women.

Just 15 of the world’s 193 heads of government are women. In the current European Parliament only 36% of the members are women and in the European Commission only nine out of the 28 commissioners are female.  From the cabinet table and national parliaments to local village councils and school boards, women are   typically in the minority and typically on the margins.

Where women are represented, they struggle to play a meaningful role in decision-making, their voices constrained by factors such as deep rooted patriarchal social structures, a lack of financial power and resource, lack of education and a higher burden of care   and responsibility in the home.

There is a vicious cycle that keeps women in low income countries poor,   uneducated, unhealthy and out of power. We are at our most vulnerable when we are unable to shape new polices or push back against existing policies and behaviours that harm us. The Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) have prompted progress in a number of areas, including the number of girls in school and women’s access to paid work.

As the process to decide a framework to follow the MDGs reaches a critical phase in 2015, one near certainty is a goal on gender equality. What shape this  goal will take remains an open question. The challenge that world leaders face is to identify the point in the   vicious cycle where governments and NGOs can focus their efforts.

In response, Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) has launched research called Women in Power: beyond access to influence in a post-2015 world, which shows that women’s participation and influence in decision-making can break the vicious cycle.  Women experience poverty in different ways to men, and often they have the greatest insight into the root causes of poverty and the actions and resources that will be the most effective in addressing these causes.

Because they often act as unpaid carers for children, the sick and the elderly, they understand the health needs of their community. In India, studies of women in panchayats (village councils) in West Bengal and   Rajasthan found that where leadership roles were reserved for women, the type of public goods provided were more likely to respond to women’s priorities. The number of drinking water projects in areas with female-led councils was 62% higher than those with male-led councils, reflecting the relatively high priority given by women to the need for access to clean water.

The inclusion of women officials in these bodies has made them more responsive to community demands for infrastructure, has improved implementation of   government programmes and made women citizens more likely to take advantage of state services and   demand their rights. A survey of women politicians, carried out by the Inter-Parliamentary Union involving 187 women from 65 countries showed that 89% of these women believed they had a special responsibility to represent the needs and interests of women. The insight and understanding of women must be brought to the decision-making table if communities and governments are to make the best, most informed decisions about how to tackle poverty.

The work of the EU, national governments and non-governmental organizations cannot be effective or responsive if it neither understands the differing needs of women and men nor draws on the experiences  and resources that they each bring when deciding on public spending, policy and legislation priorities. Women need to be present in decision-making in order to ensure that their specific needs and interests are promoted and defended.

VSO hopes that the European Parliament elections later this month will deliver a more gender balanced Parliament and that the future members of the European Parliament will take it upon themselves to fight for women’s equal participation and influence in decision making everywhere.

Women in Power Campaign

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Category: A Frontpage, Blogspot, European Commission, European Parliament, Expert comment, Gender equality, MEP Elections, Politics

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