How can you measure women empowerment?

Members of W8, a group of eight women that lead Oxfam's health and education for all campaign, meet with María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, Spain's former deputy prime minister and other female politicians. Only 17 percent of women hold ministerial positions around the world. Photo by: Oxfam International / CC BY-NC-ND

How many women hold ministerial positions around the world?

Just 17 percent, according to a new report released on Tuesday by VSO, a British NGO focused on female empowerment. But the reason is contrary to what many may think – that the percentage is due alone to more men trying to bar women from taking over some of the positions they traditionally held.

“We heard that sometimes, the most amount of prejudice comes from other women in the community,” Priya Nath, VSO UK’s policy manager, told Devex. “So when females have decided to try and stand for some sort of public office, coming up against [them] were other women questioning their commitment to their own families, questioning why they would do this, [as] it’s not their role.”

Indeed, such social attitudes and the patriarchal culture that remains dominant in many African countries like Cameroon, Kenya, Malawi and Zambia, according to the report, remain the biggest barriers to women’s participation in public and political life. And while some bit of progress has been made in the past few years as the international community rally behind the MDGs, progress on this particular issue has been small and “slow.”

The post-MDGs dialogue has provided new hope for women’s advocates, after the U.N. High-Level Panel on the post-2015 framework proposed to include gender equality and women empowerment. But as the discussions go into the finer details, Nath says the international community needs to pause and look beyond measuring success by counting how many women are in parliament.

Here are a few excerpts from our conversation:

How are the current discussions on gender equality and women empowerment in post-2015 going?

The HLP made a brilliant start. But within that framework, under a gender goal, there needs to be a target of women’s participation and influence in public and political life.

What we heard really clearly from people who are decision makers was that there were broad hopes for what will be in [the post-2015 agenda], but what they wanted to see now is details and how it could fit. What would the wording be and how is that wording going to be informed.

So we by no means think that everyone’s convinced yet. There will now be negotiations between U.N. member states on what will be in the final framework. And we’re under no illusion that all U.N. member states will agree to a standalone gender equality or target on women’s participation and influence in public and political life.

A big focus at this upcoming U.N. General Assembly is looking back at the Millennium Development Goals, and assessing what progress has been made, and what still needs to be done in the next year and a half. But then the other 25 percent of the U.N. General Assembly would be looking at what’s next, what does the next framework would look like, and we’ve timed our report to start to be able to contribute to some of that discussions.

How did gender equality and women empowerment fared under the MDGs?

In the MDGs, there was a goal on gender equality and women’s empowerment. It was a good goal, but it was quite limited. And the only target that existed under that goal was around eliminating disparity in primary and secondary education. And then, under the indicators, there was one indicator around the proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments.

In the whole time of the MDGs, there has been some change, in the number of women in national parliaments. But it’s been slow … Progress has gone up from some 11.6 percent in 1995 to 20.9 percent today. If we continue to move at the rate we’re moving now, it’s going to take until 2068 until we get representation in national parliament.

But that’s just looking at the number of women in parliament. If we look at the number of women serving as heads of government, the progress is even slower. So, if we take the rate we progressed from 2000 until today, if we continue at that same rate of increase, it’ll take us 120.6 years before we get to a place where women make up half of the heads of government in the world.

We kind of see the post-2015 framework as a new opportunity to set the agenda for the next 15 years. We see that as a really crystal moment, to say, OK, we made some progress, but it’s not good enough, it’s not fast enough, and if we keep going like we are, it’s still going to mean that we are in a position where women voices aren’t equally being heard.

The MDGs really have defined where some of the aid money is going, what development assistance is being spent on. We know that. So there is a case to say that if we have a strong set of goals, then we’re gonna have more effort, money and attention on those areas.

So who’s to say if we had a stronger goal on women’s representation and influence in 2000 when they set the MDGs, whether we would be further aloft? I think possibly we would have, just because no country wants to be at the bottom of the scale of these things. Actually some of the countries that are at the bottom, some of them are very developed countries.

We know that quotas exist in some countries, and that’s been really helpful at really increasing the number of women being represented, or the numbers of women represented, but does that really mean that these women have an equal say? Do they hold positions that lead to influence? Are they the treasurers? Are they the finance ministers, the leaders of the party? When you look at the information breakdown, they’re not.

Women only exist in 17 percent of all government ministers around the world. But where they do exist, they tend to be more representing social issue portfolios. So more of the social welfare, rather than the portfolios that decide the money.

In the event that women makes equal representation, how do you make sure their voices are heard?

Our proposal is that we don’t define success by measuring the number of MPs that are women, or the numbers of people in parliament that are women.

But that’s not our only measure for success … and we need to measure what impact do those women feel they’re having themselves. It’s quite a challenge for the international community, because it presents a different way of trying to collect information, and is quite a lot more involved way of gathering information, and gathering a progress report.

So ask women, basically, how do you know whether they are having an impact. We need to be asking those women who are in parliament. We also need to be asking the community around them. So ask some of the women’s groups in those countries: What do they think of the progress? Do they feel that women’s voices are now heard more equally? But also, ask people, just ask people generally, the population, what their views on female leaders.

One of the biggest barriers is social norms, social attitudes. And the patriarchal culture is almost the biggest barriers to women to participate in public and political life. It’s a perception that a community holds collectively. So if we survey that perception, if we ask the questions to just the general citizens, in 15 years say, then we should really get a good indication on whether we’ve achieved influence rather than just participation.

There’s this thing called the household survey. We’re saying that those sorts of surveys can be adapted to ask about people’s views and perceptions of women as leaders. And that’s how you gonna measure change in social attitudes. It’s a great idea, but it’s not an inclusive survey. Because a household survey in a household dominated by male culture, the person filling out that survey is going to be a male. So the way you measure information has to change.

How do you address the problem when it is the women themselves who are not fighting for their rights, or they are themselves the ones skeptical having women represent them in government?

Some of the things that we heard was that sometimes, the most amount of prejudice comes from other women in the community. So when females have decided to try and stand for some sort of public office, coming up against [them] were other women questioning their commitment to their own families, questioning why they would do this, [as] it’s not their role.

That’s a really big obstacle, and the only way that we know, and that evidence shows that we can tackle that, is through education and working with those groups. But by also demonstrating the value. Research shows that in communities where women have started to take on some of these roles, initially it’s really hard, but then the next time round, the attitude’s slightly different. It’s slightly more accepting. So it’s by kind of demonstrating the value and how it can affect their own lives.

Research shows that when you do start to break those social norms, when you start to having one or two females standing up and becoming representatives to their communities, then attitudes within that community slowly start to shift.

As someone working for an organization championing this issue, how do you think can others in the aid community better address the issue of gender equality and women’s participation?

One of the big things is including it as a commitment in itself. When we discuss a post-2015 framework, or when we discuss any country’s commitment in terms of aid and development assistance, it’s what’s written down on paper, it’s what highlighted as the top goals, that matters. That’s where the attention goes, and that’s where the money goes to.

So what we’re saying is, if you make it a commitment on its own, then you’re more likely to see action, you’re more likely to see progress … [as well as] focused attention and resources. But also, when you’re collecting statistics, if you break it down by profile, by how different policies affect women and how they affect those living in most poverty, and how they affect children. How you disaggregate your data basically.

How do you make the case to donors — which are all gearing toward issues that can produce immediate impact — to continue and increase support to this issue?

If you’re trying to address poverty, almost two-thirds of the people who live in poverty in the world are females. So if your ultimate impact is reducing poverty, if your ultimate impact is improving the lives of the poorest, then you cannot do that without two-thirds of the people having the say and having being part of that direction.

Read more development aid news online, and subscribe to The Development Newswire to receive top international development headlines from the world’s leading donors, news sources and opinion leaders — emailed to you FREE every business day.

About the author

  • Jenny Lei Ravelo

    Jenny Lei Ravelo is a Devex Senior Reporter based in Manila. She covers global health, with a particular focus on the World Health Organization, and other development and humanitarian aid trends in Asia Pacific. Prior to Devex, she wrote for ABS-CBN, one of the largest broadcasting networks in the Philippines, and was a copy editor for various international scientific journals. She received her journalism degree from the University of Santo Tomas.