Q&A: Speaking up and being heard — why women in politics should be the norm

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Sandra Pepera speaks at the Open Government Partnership Global Summit in Ottawa, Canada, in May 2019. Photo by: Mike Gifford

Twenty-five years on from the Fourth World Conference on Women, and with just a decade of the Sustainable Development Goals framework left to run, we face an important moment for women’s political empowerment — to both reflect and accelerate efforts.

The competition for power has intensified in recent years, placing democracy and women’s role in it under the spotlight in many parts of the world, said Sandra Pepera, senior associate and director for gender, women, and democracy at the National Democratic Institute. At the same time, women leaders have won praise for their handling of the COVID-19 crisis, while young women iconoclasts have jumped on the digital revolution to inspire a new generation of political activists.

Pepera sat down with Devex to discuss the importance of women’s political participation, the barriers they continue to face, and why quotas are just the start.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Why do you feel compelled to advocate for greater political participation of women, and how do you see your role in changing the status quo?

Changing the Face of Politicspodcast series: Episode 3 — Michelle Bachelet interviews Nighat Dad

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations human rights commissioner and former president of Chile, interviews Nighat Dad, executive director of the Digital Rights Foundation in Pakistan, about the new generation of women's rights activism and the need to secure digital rights for women. The episode is set to be released Thursday, Oct. 29.

For me, this is about three things: rights — women’s rights are human rights; justice — permanently changing the relationships between men and women; and, effectiveness — government is not as effective if 50% of the population can't influence public policy.

As a woman, and as a black woman, I’ve been used to being on the outside. I think that gives me and many other women a perspective that is inclined to be more inclusive, to bridge the gap.This isn’t to essentialize women, but we bring that perspective to the movement for change.

I found a brilliant quotation in the family biography of Greta Thunberg: “When you’re used to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” I am part of the feminist movement that holds up the mirror to folks who are used to privilege and helps to support them through that change. It's uncomfortable, but it’s necessary.

At the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, it was noticeable that the overwhelming majority of heads of state and government were men. Why do you think that’s still the case, and what can be done to change it?

No surprise — this is how our world is: rooted in unequal gender norms. Societies everywhere lean towards patriarchy, with women treated as second-class citizens. Such norms are very resistant to change, and they ground our political systems. Until we overcome them, we will not make a significant change in our politics or our societies.

A new index shows that underlying structural inequalities in power have not changed in the last 50 years. The World Economic Forum notes that the biggest gender gap is in political empowerment. We know that more than three-quarters of all parliamentarians are male, and more than 55% of them are over 45 years of age. So the structural fault lines are not just along gender lines but also on age. That is something that we ignore at our peril.

“As a woman, and as a black woman, I’ve been used to being on the outside. I think that gives me and many other women a perspective that is inclined to be more inclusive.”

— Sandra Pepera, senior associate and director for gender, women, and democracy, NDI

Women represent 50% of every demographic group, so if you brace political spaces open for women, you brace them open for everyone. If you take actions that make politics more accessible, affordable, and inclusive for women, you automatically let in a broader array of voices. Of course, that’s exactly what the largely male political leaders in power do not want to happen.

In Kenya, recently the country’s chief justice rebuked the government for its continued refusal to legislate for the constitutional requirement that no gender occupy more than two-thirds of positions at any level of public office.

What have you learned about women’s leadership and political participation from the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic has triggered a shock to political systems, shrinking the space for broader political engagement, with women even less likely to be included than before. For instance, even though women make up 70% of all health care workers globally, they were less than 20% of the WHO’s [World Health Organization’s] emergency committee at the start of the pandemic — surprising, given the female face of the Ebola and Zika crises.

Changing the Face of Politics’ podcast series: Episode 2 — Vanessa Nakate interviews Michelle Bachelet

Politics without women is like playing a game with only half the team, says Michelle Bachelet, U.N. human rights commissioner and former president of Chile, during an interview with Ugandan climate activist Vanessa Nakate in the series’ second episode.

However, where women are in charge, they seem to have navigated the balance between taking strong, evidence-based, results-focused action to address the public health elements of COVID while building a huge amount of confidence and trust among their populations. This is in sharp contrast to the male leadership experienced throughout the crisis.

But there are also important institutional specifics that have enabled these women to become political leaders. We should not expect every successful woman politician to be a superwoman.

Why is the role of young women in politics so important?

We’re not going to get to political parity any time soon, unless we draw young women in. We already know that girls’ confidence relative to boys peaks at 8 years, so we need to support young women's political leadership earlier.

We can see young women around the world now taking on the fight for climate, racial and social justice, trans rights, and workers’ rights. They are changing the future and are on the front line of some of the world’s seismic political shifts — from Lebanon to Sudan and Belarus. But young women can become disillusioned with what they see of democracy because too often, after being part of early waves, women are excluded from their rightful place at the political table.

“If you take actions that make politics more accessible, affordable, and inclusive for women, you automatically let in a broader array of voices.”

— Sandra Pepera, senior associate and director for gender, women, and democracy, NDI

What kind of initiatives are helping empower women in politics, and what more is needed?

I’ve been at this long enough to appreciate the importance of quotas. These aren’t everybody’s favorite route, but without them we wouldn’t have today’s levels of women’s political representation. I’m ambitious, so we must also get quotas to work properly to deliver that self-sustaining dynamic where women are not limited to competing only for quota seats and it is normal for women to be in political leadership.

Women must also be able to wield the power that goes with their numbers. It’s not enough for legislatures to be packed with women if the system is such that they aren’t able to speak in their own voice or offer their own perspective.

Women’s increased use of online spaces has been noticeable in the COVID context. The digital revolution continues to have the potential to make politics and mobilizing much easier, safer, and cheaper for women and other marginalized groups. There should be a greater ability to speak in your own voice and reach more people.

However, the internet is not living up to its promise of being for everyone. Misogynist, far-right, largely male groups with transnational reaches and regressive agendas use digital spaces to silence women’s political discourse. This kind of trolling isn’t simply about being mean; it’s about power and about using gender norms to manipulate the information space. Thankfully, there are people, movements, and communities who remain intent on reclaiming digital environments to make them open and inclusive.

Between now and 2030, the pace of the political empowerment of women must be stepped up. We have to run now.

Visit the voicesofchange.devex.com series for more coverage on how far women have come in changing politics, how much more needs to be done — and importantly, how women from all generations and walks of life can work together to make women in politics the norm. You can join the conversation using the hashtag #VoicesOfChange.

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