Agency Matters: Closing the Gap in Women’s Political Participation

March 31, 2015| Sabrina Stein, UNA Women

Throughout her different engagements during CSW 59, Executive Director of UN Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka has repeated time and time again: AGENCY MATTERS. In the fight for gender equality and women’s rights, one person can make a difference in bringing change to their school, their community, their cities, and their countries. It is for this reason that the gender equality agenda focuses on the need to create the necessary spaces and conditions for women to become political leaders, and while there have been many victories since the Beijing Declaration in 1995, the challenges to being a woman in a political leadership position remain such that the gap is far from being breached.

Women political leaders from Algeria, Australia, Chile, and Switzerland discussed the challenges to being political leaders and the demands of family and motherhood during CSW. Women political leaders are held to different standards; for example, media outlets often focus on women’s outfits and haircuts rather than their policies. This attitude towards women leaders forces them to mimic masculine leadership characteristics to stand their ground and prove their worth. Women leadership in systems created and shaped by men is extremely challenging. Political party structures are an example of organizations that have often failed to incorporate women into their ranks, often led by men as “old boys clubs.” For women to participate in leadership positions at the local and national level, the system needs to provide the necessary spaces for them to partake in the political process.

Women in leadership positions face challenges that make balancing work and family life almost impossible, often preventing them from continuing to climb through the ranks. One of the participants explained that as a young political activist she never felt a difference between herself and her male counterparts; however, once she was elected to government and had to balance the demands of being a political leader and raising children, she realized that the system was not designed to help her do both. It is imperative that women not only become political leaders but that they also promote women-friendly policies that will help drive the gender equality agenda forward. Labor laws that support women through motherhood are of essence to reach greater representation of women not only in political leadership positions but also in other key sectors of society.

Women and girls need to recognize the value of their political leadership and how they can become agents of change and drive the global agenda for gender equality and women’s rights forward. It is necessary that young girls are raised knowing that they can be leaders and that the system allows women to partake in decision-making spaces while balancing other responsibilities like family and motherhood if there is ever to be real gender equality.