Increasing numbers of women have gained entry to formal political spaces. To what extent has this translated into their political influence, or into gains in policies that redress gendered inequities and inequalities? This article, from Democratization, explores the factors that affect and enable women’s political effectiveness in different democratic arenas. It argues that women’s political interests are not necessarily influenced by their sex, but by their “political apprenticeship”, or pathway into politics. To enhance the potential of women’s political participation, democracy itself must be democratized; including building new pathways into politics.
The target for the number of women in politics is set out in the Millennium Development Goals, but numbers do not equate with the pursuit of policies of gender equality, or increased representation of women’s issues. Factors other than sex shape women’s interests, including political skills and accountability relationships such as political party affiliation. The processes through which women enter politics, which in turn influence how they acquire political skill – in other words their “political apprenticeship” – is overlooked as a determinant of women’s interests. In relation to this:
- Affirmative action measures do not make parties more responsive to gender equality issues, nor do they construct electoral constituencies with a greater interest in gender equality.
- Women in office do not necessarily defend a feminist position on policies. For some, winning and keeping office is contingent upon downplaying feminist sympathies. Men too can adopt feminist positions and social justice concerns to garner broader-based political support to redress gender inequity.
- How women get selected for leadership positions determines what issues are represented. Where there is no accountability or internal transparency about who leads and what policies are promoted, women leaders may not be connected with women’s concerns.
- Patronage systems or ‘women’s wings’ of political parties rarely lead to female solidarity.
- There is a general refusal on the part of political parties to introduce internal leadership quotas for women.
- Women’s movements are as diversely constituted and motivated as other civil society organisations. NGOs are permeable to, and often reproduce, existing political culture.
There is a need to facilitate political apprenticeship whilst at the same time creating the conditions for the effective articulation of positions that challenge the status quo. The paper also recommends:
- Donors must be circumspect about the potential for ‘invited spaces’, which can divert and dissipate social and political energy. Less structured support, given in solidarity for broader work rather than in response to project proposals, would be beneficial.
- Spaces outside formal political or deliberative arenas can incubate leaders and enable women to formulate positions, exchange perspectives and hone political skills. These include Brazil’s ‘escolas feministas’ that work with women within public office as well as would-be politicians and women representatives in other democratic spaces.