Women, Politics and Equality: How do they relate?
“I’m very happy. I want to thank all Brazilians for this moment and I promise to honor the trust they have shown me,” Ms. Dilma Rousseff told reporters, in her first comments after the result of Brazilian presidential elections was announced, in October 31st, 2010. Among many popular manifestations of support for the new president, we, Brazilians, could look forward to 2011 as a historical and groundbreaking year. We had finally elected our first woman president.
This is an enormously significant achievement for women in my country. With a woman in the highest position of Executive Power, the expansion of public policies for women are likely to have positive consequences for human rights and citizenship in Brazil. Dilma’s election reinforces the government’s agenda for gender equality. It undoubtedly represents an advancement in democracy. However, any victory brings with it some new challenges.
One of the challenges is, in the words of President Dilma, to make what is now exceptional and unusual – women in positions of power - become a common situation. Another challenge that presents itself with more urgency than ever now that this door has been opened is to increase the number of women in decision-making positions, in all representative institutions of Brazilian society – companies, trade unions, civil society organizations and, first and foremost, politics.
The leader of our Executive power is now a woman. Nevertheless, that does not reflect the reality in our Legislative power, for example. Although the minimum ratio established by the United Nations for the representation of each gender in the Parliament is 30%, Brazil still presents rates averaging 15%. In fact, the number of women in Parliament in Brazil represents one of the lowest rates among Latin American countries, despite the leadership position that my country is said to hold in other aspects.
According to the Inter-parliamentary World Union, the disproportion is staggering when we compare Brazil with Argentina and Costa Rica, for example. These nations present rates of female representation in Parliament around 39%. This places these two countries in the eleventh and twelfth positions in the world ranking, while Brazil is in the shameful position of 106th, among a total of 136 countries.
Why is the inclusion of women in politics such a big deal?, you might be asking yourself. For many reasons. I will highlight some. Firstly, sound policies cannot be implemented through the input of only one gender. Women and men tend to focus on different topics - UNICEF says legislatures with more women produce better policies to fight child poverty, for example. Secondly, even when men and women focus on the same topic, they tend to have different views. Mixed teams are better than single-gender groups at solving problems. In addition, not only do good decisions result from a diversity of perspectives – democracy does, too. Democracy cannot be gender-blind. It will be ineffective if it does not strive for fair representation.
Women are half of the population, half of the labor force, half of the voters. Women are far more than half of those living in poverty. Women are far less than half of those in politics.
This proves women need change, in order to achieve equality. They need to be where changes are made. If women are half of the population, any serious development in governance has to involve women. Not because women are better - but because balance is better. Issues that mainly affect women - health and reproductive issues, gender equality, childcare policy, poverty, etc. – will be shortchanged if women are not included in the decision-making process. It does not matter how well intentioned are the men in the government. One gender can never fully understand and represent the needs of the other. We - women - need to speak up for ourselves.
Dilma Rousseff is one of the women who speaks up for us now. As she said in one of her first speeches, “Equality of opportunity between men and women is an essential principle of democracy. What gave me more confidence and hope at the same time was the immense capacity of our people to seize an opportunity, however small, to build a better world with it.”
I sincerely hope she is right.
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future, which is providing rigorous web 2.0 and new media training for 30 emerging women leaders. We are speaking out for social change from some of the most unheard regions of the world.