On the second morning of the 54th Commission on the Status of Women, Gender Links and the African Woman and Child Feature Service —through the Gender and Media Diversity Centre— hosted a roundtable dialogue involving Marren Akatsa-Bukachi of the Eastern African Sub-regional Support Initiative for the Advancement of Women (EASSI), Francisco Cos-Montiel of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Revai Makanje of Hivos, Norah Matovu-Winyi of the African Women’s Development and Communication Network, and Jennifer Lewis of Gender Links as facilitator, with Mwendabai Yeta Mkhize and myself providing event support and reporting.
The discussion opened with comments on statistical analysis of proress toward the goal of achieving 50/50 parity. With a 7% improvement since Beijing, the discussion moved quickly toward the question of how to accelerate the rise of women in decision-making and leadership roles.
With not enough parliamentary-level attention focused on women’s issues or the specific virtues of achieving parity in representation, local government emerged as a potential area of strategic focus, in relation to promoting women’s access to positions of leadership and decision-making. Quotas were raised as a potential policy lever by which to promote parity. Revai Mekanje suggested working to adopt a “more catalystic” approach to fostering support networks and the cultural underpinnings for women to take leadership positions and influence policy.
Leadership, as such, was the next topic: women need access to leadership positions, and women too often do not see themselves as right for leadership positions. These cultural and psychological barriers to accumulating political capital need to be addressed. Francisco Cos-Montiel noted that in studies of Indian political participation, it was clear that women who were able to achieve leadership or decision-making roles, in politics or in the private sector, were almost uniformly from a societal and cultural elite.
Similar trends were seen across South America, highlighting the need to build the political capital of women from marginalized communities. Norah Matovu-Winyi viewed this as the challenge of “decolonization of the mind”, which was then framed by the group as a project of “depatriarchalization”. Matovu-Winyi explained that this problem relates to a psychological colonization, because it involves the ceding of authority to a traditionally or systemically more powerful other who, it is supposed, “knows more than we do”.
Personal or community agency is excluded by the prejudice that leadership entails a special inborn quality or elevated worth. In order to counter this surrender of selfhood to disinterested traditional elites, Matovu-Winyi proposed a deliberate effort to “demystify leadership”. Marren Akatsa-Bukachi suggested this project must also apply to positions of influence in the private sector. Enterprise and community leadership roles, outside of elective political office, can wield significant influence that determines numerous factors of the quality of life for women, girls and whole communities.
Without access to leadership roles in the private sector, women are less able to influence policy locally or decide how resources and opportunity are distributed in relation to their communities. Akatsa-Bukachi also noted the pervasive custom of how even food is distributed among men and women, and linked this to the problem of the colonization of the mind by a systemic prejudice that favors patriarchy.
Women are often left only the toes of the chicken, for example, while men enjoy the thigh and breast-meat. This inequity is not only a household custom or a commentary on private relationship dynamics, but is in many ways politically relevant. It illustrates the distance at which women are kept from positions of leadership and decision-making, even in such intimate details of daily life. Jennifer Lewis, the event’s discussion facilitator, noted this male-female relationship dynamic shows the need to “make the political personal”. Matovu-Winyi noted it’s vital to promote “democracy as a way of life” — without genuine equality in everyday relationship dynamics, the political landscape cannot be authentically democratic. Lewis also moved the discussion toward the specific question of how to get beyond the numbers.
There was consensus among all participants that outreach and support-building efforts need to be “more deliberate”. Cos-Montiel said there needs to be more focus on “strategic” thinking about how to both relay the message that will best build toward parity, but also about how to help women build the cultural capital that will allow them to access the political arena or move into decision-making roles. Akatsa-Bukachi suggested women need to move away from “staccato involvements”, occasional interactions with the systems, networks and privileges that allow women to take on leadership roles.
Women cannot just come to the table “at the last minute”, when a viable female candidate for office gains traction, or a specific issue of controversy comes to prominence, because that temporary support-base will dissolve as soon as the trend shifts. There is a measurable need for women to build sustained, comprehensive networks of involvement in matters of policy, writing opinion articles, talking about and promoting real change for women, including the rise of strong candidates who will be able to capitalize on this more sustained support.
The “loneliness of leadership” experienced by women was raised as a significant factor contributing to the difficulty of building an sustained base of positions in political and private leadership. Actual efforts to measure such deficits and to explore ways to foster such sustained support communities could help to advance the cause of parity in leadership and to provide young women with a culturally more favorable environment in which their abilities and ambitions will be more directly sought and expected. Social media may be integral to building the necessary sustained support networks.
Examples of how social media and community media can come together to empower women and combat injustice have peppered the discussions of these first days of the CSW. Gender Links is using the UN gathering to cultivate a global debate about what role media play in fostering understanding and progress with respect to the treatment of women.
Lewis asked the discussion participants to propose their main priorities in relation to expanding the role of women in governance. Quotas and the need to transform political parties from within were the first two priorities suggested.
Akatsa-Bukachi said the 50/50 goal is a “solemn declaration” that needs to be repeated until it saturates the conversation. She also noted the need to reach out to men, to involve them and make them aware of the real need to improve society by achieving parity. An extension of this priority, she said, is the need to overcome the problem of “feminist faces with patriarchal minds”, while keeping in mind the goal of building a broader long-term alliance for equality that includes both men and women.
Matovu-Winyi said existing systems need to be employed and improved, to make as much headway as possible in the elections —local and national, across Africa and beyond— of the first three years of this decade. She also noted that “no politician just appears on the scene” and called for the creation of substantive institutional supports for women to get involved in public life. She called for “more research” across the spectrum of issues related to why women are or are not empowered to access decision-making roles.
Cos-Montiel called for the inclusion of “women from the margins”, a strategic approach to building cultural and political capital for women, and close scrutiny of what role religious institutions play in sustaining the dominance of a patriarchal narrative or mindset. He noted the combination of hierarchy and patriarchy in the structure of the Catholic church, observing that such institutional structures effect extreme symbolic and socio-psychological influence, which can limit women’s readiness or willingness to push for greater access to decision-making roles in the community, at work or in the political sphere.
The dialogue closed after 44 minutes of lively and engaged discussion, with Norah Matovu-Winyi remarking that political supports for women will be “more authentic” when the narrative driving those social mechanisms is not focused only on the concept of rights for women as inherently virtuous, but deliberately integrates that foundational idea into a more dynamic discourse that gets closer to the daily needs and interests of non-activist women and the communities in which they live.
- Originally published by GenderLinks
- Republished, March 11, 2010, at CafeSentido.com