Women’s Worlds Report: Day 2

by | July 6, 2011
filed under Can-Con, Feminism, Politics

E. Cain continues her coverage of the international feminist conference Women’s Worlds, being held this week in Ottawa.

On second day of the conference, the sessions I attended centred on one of the issues I am most passionate about – women in politics.

First up, I attended a session on the Federation of Canadian Municipalities which was led by several city councillors from across Canada, including trailblazers Pam McConnell and Marianne Wilkinson.

Despite the common misconception that women are more likely to participate at the municipal level, the reality is that only 24% of elected councillors/mayors are women and we would need to elect a whopping 1,414 more women municipally across Canada to reach 30% (a critical mass)! Clearly, there is much work to be done and the FCM is a great starting place. They run a variety of programs to encourage women to get more involved politically: they will be rolling out a National Mentorship program across the country; and they offer scholarships for female college, university, and also high school students interested in politics.

Next up, as this is an international conference I seized the opportunity to learn about women’s political representation in other countries.

In a presentation by Dr. Parvathy Appaiah from University College (India), she pointed out that in India, the world’s largest democracy, women’s representation stands at a dismal 10.8%. However, I was interested to learn that Indian women have been organizing for over a decade to pass the Women’s Reservation Bill, legislation which would reserve one-third of seats in government for women. The Bill was first introduced in 1996 and was reintroduced several more times until 2010. Over this time it received much opposition from male Members of Parliament; the following are actual quotes from debate transcripts on this Bill:

“The women who involve themselves in politics are those with short hair cuts, women with short hair aren’t women at all.”

“Once the Bill passes, it will be mothers in the Lok Sabha (translation: Lower House) and fathers in the kitchen.”

Despite this opposition, the Bill finally passed the Upper House in 2010 with an overwhelming majority. However, it has yet to be implemented as the Upper House holds fewer seats and has much less clout than the Lower House. It also seems somewhat counterintuitive that is has taken so long to pass this Bill as similar legislation has already been implemented for local councils where at least one-third of the seats are reserved for women.

The next presentation by Dr. Kabahenda Nyakabwa focused on women’s representation in Ugandan politics where women occupy 35% of seats in government. To me, what was most interesting in this analysis was her observation that women’s electoral success has not contributed to the empowerment of women at the grassroots. For instance, there has not been increased attention to issues that impact Ugandan women, like maternal health, access to contraceptives, safe abortions, etc. In addition, this increase in women’s representation has exacerbated the urban-rural divide, with female politicians coming mostly from the urban centres.

This last presentation reminds me of Jessica Valenti’s quote: “A woman candidate isn’t always a woman’s candidate.” But, I must say that coming from a Canadian context where gains have been painstakingly slow, I admire the progress India has made in pushing for a concrete solution; as well as the achievement which Uganda has made in reaching such a historic high for women in politics – it stands as an important symbol for women of the next generation that politics is an area they can (and should) pursue.

-E. Cain

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