On July 1st 2017, several inspiring members of our burgeoning international network convened in Paris, France for an inaugural meeting. The session opened with an address by one of WNC’s distinguished and trailblazing founders, Dr. Rita Süssmuth, former head of the German Bundestag. Dr. Süssmuth spent some time greeting our members and guests before launching into a timely discussion about the role of women’s leadership at this important juncture in history. Reflecting on the present predicament facing many European, Middle Eastern and North African nations, as well as the present lack of women’s representation, Dr. Süssmuth emphasized the fact that women’s leadership holds the key to transforming the present crisis and its related issues of global security into a moment of political, social and economic opportunity. Although women are, for the most part, presently sidelined in the majority of the discussions that concern them and their loved ones, women, as the heads of their communities, have the capacity to chart out unimagined futures, ones that present policy-makers cannot or are not willing to envisage. Prof. Süssmuth underscored the need to include women at all levels of political decision-making in order to ensure similar, successful results.
Next, the group set out to discuss some of the contemporary challenges facing the equality movement and the struggle for women’s parity in politics. Moderating our discussion was Dr. Ranjana Kumari, Director of the Centre for Social Research in Delhi, India and winner of the 2015 Lotus Leadership Award, who shared some of her own experiences from India and as a woman working in the male-dominated policy and political arenas. With the help of Dr. Kumari’s moderating, the day’s discussion also included the participation of a number of key dignitaries, representing a wide array of international governments, women’s rights NGOs, social justice lawyers and advocates as well as human rights defenders and journalists, including: María Elena Elverdin, Jurist and Head of the International Federation of Women of Legal Careers in Argentina; Maria Candida Almeida, Deputy Attorney General of Portugal and Portugal’s Attorney General until 2015; Ana Paula Matos Barros, Lawyer and former Member of Portuguese Parliament; Eva Duran Ramos, President of Popular Party in Puente de Vallecas, Chair of INCO Humam Rights and former Member of Parliament of Spain (2008-2016); Margarita Durán Vadell, Historian, Journalist, former Member of the Spanish Senate (2011-2015) and Vice Chair of INCO Human Rights; Virginia Romero Banon, Lawyer and former Member of the Spanish Senate (2011-2015); Concetta Giallombardo, Attorney and President of the Association of Female Jurists from Palermo, Italy; Dr. Meredith Burgmann, Former President of the New South Wales Legislative Council in Australia; Cherifa Kheddar, President and Founder of the organization Djazaïrouna in Algeria and winner of the International Service Human Rights Award for the Defense of the Human Rights of Women; Malika Boussouf, acclaimed Algerian feminist writer and journalist; Bożena Kamińska, Henryka Krzywon Strycharska, Izabela Leszczyna, and Bożena Szydłowska, sitting Members of the Parliament of Poland; and last but not least, Raymonde Folco, Former Member of the Parliament of Canada (1997-2011).
Together, this powerful group of women engaged in a meaningful, three-hour long discussion about the importance of women’s leadership. Specifically, they set out to share their particular experiences regarding the usefulness of quotas for ensuring women’s leadership as a foundational stepping-stone towards the ultimate goal of parity. Describing her own experiences in Algeria, Cherifa Kheddar, President and Founder of the organization Djazaïrouna, highlighted the dire stakes of women’s leadership in her part of the world: “The politics that is being had in Algeria has not denounced or fought against the Islamic State. On the contrary, the political power being exercised in Algeria has worked to the benefit of assassins and rapists. You must understand, that when it comes to entering engagements with fundamentalists, the government pushes aside women and their causes. If we set out from the principle that women’s leadership carries high stakes, then we better understand why they attempt to push women aside from the roles that they should be otherwise claiming. Such authoritarian regimes will never be able to silence women unless women are denied the ability to solidify their place at the heads of the very institutions governing society.”
Echoing a similar sentiment, Bożena Kamińska, sitting Member of the Polish Parliament, shared her reflections about the experience of women in Poland, stating: “We work in the Parliamentary group of women […]Politics has always been the domain of men… There are now 25% representation of women in Polish parliament. We are presently discussing whether quotas are a good thing. I think without them, even less women would be in positions of power.”
Some delegates, like Dr. Meredith Burgmann from Australia, further spoke of the successful experiences they too have had in ensuring women’s representation in politics, while also making sure to reflect on the fact that some parties (like ‘Labour’) have faired much better than others in this regard. Speaking to the many difficulties that elected female leaders face in the political realm, she explicitly problematized the culture of misogyny that continues to dominate politics: “You might know that we had a woman Prime Minister [in Australia] 5 years ago. She was very badly treated by the media. There were terrible attacks on her by the male opposition leader and there existed a lot of misogyny. Having a woman leader has made us realize that this culture is institutionally engrained. […] In a lot of Pacific Island States, there are no women in Parliament at all – the average is about 3% – and therefore I think quotas are a necessary step. We should not be quick to dismiss them.”
Pointing to other difficulties posed by the simple implementation of quotas, María Elena Elverdin of Argentina discussed her country’s experiences where quotas have begun to ameliorate women’s representation in politics, but where other, more nuanced problems like women’s tokenism in leadership remains: “In Argentina, we struggled for to achieve 33% representation for women, who are 51% of the population. It was very hard to achieve this, but now we are working for 50%. […] “Of that 33%, many times she is the wife of a Senator, the lover of a Deputy, or the daughter of the President, which does not reflect the real participation of women in society”.
This set the tone for looking to more critical approaches that could be met with the implementation of quotas to further serve the goal of women’s empowerment within their communities. Others also went further to underscore the problematic tendency with which quotas can give way to nepotism, often elevating those associated with the male-only elite to occupy positions of power rather than affording the average woman an opportunity to enter politics and partake in steering her country’s future.
On this note, one of the meeting’s participants, Australian Lawyer Cara Ghassemian, turned our attentions to the concomitant need to address the struggle to raise social consciousness and confidence in the importance of women’s leadership through women’s social and reproductive roles at the local and global levels, stating: “We have to sometimes remind ourselves to focus on the micro, and how we can influence things at the micro, daily level, rather than simply talk big picture all the time, because the micro does reflect things at the macro level. I would say that the socialization of children is critical to raising consciousness and should help inform an agenda setting strategy”.
Next, WNC member, Ana Paula Matos Barros, Lawyer and former Member of Portuguese Parliament, further highlighted the need to combat the dominant culture of professionalism, individualism and profit that has been commandeering institutions tasked with bringing about substantive equality at home and abroad: “The National level is also very, very important. I also belong to the National Council for Equality [in Portugal], and what do I see there? Well, it is too much professionalized. So much so that people and associations arrive there and act as though they are firms. So, at that level, they’ve already forgotten the real people. They are just professionals, they don’t care anymore about those women that need to be empowered.” Reminding us of the importance of fostering juridical equality, Dr. Jocelynne Scutt, a participant at WNC’s meeting and one of Australia’s leading human rights barristers, eloquently spoke to the gender-bias undergirding the United Kingdom’s foundational adoption of the Magna Carta: “In 1215, the King at the time, King John, signed on to Magna Carta. And that Magna Carta said this: “We have granted to all the free men of our kingdom, for us and our heirs in perpetuity, the below written liberties to be had and held by them and their heirs, from us and our heirs.” The United Kingdom sees that as the ultimate statement of freedom and rights, but that document did not contain women in any real situation, only as wives and sisters and daughters.”
Next, Dr. Scutt informed our members as to how “all cultures, all societies, all laws imposed in every country oppress women. And [that] in all countries, all cultures, women are struggling against that oppression and have been for centuries”, before WNC’s Spanish delegation enjoyed their turn to share how, despite their own successes in achieving gender-parity throughout all chambers of Spanish government, “in fact, men remain at the head of political parties and there continues to exist a male way of conducting politics”, all too often, they specified, at the expense of women’s issues.
To this end, one of the meeting’s participants, Raymonde Folco, former Member of the Parliament of Canada, expressed the importance of fostering democratic culture and defending democratic institutions, which, she contends, presently serve as the best means for protecting women’s rights and ensuring the promotion of women’s emancipation worldwide: “We in Canada […] are very worried, and I am personally very worried about what is going on in many states in the United States and in many of the European Union States as well about the retreat from Democracy. About the fact that there are left and right movements that are moving very quickly towards totalitarianism. And we are very worried about this because totalitarianism historically has always moved hand-in-hand with man-power and not women-power, even if sometimes there might have been women involved, it still means man-power. […] What I would say is that as important as it is for women’s groups at the local, municipal levels on the ground to be working, it is also very important to remember that it may be a weak democracy that we are living in now, but it is still the best system that we know how to work. And it’s still the system that, if we handle it right, will protect and further promote women’s rights. So I urge you, very strongly, to look out in your own countries to make sure that no totalitarianism, no totalitarian-promoting party takes over power, because we see it taking shape and it’s not something that simply happens from one day to the next, it’s a very slow growing process.”
Echoing the need to keep struggles active over time and for generations to come, Polish Member of Parliament and mother to twelve children, Henryka Krzywon Strycharska, stated the following: “I am a woman and the mother of 12 children and I have participated in the struggle for democracy in Poland since the 1980’s. I know that nothing is done for always. We have to fight every day. We have to be strong in our fight for our freedom and democracy, for all the women all over the world. We have to fight for our daughters, for our granddaughters and for their futures so that they can live without fear, without insecurity, and without violence and with a lot of tolerance. Every kind of discrimination should be damned all over the world.”
As our session began to wind-down, Dr. Ranjana Kumari returned our focus to the importance of strengthening women’s networks and building solidarity across contexts, as well as stressed the urgent and timely need to get organized: “There is no other way to go than to get organized and to start giving strength to each other […] Unless we take charge of the globe, unless we take charge of our own countries as leaders, as people who are able to define the destinies of our own countries, these wars are not going to stop. Men are so happy about fighting – do you know how many tanks, missiles, and army-grade artillery are created everyday? Every country – this, that, and my own country are all testing them. Every year, globally, defense budgets are growing. But budgets for education, for people, for their needs and for their health are repeatedly being thrown out.” It was further significant that our inaugural meeting at WNC opened just hours after news was received that feminist trailblazer, Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp survivor, and the 12th President of the European Parliament – Simone Veil – had passed, only two weeks shy of her 90th birthday. Before our delegates and participants stood to honor Simone Veil’s memory in a moment of silence, Madame Folco addressed the importance of Veil’s feminist legacy and the impacts it had on her generation: “My generation had two role models, one was a woman who died just yesterday in Paris, Simone Veil, and the other was another woman named Simone who died several years ago, Simone de Beauvoir. These two women were role models for me personally and role models for many of my generation. And recalling them brought to mind how important women role models are not just to women, but to women in what particularly concerns us this morning. It is very important that in our own countries and in our own societies that when we see women who ought to be role models, that we give them the place, the space and the voice so that they can be heard through social media, through the regular media, and so that they can become the centers of women’s rights in our own countries.”
As part of the strategy to overcome patriarchy and turn the tide towards parity, then, “It is of utmost importance”, as Dr. Kumari powerfully concluded, “that we start asserting our voices and that we extend our support to our sisters who are struggling!”
~Women’s Network For Change