Thursday, September 18, 2008

Rwanda: positive lessons on equality

The already pitiful number of women MPs in the UK is going to go down sharply in the next couple of years. With a massive cut in the Labour ranks replaced by their Tory counterparts it is a racing certainty that the unintended consequence will be a vast cull of female politicians despite the fact that as it stands just 19% of the UK's MPs are women.

But whilst our wonderful liberal democracy is lagging behind the Rwandans have the honour of being the first Parliament in the world to elect more women than men. Is this because Rwandan society is based on some sort of radical feminist matriarchy? Well, no, it's still just as patriarchal as it ever was. It's because they recognised there was a problem and used quotas to ensure that at least one in three MPs were women (and also ensured that three seats (out of eighty) went to young people and the disabled).

Quotas like this are much easier to do fairly with list systems like Proportional Representation - whilst First Past the Post all women short lists have been brought into disrepute by Labour who've had a tendency upon occasions to use them to ensure the required number of right wingers get in, rather than simply ensure a better gender balance.

The fact remains that in top level politics women are massively under represented and it's clear that once you build in the mechanisms to ensure a critical mass of women is achieved, it's far easier to break the conservatism that leads to male dominated politics. That has to be done sensitively and with regards to context, but it does have to be done.

Thinking closer to home the Green Party employs these kinds of lists on a judicious basis which has led to us having two brilliant female Green MEPs Jean Lambert and, oh, oh, I'll remember her name in minute... but it allows regions and local parties to make their own rules to suit their circumstances trusting to their adherence to the importance of ensuring some sort of gender equality - although there are so many leading women at all levels of the party that you might be forgiven for wondering how necessary this still is.

The one exception to this would be the national executive which has had a recurring problem achieving anything like equal representation - hopefully the new executive post of equality and diversity officer will be able to begin to address this slightly embarrassing issue. Although having said that, this year's six women out of fourteen posts is an improvement on where we have been in the past and probably obscures the difficulty there has been in achieving that balance.

I would say is that we do have a mechanism in place that possibly meant that the chance of seven out of fourteen was simply impossible. For leader and deputy leader we have a hangover from the old system where you have one man and one woman - where the intention was clearly to ensure that at least one of the two leading representatives of the party was a woman it actually meant that, given that, oh, you know, um, her, given that she was a shoe in it actually meant there was no point in any woman running for deputy. So a rule intended to help boost the number of women leading the party actually may have set an artificial barrier in place.

In my opinion what the rule should say is that at least one of the two should be a woman, rather than guaranteeing one place to a man. I doubt any member would object to an all woman leadership team. At least if they do I don't know if I care for the cut of their jib.

There are lots of structural problems in wider society that make it difficult for women to participate equally with men, even in a progressive party committed to empowering women. It seems to me at least that until we break these cycles where it seems normal for executives to be nearly all male, or for all lead candidates to be male then we'll be stuck with the same stifling inequality forever. That's what I reckon anyway.

Interesting article on women in African politics here.

1 comment:

Obnoxio The Clown said...

Maybe the Rwandans have more women politicians because all the men are dead.

But this "equality" business baffles me: do we want the best and brightest in charge of the country, or potentially second- and third-rate dross chosen to meet diversity quotas? I mean, look at Harriet Harman!