Bully boys’ lack of courage
Women outnumber men in the world, but politics still seems like a boys’ club. Participation in civil society, a woman’s right, is too often treated as a concession or favour from their male counterparts.

By Diren Valayden
Published March 22nd 2005 in Outlook Express

Last week’s proposed electoral tinkering is a far cry from the reforms required in Mauritius. Despite the well-documented limitations of the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) system, an alarming lack of political willpower induced the government into making half-hearted amendments. Not only did it seriously water down the Sachs recommendations, but it tabled a hybrid version, highly patronising towards women.

After more than a century of feminism, the government managed in a single stroke of political cowardice to revert us to year zero in women’s rights. It is not rocket science to ensure higher female representation of women in Parliament. The answer is simple: proportional representation (PR). Time and again, this system showed that it could elect more women MPs. According to Unesco, the top five countries with the best women’s representation are Rwanda, Sweden, Norway, Finland and Denmark. Their common characteristic? A degree of PR in elections.

On the other hand, affirmative action can work and is sometimes a necessary evil. Pioneered in the US, it can redress previous imbalances caused by prejudice and discrimination. It originated from the Brown v/s the Education Board of Topeka Kansas Supreme Court ruling. It forced a local whites-only school to take a black girl (Linda Brown) who had to travel long distances to school. But it has recently come under attack, with some white people complaining of being discriminated against on racial grounds, while others claim it is not working. However, two years ago, Rev. Jesse Jackson called for more affirmative action because US society had still not achieved race and gender equality.

Rwanda is a case where a combination of ‘positive discrimination’ and PR gave women 48.8% of the seats in the lower house and 34.6% in the upper house of Parliament. 10 years after the genocide, which claimed nearly a million lives, the 2003 elections were a resounding victory for women. They were heavily involved in drafting their country’s new Constitution. As such, 30% of all seats in each house are reserved for women to produce the desired balance.

Far behind in gender equality

Mauritius pales in comparison to Rwanda when it comes to gender equality. In fact, female parliamentary representation is pathetic at 5.7%, one of the lowest in Africa, whose average is 11%. In 2000, women’s participation in the SADC region was 17.9%, which again shames us. The Beijing Conference on Women in 1995 invited parliaments to work towards a 30% female membership. Within the SADC, South Africa (29.8%), Mozambique (28.4%) and Seychelles (24%) look on course to achieve this target. Between 2000 and 2002, elections were held in 23 Sub-Saharan countries, including Mauritius. Fourteen, excluding Mauritius, increased the number of female MPs through a system of quotas that favoured women. In the world, nearly 30 countries applied the same principles. Crucially, none did so via the debasing best-loser system.

For women, it is important that they break through the glass ceiling of the macho world of politics. While positive discrimination can initially reverse the abysmal trend in Mauritius, ultimately the parties will have to relax the male grip that is suffocating female participation. Last year, the Centre for the Advancement of Women in Politics (CAWP), Queen’s University, Belfast, produced a study on women’s involvement in politics for Fianna Fail (FF), the majority party in Ireland. It undertook a survey of attitudes towards gender equality among 2000 party members.

The 2002 general elections landed only 14% of women into the Irish Parliament, with FF female candidates amounting to less than 10%. The survey identified some reasons for low participation. Women office holders identified a prevalent chauvinistic attitude, which inhibited a more active role in electoral politics. 36% thought male bias, in the selection of candidates, acted as the main impediment, while 35% cited a lack of local connections. Unsurprisingly, 84% saw the dearth of women delegates at selection meetings as a barrier to gender equality.

Self-perpetuating discrimination

Another part of the survey focused on problems faced during campaigning. 55% of women respondents listed a lack of training in public speaking as a drawback. Interestingly, 53% said they faced difficulties financing their campaigns. Added to the fact that most women were not the main breadwinners in their families, and if they were, they earned less than their male counterparts, it is not difficult to explain gender inequality in politics.

If the report reveals obstacles that block female political expression, we need to read between the lines for a more in-depth analysis. The reasons picked out betray a clear institutional and systemic sexism at work in both party politics and society. This is reflected in another finding in the CAWP study. More men, 37% against 30%, considered that women give priority to their families over politics. If this is the case, then women are still disproportionately responsible for the household. Centuries of discrimination towards women, at work and in education, have cemented male domination in politics. Such a situation is at odds with the presumed gender equality in the 21st century.

There is a real need for a degree of affirmative action to boost female membership of Parliament. But their entrance into Parliament should not be through the back door, heads bowed and grateful for the magnanimity of male politicians. Reform should start in society, work its way through parties and allow women greater access to the National Assembly. And it should avoid the patronising and bullying nature of last week’s disgusting proposals.