– Emily Esplen, Women’s Rights Coordinator, One World Action
What is needed to build women’s leadership, and what difference can women’s leadership make? These questions provoked lively debate at a One World Action event last week with UK women’s rights campaigners and women Parliamentarians fromNamibia. Along with confidence and skills in public speaking, people emphasised the importance of women having the ‘hard’ technical knowledge of constitutions, laws, budgets – even religious texts. InAfghanistan, for example, a strong grasp of Islamic Law is crucial to enable women to challenge patriarchal readings of the Qur’an which seek to restrict their participation in public life.
Positive female role models – women who have chosen non-conventional pathways – can also play a transformational role in challenging gender stereotypes about women’s roles and capabilities, and raising young women’s aspirations. This resonates with the work One World Action is doing in southern Africa to build girls’ leadership, for example by supporting the Zambian Women’s Lobby to run girls’ leadership clubs in schools in rural areas. These clubs have trained 500 girls in practical leadership skills such as public speaking and debating, and given them the opportunity to meet with inspirational women role models.
Bringing traditional cultural leaders on board – generally men – can also be key to overcoming barriers to women’s leadership. In Zambia, for example, the NGO Women for Change is engaging traditional leaders in gender sensitisation and human rights training, supported by One World Action. One exciting outcome is that Chiefs are starting to appoint female Village Headpersons – a marked break with tradition.
For women MPs in parliament, breaking cultural taboos can also be a crucial strategy. Hon Margaret Mensah-Williams, one of the first ever woman Parliamentarians in Namibia, spoke of how breaking cultural barriers has been key to her success. Faced with opposition from MPs to the Rape Act on the grounds that women provoke rape by the way they dress, Margaret wore a see-through top to Parliament to make the point that it doesn’t matter what women wear, rape is an act of violence. This struck me as an especially timely example at a time when SlutWalk protest marches are spreading across the world to challenge the culture of blame which surrounds survivors of rape.
Our exchange left me with no doubt both of the difference that women’s leadership can make, and that in Namibia at least, the resolve of women parliamentarians is paying off. With much humour, courage and gritted determination, these women are changing the very culture and practice of politics in Namibia. Parliament now sits in the morning not the evening – a huge step forwards in terms of enabling a better balance between political and personal life, and making politics more conducive to women’s participation. A wave of new gender equality legislation has been pushed through– the Rape Act, the Maintenance Act, the Married Person’s Equality Act, and the Domestic Violence Act. A commitment has also been won to implement a quota system at the national level to increase the numbers of women in parliament.
In light of these enormous achievements and the brave steps taken by individual women to make these changes possible, women at last week’s event regretted that so often it is the enormity of the obstacles we face rather than the progress achieved which dominates discussions among women’s rights advocates. It is for this reason that One World Action’s new campaign will be on celebrating the leadership of inspiring women like Margaret and others who against the odds are changing women’s lives and transforming societies. So watch this space!
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