Women are becoming more politically active throughout the world. Their participation at every level from local office to heads of government demonstrates their increasing activism and clout at the ballot box. But in many countries, women still struggle to be taken seriously in politics.
The National Democratic Institute (NDI),is a Washington-based, nonprofit organization that works to strengthen and boost democracy around the world. It identifies with the U.S. Democratic Party, but considers its programs nonpartisan.
It recently sponsored a Washington forum that included activists from around the world to begin a global initiative to promote women's political leadership.
Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the chairman of NDI, said the forum was dedicated to two recently murdered female leaders, Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh and Iraqi Governing Council member Akila Al Hashemi. It also highlights Burmese opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who remains under house arrest.
Dr. Albright said,"These are champions, not only of women alone, but of all who cherish freedom. And their sacrifice is our inspiration, and their courage is our model, and their example is a reminder that political leadership is not simply a matter of having the right ideas. It also requires power, and in a democracy the path to power runs through political parties."
Belgium's Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck, the former minister of state and president of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Belgian House of Representatives, said women in many countries face enormous challenges in becoming politically active.
Ms. Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck said,"Women in politics almost never come first. Men do. And that is still very much the rule the world over. But how much more difficult is it to enter politics for women in societies where they are hardly allowed into public space."
Gita Welch leads the Democratic Governance Group of the Bureau for Development Policy at the United Nations Development Program. She says women's rights and democracy are closely linked.
Ms. Welch said,"We have learned and we believe firmly that there is no democratic governance without gender equality, as it is true that there is no democracy without women's participation."
Former U.S. secretary of state Madeleine Albright says while women have made enormous societal strides, there is still a long way to go before they achieve true equality with men.
Dr. Albright said,"Today, despite recent gains, women remain an undervalued and underdeveloped human resource. This is not to say that women have trouble finding work. In many societies, women do the vast majority of work, but don't own land, aren't taught to read, can't obtain credit, and don't get paid."
Peru's former prime minister, Beatriz Merino, says improvements for women benefit an entire society.
Ms. Beatriz Merino said,"Expanding the women's political participation around the world is an important role of this 21st century. Promoting womens' rights through the political participation improves not only the life of women, but also those of their families, communities, and societies throughout the world. A country like Peru cannot become a true democracy if over half its population are purposely silenced."
Gita Welch of UNDP says there are many examples, particularly in Africa, where women's empowerment, has benefited the country as a whole.
Ms Welch said,"Many conflicts and post-conflict situations are providing women today with unique opportunities for increasing performing their public role. We saw this in countries like Mozambique, my own country, in South Africa, where women's leadership was really fostered through political resistance to domination and occupation. In Rwanda, in Somalia, in Sudan, women are setting aside ethnic allegiances in new partnerships to help ease local tensions."
Yet the way for women to improve their political status is not easy. The NDI forum issued a global action plan stating that political parties should be reformed in order to help women advance. It calls for the removal of restrictions on women's political participation, increasing the number of women elected to political office, developing training programs for potential women candidates and including women in political leadership positions.
Belgium's Annemie Neyts-Uyttebroeck believes the highly controversial system of quotas should be considered.
Ms. Neyts-Uyttebroeck said,"The highest percentages of female representation are achieved in countries where some quota system is in effect. More importantly, high percentages of female representation are achieved in countries where public opinion has come not just to accept, but even more importantly, to expect gender parity in all spheres of society, and thus also in politics."
Peru's former prime minister Beatriz Merino believes women have an important political role to play in all countries, no matter how rich or poor.
Ms. Merino said,"Developing the political power of women in emerging or established societies, why is this important? Because I think we need to bring a feminine voice and sensibility to the policy-making process in the government. Women look at issues in a society through a different lens, and provide a different approach to problems. In general we work to bring a sense of balance to all opposing forces to forge consensus in the true sense of the word."
Women in many countries often struggle between the traditional roles their societies allocate them and their ambitions to advance. This affects not only their political participation, but also their everyday life.
Madeleine Albright says while some countries have made legal changes to help women, real improvements in their status have not always followed.
Dr. Albright said,"In recent years, women around the world have made great progress in gaining legal recognition for their rights. But often, even if the laws are on the books, the reality in villages and communities has not changed. So appalling abuses are still being committed against women. These include coerced abortions, and sterilizations, ritual mutilations, dowry murders, honor crimes, and even the killing of infants, simply because they are female. Some say all this is cultural, and there's nothing anybody can do about it. I say it's criminal, and we each have an obligation to stop it."
Ms. Albright said while she was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and later U.S. secretary of state, she joined other female leaders to assist women on a range of issues. These included working to halt human trafficking, efforts to promote HIV-AIDS awareness, and campaigning to have rape classified as a war crime.
She says more women are needed in political life to insure that their concerns are addressed. The recommendations of the Washington forum will be presented to a working group at the World Movement for Democracy assembly next month in Durban, South Africa.