Increasing Women and Girls’ Leadership during Political Transition

Publication Date: 
6 Oct 2015

News Type:

On October 1, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee (TX-18) and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES) hosted “Increasing Women and Girls’ Leadership During Political Transition,” a Women, Peace and Security breakfast briefing focusing on challenges to and opportunities for women and girls’ political engagement after conflict.

Lesley Israel, Treasurer of IFES’ Board of Directors, opened the event by highlighting IFES and its partners’ work in this field and reminded audience members to think of gender equality as “a building block, not just a supplement to democracy.” Event moderator Jessica Huber, IFES’ Senior Gender Specialist, then introduced panelists Jennifer Crall, Deputy Director of Monitoring and Evaluation at the International Republican Institute (IRI); Augusta Featherston, IFES’ Youth Adviser and Regional Officer for the Center for Applied Research and Learning; Caroline Hubbard, Senior Program Manager for Gender, Women and Democracy at the National Democratic Institute (NDI); and Pippa Norris, Professor at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Management.

Hubbard provided an overview of the opportunities available to women during political transition. During such periods, space is opened for widespread institutional reform of government policies, political party laws, and the electoral legal framework. Hubbard warned that, unfortunately, such windows are often short, and if leadership of the political transition is not truly gender transformative, it can lead to missed opportunities for gender equality and backsliding for women’s rights. She stated that “women need to be a part of the post-transition policy making to enshrine women’s political participation.”

Crall then brought the discussion to IRI’s work in Syria, where they support women at national and local levels to work together to set priorities for political engagement and leadership. She mentioned the critical role that the broader community has, including male allies. IRI helps women identify “organic opportunities” to work together with political leaders. In the face of a culture in which women are expected to care mostly about issues like education and health care, IRI noted that some Syrian women have then used these issue areas as an entry point for their larger agendas related to political reform and sustainable peace.

Shifting the conversation from women to girls, Featherston spoke of IFES’ work with young women and girls who, like many Syrian women, “often haven’t developed the skills needed for effective advocacy.” She underscored the important priority of the U.S. government and other international institutions, which focuses on education as foundational for any civic and political engagement of young women and girls. She stated that IFES works to engage young girls in political discourse and activity, even in the face of a number of obstacles that include early marriage and pregnancy, the masculinity of politics and security on Election Day.

Professor Norris closed the presentations by focusing on a key instigator of women’s political participation: gender quotas, which are used “to catapult women’s representation in decision-making.” Norris presented her research, which looked at the development and impact of gender quotas since 1990. Overall, she found that although we have still not reached the goal of 30 percent representation of women elected to national parliaments, originally set at the 1990 Beijing Platform for Action, there has been “a rapid global diffusion of quotas, [which have proved] effective in expanding women’s representation.” She emphatically stressed the need to not only rely on international advocacy, but also to support local efforts of local stakeholders to establish and actually implement a gender quota.

Norris’ presentation was followed by audience Q&A, featuring questions about male engagement and the link between quotas with measured legislative change and the inclusion of other marginalized groups.

With just enough time to spare between votes, Congresswoman Jackson Lee closed the session and spoke of how “institutions are threatened when women are empowered” and invigorated attendees with a call for women to be “tree shakers and shake and shape the world.” The Congresswoman’s remarks brought Israel back to her time working on an election in Afghanistan, where women broke down the door of the polling station to exercise their democratic right to vote.