From the Trenches: Practitioners’ Perspectives
Although our focus is on academic commentary, International Law Under Construction recognises that law does not exist in a vacuum. We have, therefore, decided to publish opinion pieces on an occasional basis. The first in this series of opinion pieces is by Madi Jobarteh, who has fought for human rights in the Gambia for over 15 years. This post, on gender equality in political representation, is particularly relevant given the Gambia’s upcoming parliamentary elections on April 6.
Since the historic UN conference on women in 1995 in Beijing there is a universal recognition that ensuring a just society with improved economic well-being for all requires a gender quota in decision-making institutions and processes. As women constitute more than half of the world’s population, yet remain the poorest, with the highest percentage of illiteracy and most politically disempowered, there is a need to include an increasing number of women in centres of decision-making on laws, resource distribution, and wealth creation. It was recognized that in most parts of the world, even in advanced democracies, women face discrimination and oppression in all spheres of life and society. This inequality is being perpetuated by culture, religion, and capitalism, hence, the imbalance between men and women.
The reality of many women can be well-illustrated by the story of the life of a Gambian woman. Due to the harmful parts of its socio-cultural beliefs and misconceived Islamic ideas, the Gambian girl and woman remain the poorest, least educated and most powerless in its society. Consequently, women in the Gambia have become most vulnerable to abuse at home, in the community, at the work place, in business and inside political parties where women continue to be pushed to the sidelines. For this reason, the upcoming parliamentary election offers an opportunity to give practical meaning to women’s empowerment and equality in the society. No more lip service.
Whenever people vote for women, they empower the entire society, enhance family life, and give children a better future. Votes for women advance democracy and ensure durable good governance. This is because unheard voices and stakeholders are brought to the table who raise new issues and lend different perspective to existing ones. I, therefore, advocate breaking existing barriers and shattering the backward cultural beliefs that hold that women are not leaders.
The United Nations at the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women set a gender quota of 30% for women representation in decision-making centres. The AU Maputo Protocol on women has affirmed this ideal to which the Gambia is also a party. Yet since 1982 when the late Nyimasata Sanneh Bojang became our first elected female parliamentarian, we have seen that the representation of women at local and national decision-making levels has been dismal in the country. Currently only 9.4% or five women are National Assembly Members while only 12.5% or 14 women are elected in the 112 seats of the local councils.
Even though Dr. Isatou Touray broke the barriers to make history in 2016 by being the first woman to ever seek the office of the President the voice and power of women remain poor in the Gambia. Our political parties, since the first republic, have merely utilised women as political tools. Girls and women are community mobilizers, Yaye Compin, or cheerleaders, cooks and dancers to ginger up male candidates who often turn out to be less qualified, corrupt and incompetent.
The worldwide trend is towards equal representation of both sexes. This is not a matter of favour or charity or a mere feminist utopia but one of justice and equality so that all members of society have equal space to participate. The discrimination that women face is unfair and unjust as it is based on nothing other than anachronistic male chauvinism embedded in patriarchy and religion where dishonest male leaders and scholars misinterpret the Scriptures just to keep power and trample upon the rights and dignity of women. No civilized society should deny and obstruct the right of women to rise and participate in their society.
So far, many countries of the world have deliberately taken steps to correct this imbalance and injustice. For example, more than 30 countries have introduced some kind of electoral gender quota in their constitution and electoral laws. Furthermore, major political parties in more than 50 countries around the world have now introduced their own quota regulations requiring a certain minimum of candidates for public elections to be women. In Nepal, for example, party quotas give 5% to women; in Costa Rica the quota is 40% and in France it is 50%. The ANC in South Africa also requires 40% women on the party’s lists, while the ruling Swedish Social Democratic Party has set 50% for both women and men.
In fulfilment of the resolutions of the 1995 Beijing Conference on Women, several countries have adopted legislation at the national level to boost women representation. In Africa and the world, Rwanda is one of the forerunners with 61% of the seats in Parliament and 39% of the seats in the Senate being held by women. This is matched in Africa only by Senegal where a 2010 amendment of the electoral law requires 50-50 male and female nominations in national, regional, municipal and local elections, and currently 43% of the members of the Senegalese National Assembly are women.
When we talk about women’s issues, ignorant and bigoted men are quick to dismiss them as Western ideas. Some argue that voting for women is unnecessary as men know and understand the specific concerns and issues of women. These claims are false. In the first place, women’s issues face the same contention in the West where there exist the same bigoted men and misconceived religious and backward cultural ideas used to pin down women. In the US House of Representatives, for example, a mere 20% of seats are occupied by women and out of the 241 Republican seats only 22, less than 10%, are held by women. Secondly, no man, no matter how well he understands women can feel and see life exactly from the female perspective. Only a woman can fully understand and explain her concerns and priorities. Therefore, I encourage votes for women so that women themselves can deliberate on laws that affect their lives, discuss budgets, and determine resource allocations to services that are important to women and children.
By voting for women we enhance national development and democracy. As women raise their voices with respect to issues that affect them, society is more likely to touch on each and every issue that affects its members. Female parliamentarians are more likely to highlight, defend and address family life issues in parliament. Some may argue that there are also dishonest and corrupt women and as true as this may be, it needs to be acknowledged that they constitute a minority. The majority of women will speak for and defend the rights and welfare of women, girls and children. When we address the concerns of the family, we address the very core of our society.
For this reason, let us vote for the women candidates and then monitor them to make sure they deliver and remain faithful to the concerns of the woman, the family and the entire society.
Madi Jobarteh is a Gambian human rights defender with 15 years of experience in social work. He is currently the program manager of The Association of NGOs in the Gambia (TANGO). He has extensively worked with women, young people, persons with disability and people living with HIV/AIDS in promotion of human rights. He has conducted human rights training for security officers, policy and lawmakers and other authorities in his country. Madi is currently pursuing an LLM in Public International Law with a specialization in International Human Rights Law at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands.