WEDO's 50/50 campaign History This Week
By Cecilia McAlmont
Stabroek News
January 26, 2006

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Recently President Bharrat Jagdeo informed the nation that general elections will be held when they are constitutionally due. That means that some time by August of this year all Guyanese eighteen years and over will have the opportunity to exercise their franchise to elect a government at the national, and hopefully also at Local Government level that would lead us during the second half of the first decade of the 21st century. But how many Guyanese, especially Guyanese women of voting age are aware that at the beginning of the new millennium Guyana together with over 100 countries worldwide endorsed WEDO's campaign to increase the number of women in National Parliaments to 50 per cent by the year 2005. This article reflects on that campaign and where Guyana and the rest of the world are in terms of achieving that goal.

WEDO and the 50/50 Campaign

The Women's Economic and Development Organisation (WEDO) was established in 1990 by former US Congresswoman Bella Abzug and feminist activist and journalist Mimi Kelber. The organisation brings together women from different parts of the world to take action in the United Nations and other international forums with a view to empowering women as decision -makers to achieve economic, social and gender justice, a healthy, peaceful planet and human rights for all. Its main goals are to advance women's equality in decision making by advocating for gender balance at local, national and global levels; challenge the current economic system and promote a model that seeks to achieve human rights, economic and social justice, gender equality and poverty eradication. Prior to the 2000 campaign one of its most outstanding achievements was the organization of the World Women's Congress for a healthy planet. This congress brought together more than 1,500 women from 83 countries to work jointly on a strategy for the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development. The result was Women's Action Agenda 21 which together with the Rio Declaration became part of UNCED's official final document. Frustrated by the snail's pace of the movement in respect of the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action specifically with reference to women's political participation, in June 2000, during the UN five-year review of Beijing, WEDO launched the global campaign 50/50 by 2005: Get the Balance Right. The campaign sought to dismantle the structural barriers and institutional practices that make it difficult for women to gain access to power and decision making. To this end the campaign underscored the need for a critical mass of women in leadership positions at all levels.

50/50 +5 in the international arena

The idea for the 50/50 campaign had grown out of the recognition that while 189 governments at Beijing had agreed on concrete measures to improve women's political participation, progress had been disappointingly slow. In fact, five years after Beijing women still accounted for only 12.7 per cent of the world's parliamentarians. At its launch, the 50/50 campaign was endorsed by more than 170 organisations in 52 countries. Its main thrust was to confront the structural and cultural barriers that impede women's access to decision making and leadership positions by setting targets for governments, 30 per cent representation of women as cabinet ministers, in legislatures and local governments by 2003 and political equality for women - half of all seats at all levels by 2005. But according to June Zeitlen, Executive Director of WEDO, "the 50/50 Campaign is not only about numbers. It is also about women making a difference; transforming institutions; not only to transform the policy agenda at all levels of government but also to transform the male centred structures, practices, and culture of governing institutions."

Clearly the goal of 50/50 by 2005 has not been achieved and given the pace at which women's political participation had been moving in past years, while the target of 50/50 is achievable, the time for its achievement was unrealistic. But the date underscored the necessity for urgent action and served more as a prod than a definite ultimatum to spur governments and also women's organisations into action.

According to WEDO's most recent newsletter, in the five years since the campaign was launched it has been endorsed by nearly 300 organisations, while 19 national and regional campaign launches have taken place. Specifically, the number of countries reaching the UN-designated 30 per cent "critical mass" of women in National Parliaments has doubled from 10 in June 2000 to 21 in September 2005. This, it claims, was due to government and political parties adopting one or all of three key mechanisms recommended by the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action-quotas for women, campaign subsidies and the system of proportional representation. In June 2005 at the United Nations World summit, world leaders recommitted to increase the number of women represented in local and national Parliaments. However, "women still hold a dismal global average of just 15.2 percent of seats in parliaments around the world." Nonetheless, while quantitatively the goal of 50/50 may not have been reached anywhere, qualitatively there are extremely encouraging signs. For example note the election of three powerful women to the highest office in the continents of Europe, Africa and South America - Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president of Liberia, Angela Merkel as German Chancellor and Michelle Bachelet, a former political prisoner, as president of Chile. They join a very short list of other women who held that high office in other countries - among them Janet Jagan, first female president in our own country, Indira Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India, Benazir Bhutto, former Prime Minister of Pakistan, among a few others.

Guyana's situation

But what of Guyana? In 2000 Guyana's all-male Parliamentary Reform Committee agreed to enshrine in the constitution that one third of the parties' list in the 2001 elections would be women and Guyana endorsed WEDO's 50/50 campaign. However, after the elections the parties did not appoint 1/3 of the women on their party lists to parliament. According to Guyana's latest CEDAW report - the number of women in Parliament increased from 12 (18.5%) in 2000 to 20 (31%) after the 2001 elections and at June 2005 30.7% of our MP's are women and there are four female ministers. Clearly the goal of 50/50 is far from being met.

Several initiatives have been taken to empower women to participate more fully in the decision-making process that would ultimately lead to gender equality and 50/50 in our national assembly. Over the past four years, the National Democratic Institute in collaboration with the Guyana Association of Women Lawyers trained a number of women in all 10 regions to run for office and especially to participate in the local government elections. Additionally, over the past six years the Guyana Women's Leadership Institute has trained over 120 women in leadership. But to what extent the training has been effective in propelling women into decision-making positions cannot be ascertained since neither organisation has done any assessment on the effectiveness of their training nor has there been any local government elections.

According to the United Nations 30% women in national parliaments should represent the "critical mass" that forces more serious debate on women's issues. That most definitely has not happened in Guyana, despite our having attained the target of 30%. Comments by respondents to questions on A Summary of Survey Findings on Women's Perception of Women in Politics in Guyana are instructive.

The respondents were disenchanted by the scant attention our women parliamentarians paid to issues that were important to them and felt that "when you do not have the critical mass in parliament, it becomes even more difficult to get women's issues on the table and to keep them on the front burner." It is obvious, that for Guyana at least 31% of women in Parliament is not our "critical mass". Perhaps 50/50 would provide that "critical mass."

But how do we get there? A few comments from women involved in the campaign could give us some useful pointers.

Beleka Mbete, deputy speaker of the National Assembly of South Africa, had this to say:

"Though we came from different parties that were perhaps fighting at the negotiations, we were able, as women to come together and discuss issues and share perspectives, which helped us promote women's concerns in the constitutional talks."

Byana Bijehc of Croatia, commenting on their push towards increasing the number of women in Parliament, stated:

"cooperation between women from civil initiatives, and women politicians and among women politicians within Parliament proved effective".

Maria Jose Lubertini, a member of the Latin America and Caribbean Women Political Network, commented thus:

"women of different parties are working together with a gender perspective, without considering the ideologies of their own parties."

In other words, while quotas and proportional representation would help, it is women, and women's organisations working across party lines, and specifically in Guyana's context across racial lines and ideologies, that holds the key.

Did I recently, or for that matter, ever read an article or hear a news item which stated that our women parliamentarians from the ruling and opposition parties had met and discussed the numerous issues of concern to Guyanese women and were so encouraged by the results that they proposed to meet again and include all interested women's organizations"?

Did I? Would I?