The Political and Economic Power of Women

The benefits of political participation

Political and economic realities are intertwined. Progress in one dimension reinforces progress in the other. These are the two principal elements of empowerment.

Women’s political participation has been slowly improving. In the last ten years, for example, the rate of participation in Parliaments has grown from 13% to almost 18%. Currently there are fewer than 20 women heads of state or government, and women hold about 16% of ministerial portfolios. Clearly the figure ought to be much better, especially when exceptional women like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Liberia’s Ellen Johnson Sirleaf have demonstrated the strong qualities that women bring to political leadership.

Let me state this reality another way: women are half of the population yet hold one fifth of the positions in national governments. They are significantly outnumbered in the chambers of parliaments, provincial councils, and more often than not missing from the negotiating tables where conflicts are to be resolved. All too often decisions that affect women, their families, and societies are made without women having a voice.

In the South Pacific where I recently participated in a policy dialogue initiated by the United States that was joined by women leaders from twelve of the Pacific Islands, female political participation is marginal at best. In Papua New Guinea, for example, there is one female parliamentarian out of 109 members. There has been legislation pending there to add 22 reserved seats for women but it remains pending.

Why should we care? For one, democracy without women is a contradiction in terms. Many of you may be familiar with the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Report. It looks at the equality of women and men in a given country in four areas: access to education, health survivability, political participation, and economic security. Where the gap is closer to being closed — and in no country is it closed — or in countries where it has been narrowed and the disparities between women and men are not as great, those countries are more economically competitive and prosperous. In publishing the study over the last several years, the WEF has documented greater progress in access to education and health care than in economic and political participation. The gap in political participation has been the toughest to close.

This article is adapted from Ambassador Verveer’s remarks at CIPE’s conference Democracy that Delivers for Women. You can also watch her address at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7WJ6IJjWurs.

In her capacity as director of the Department of State’s new office on Global Women’s Issues, Ambassador Melanne Verveer coordinates foreign policy issues and activities relating to the political, economic, and social advancement of women around the world. She mobilizes concrete support for women’s rights and political and economic empowerment through initiatives and programs designed to increase women’s and girls’ access to education and health care, to combat violence against women and girls in all its forms, and to ensure that women’s rights are fully integrated with human rights in the development of U.S. foreign policy. Previously Ambassador Verveer served as Chair and Co-CEO of Vital Voices Global Partnership, an international nonprofit she co-founded. Prior to her work with Vital Voices, Ambassador Verveer served as Assistant to the President and Chief of Staff to the First Lady in the Clinton Administration.

The views expressed by the author are her own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Center for International Private Enterprise (CIPE). CIPE grants permission to reprint, translate, and/or publish original articles from its Economic Reform Feature Service provided that (1) proper attribution is given to the original author and to CIPE and (2) CIPE is notified where the article is placed and a copy is provided to CIPE’s Washington office.

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