“Who is this fellow Political Will and why is he always missing when needed?”
Roy Clarke (Spectator Kalaki), 2014
Hilary Clinton for the United States presidency. Once again we hear a cheer of victory from women’s rights activists the world over. Following the formal announcement of Clinton’s candidacy there is a strong chance that the next president of the United States of America will be a woman.
For those involved in women’s rights and gender equality, Hilary’s candidature can be considered not only a product of the long battle for gender equality but also as a precursor of the triumphs to come. Having a woman as president is an opportunity for women’s issues to be addressed at the highest political levels by someone who is profoundly aware of the realities of being a woman in today’s context. As Clinton herself put it at the end of her 2008 campaign “…as a daughter who benefited from opportunities my mother never dreamed of. …as a mother who worries about my daughter’s future and a mother who wants to leave all children brighter tomorrows.”
In the development community the hope is that, with the USA being one of the world’s largest donor nations, having Hilary Clinton as a chief-decision maker over aid and foreign policy will have a noticeable impact on women’s lives globally.
Historically, women have held positions of immense power – from queens of vast realms, to religious, political and wartime leaders. Many of these women have been highly influential and undertaken historically noteworthy feats; nonetheless, men have always outnumbered women. Moreover, many women have not only believed in the lower status of women but have promoted and reinforced this subordinate status. Notably, Queen Victoria said in 1870 “”I am most anxious to enlist everyone who can speak or write to join in checking this mad, wicked folly of “Women’s Rights”, with all its attendant horrors…”
The Swedish Feminist Initiative – Sweden’s first feminist political party – states in its manifesto that “bringing more feminists into the halls of power will lead to greater political responsibility…” The Initiative highlights that though Sweden already boasts 45% women’s representation in parliament and is consistently ranked one of the best countries in the world for women, it cannot truly say it has achieved gender equality.
The Swedish party emphasises that its work is not merely about numbers of women politicians – simply filling political offices with women is inadequate – but it is about bringing women into office who have a commitment to enhancing women’s rights. Moreover, these women must be publicly dedicated and work visibly towards women’s equality. In short, feminists and women’s rights activists are needed.
Specifically in the development context, as development organisations work on women’s issues in partnership with governments, a complaint that arises is of political resistance and passivity or as it is frequently called “a lack of political will.” This lack of political will is an all-encompassing term for indifference, inaction and outright hostility. Without champions for women’s rights issues within the political arena, the critical changes required in legislation and policy creation and implementation is slowed down, ignored, blocked or never arises.
If having women in high political positions would guarantee the political energy required to pass and enforce critical legislature and policy, then countries such as Malawi, Liberia, Bolivia and Senegal would have achieved or be close to achieving significant improvements in the condition of women and girls. It would also be an impetus for feminists and activists to be actively involved in politics, to stand for office and to vote.
However, female politicians are not obligated to work for women’s rights. Women, as individuals, have ambitions and purpose that do not necessarily include or benefit other women. Moreover, an enormous incentive for women, and men, to stand for political office is the often generous remuneration. In Zambia, for instance, a member of parliament receives approximately 2,500 euros before additional benefits.
(Joyce Banda, first Malawian female President)
A dedicated female activist in politics is faced with a highly gendered political space and must battle institutionalised sexism. Cronyism, political gatekeeping and nepotism are also all factors that women and other marginalised groups encounter in taking up office. Any woman who makes a public declaration of being anti-establishment, a feminist or an activist, will encounter opposition to her political ambitions making it difficult for women who genuinely care about gender equality to be effective as a politician.
The non-existence of political will to improve the status of women has the potential to scupper any efforts of the Sustainable Development Goals. Relying on numbers of women, or the positions they hold, will still not substantively contribute to women’s rights and equality. The creation of feminist and women’s rights parties and the promotion of political candidates who display a commitment to women hold far greater potential for change than simply supporting female politicians.