Conference: Enhancing the role of women in electoral processes in post-conflict countries.
Glen Cove, 19-22 January 2004
Unfortunately, I cannot be with you today. The latest developments in Iraq have required my presence elsewhere. I would like to publicly extend my gratitude to Ms. Angela King and the staff of OSAGI for their efforts in initiating and realizing this conference. In my absence however there are several thoughts that I would like to share with you to consider during your efforts over the conference.
Elections constitute a continuum in which what is decided at one stage, will deeply affect the next. From a chronological point of view, provisions to ensure the role of women in the electoral and political arena should be taken at the outset of a process. Post-conflict countries by having to re-establish the ‘rules of the game’, normally through an Agreement or Treaty, offer an important opportunity for change. In terms of long-term sustainability the enfranchisement of women has to be seen in the broader context of the enfranchisement of society as a whole; and in this light, the advancement of women in the electoral process must be addressed as a feature of a broader reality.
In general women represent at least fifty percent of a country’s voting population. Understandably, in post-conflict situations this gender ratio is often higher. This reality emphasizes that the exclusion or under-representation of women, by definition, diminishes a key benefit of credible elections for a government, namely, its claim to popular legitimacy. Nonetheless, women often suffer disproportionately through conflict in an environment of crumbling institutions of State authority.
At the same time, despite the insecurity, these women are also required to assume the responsibility of heading households and of ensuring the survival and education of families. Literally, these women hold together the frayed threads of society and community during times of war. In this sense, it is a fallacy that these women should be viewed as weak; they may have suffered as victims, but by virtue of sheer survival, many are by definition strong, decisive and influential. Accommodating and facilitating the voice and participation of these women into the political and electoral processes is not solely a moral imperative; on the basis of the skills and experiences that these women bring, it is a substantive injection into the future peaceful evolution of a country.
Regrettably, at present, women are normally excluded from significant roles during the negotiations that end conflicts. Products of compromise between warring factions, the resulting peace agreements inevitably reflect the war-torn past as much as they point the way towards a future of reconciliation and peaceful government. The exclusion of women during the peacemaking phase means that post-conflict elections are one of the first opportunities for women to be fairly represented in decision-making over the future of a country.
Despite the logic of ensuring the widest possible participation of women in electoral activities, a number of obstacles make it comparatively more difficult for women to participate than for men. These obstacles include cultural factors, legal provisions (often themselves the reflection of cultural patterns), practical inconveniences (the need to care for children, the lack of time), and so forth. Nonetheless, at each stage of the electoral process there exist opportunities to reduce these obstacles and to promote the participation of women.
There are three main areas in which the question of women’s participation in the electoral process has to be addressed, particularly in post-conflict situations. These are: the question of voice and citizenship; the question of representation and women representatives; and the question of women’s capacity to engage in decision making roles in the electoral and political process. In these three areas, and at each stage of the electoral process, efforts should be made in order to enhance in a substantive manner the role of women in electoral processes. To ensure that women’s voices are heard a range of tools and resources must be provided to enable them to participate in the process.
In the experience of the UN there is no “One Way”, there is no “Best Way” – there is always a unique constellation of actors and forces that demand innovative and creative approaches. As everyone here is well aware – electoral politics is a competition for Power. Also, an election is not a competition between equals, but must be conducted over a level playing field to be considered fair. To enhance women in this arena still emphasizes that proactive efforts must be directed to leveling the field but also challenges us to find the means of elevating women to become formidable and lasting competitors. It is our hope that this conference will provide the opportunity for yourselves as experts in your fields to collectively contribute to the endeavor of identifying more tools we can all share in pursuing this goal.
Thank you very much and I wish you all the best over the course of this conference.