It’s a good question with no simple answer. Before I respond, however, I propose a different question. Why do we need to defend women’s equal representation in decision-making on equal footing with men? Why do we often hear that women’s participation is good because it has this or that positive benefit for society? If we believe in the universal human rights and other international human rights laws that guarantee equality between women and men, we should not need any justification and simply acknowledge that women have the same right to influence decision just as men. Unfortunately, the history demonstrates that the equality of women’s rights with those of men has never been easily accepted and it continues to be a problem in most parts of the world.
The second question that comes to my mind is about men and their willingness to support equality and a sustainable way of life. Indeed, if we look back at the history of humankind, largely shaped by men in charge of decision-making, we can easily make a conclusion that men can hardly be considered as the promoters of sustainability and equality (think of slavery, Nazism, environmental degradation, greed in the financial markets and so on). However, not all men are the same (just like women are not) and not all men are equally responsible for the problems we, as humanity, have been dealing with.
Also, it would be a mistake to see men as somehow inherently bad and for that reason they need women to show them what’s right. Rather, men, just like women, are victims of unequal systems and institutions, although it’s true women often bear stronger negative consequences of inequality than men. For example, in military conflicts, women are at high risk of sexual violence but are excluded from peace negotiations. Whereas ordinary men form the majority of casualties of war, which are started by other powerful men rarely taking part in direct combat.
Men are brought up and constantly encouraged to behave in certain ways (just like women) in accordance to what society believes is the ‘right’ way of being a man. To aspire to power and influence, to brag about sexual experiences, not to show vulnerability, to ‘put women in their place’… Men’s aggressive behaviour in politics, finance, economy or even private life is a consequence of expectations from men in a specific society. When I worked in Afghanistan in early 2000s, I talked with other Western women in the country who, like me, experienced discriminatory behaviour by Western men – these men quickly adapted their behaviour according to, what they perceived, was the ‘correct’ way of being a man in Afghanistan. In fact, local men were often much kinder to us than some Western men.
So, why activists and organisations, such as Ayuda en Accion, advocate women’s inclusion in decision-making. First, it is in line with the existing legislation and democratic values based on the equality of women and men. Second, the world we live in must be shaped by opinions from both women and men based on, what Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize laureate, called, democratic deliberation – openly discussing and deciding freely without interference of discrimination. It is clear, in most parts of the world, we are far from open and free deliberation between women and men on how the world should be run; women’s exclusion is deeply rooted in our institutions and systems.
When I was researching about Bangladesh some time ago, I found that Bangladesh had a similar low proportion of women in the national Parliament as my own country, Slovakia, a member of the European Union.
So, what can be done? One thing is to start with education and teaching girls and boys the values of equality and critical thinking from early age so that they are able to reflect and understand the world around them. This is particularly essential in the current ‘tsunami’ of false and superficial information spreading through social media and other sources. We need to be trained to think and dig deeper to really understand what we’re talking about. I often see some ‘facts’ to be repeated over and over, even by large global institutions. Such as about Rwanda’s supposedly high representation of women in politics. In reality, many of these women are in their places as ‘window-dressing’ to create an illusion of gender equality for Western audiences. These women have very limited power over actual policy and legislation. In many ways, Rwanda remains deeply patriarchal.
Media, too, have a huge social responsibility in the way they report on women’s roles in decision-making. Slovakia has for the first time in its history a female president, but for a while we were not hearing about the President’s actions (and there are many) but about her clothes! Responsibility also lies with private and public companies and institutions, for example by ensuring equal representation of women in managerial and top executive roles, which, in turn, inspires other women and teach men to share power with women.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are not immune from excluding women from decision-making. In my positions in international NGOs, I have experienced everything from being laughed at, to being ignored and even attacked verbally when I brought up the issue of gender equality. Many international NGOs need to have a long and hard look at themselves to see to what extent they really behave according to what they preach in their projects. Positive examples can be found. My team in Bangladesh included almost exclusively local men, but we were working on many progressive activities in support of gender equality.
We also need to acknowledged that women and girls may also have opinions and behave in ways that contribute to women’s exclusion in decision-making and a lower status in society. There are female politicians who support laws harming women, and there are women who discriminate other women in workplace. This can be often explained by women’s fear of losing their own privileges, or, simply, by lacking understanding about the operation of patriarchy. I remember an article in a fashion magazine many years ago when a female journalist denounced feminism and proudly declared herself not to be a feminist. I had to laugh – without feminist struggle for women’s opportunities over hundreds of years, there would hardly be any female journalists.
Women can also self-censor themselves and their aspirations to assume roles in decision-making. Sometimes because they cannot imagine other way of life for themselves but often also because society forces them to reduce their aspirations. Even if women have skills, they often seek jobs allowing them to take care of children, a decision that very few men in decision-making roles consider. These women do not decide freely. They are forced to take a decision because society does not support childcare services and men’s co-responsibility over childcare.
That is why it’s important to understand gender equality and development in general as freedom and part of human rights. In this understanding, women and men must have capacity to reflect on their lives and societies they live in and be part of shaping their societies without the influence of oppressive systems – whether it is discriminatory culture or religious tradition, a repressive political regime or an unfair economic system. Those of us who work to promote equal human rights must constantly challenge ourselves and seek effective ways of facilitating women’s inclusion, and build the culture of critical reflection inside our organisations, even if this means sharing failures of our work. Only then we can jointly work towards true equality in decision-making and sustainable lives of women and girls, and men and boys as well.