The Parallel Parliament

by Glen Pearson

Tag: women

Kathleen Wynne’s Victory – Look Deeper

Two faces of womanOntario has a new premier and her ascension is nothing if not groundbreaking – the first female and openly gay premier-designate. She ran a disciplined and largely respectful campaign and that last characteristic might have been a key reason for her ultimate victory. Repeatedly through the contest she said things like, “The rancour and the viciousness of the legislature can’t continue.” Many seasoned observers have noted that Queen’s Park has increasingly taken on the hyper-partisan characteristics of the House of Commons in Ottawa. So her emphasis on decorum and respect is a welcome signal.

It was also Tweeted consistently that over 90% of Canadians are led by female provincial leaders – another positive signal. But will it last? And more importantly, can the effects of a better gender balance in our parliaments lead us to a more productive future of cooperation and compromise so seemingly out of reach in the formerly male-dominated world of politics as a blood sport? Women political leaders will hardly prove successful in such an undertaking if we as citizens don’t support such efforts.

But before we get too carried away with this transformation that has been years in the making, two sober realities remain that must be understood and counteracted.

The first is the troubling tendency for women to refuse voting for other female aspirants to leadership. According to Peggy Drexler, research psychologist and gender scholar, too many studies reveal this tendency to make it a mere anomaly. Although women are more likely than men to focus in on gender issues, they still remain hesitant to transform that interest into voting for other women. Ironically, while women are more likely to vote for someone because she is female, they are just as likely to dismiss her for the same reason. In noting that women tend to be harder on female candidates, Drexler concludes:

Women still judge other women – simply put, they continue to be judged against the standards initiated and maintained by men.  And because many women therefore know quite well what it’s like to feel judged, they then turn that judgement back on one another.

This is disturbing, but my own experience in politics has taught me that it is indeed a reality. So, in order to matter, to count, to lead, SOME women become more harsh, more partisan, more mean-spirited than their male counterparts simply because they feel they have to be to get noticed or to move ahead, and are often coached by their male advisors to adopt such a posture.  Kathleen Wynne explicitly demonstrated that you can win and lead by being inclusive. Powerful women leaders like Deb Matthews recognized that and gave her their support.

Now for a second sobering reality. The international development community learned years ago that for true development to be effective, the role of women must be enhanced worldwide, not merely in the West. How’s that going so far? Consider this from Amnesty International:

  • Women perform 66% of the world’s work, receive only 11% of the world’s income, and own only 1% of the land.
  • Women make up 66% of the world’s illiterate adults.
  • Women head 83% of single-parent families. The number of families nurtured by women alone doubled from 1970 to 1995.
  • Despite women totalling 55% of all college students, it does not translate into economic opportunities or political power nearly to the same degree as men.
  • Two-thirds of the world’s children who receive less than four years of education are girls, and girls represent 60% of the children not in school.
  • Three out of every four fatalities of various wars are women and children.
  • About 75% of the refugees and internally displaced in the world are women who have lost their families and their homes.

There remains the tragic disconnect in Canada between the fate of women domestically and internationally. To promote the rights and potential of women effectively means to defend it everywhere, not merely where it is close to us. Nevertheless, support for Western governments that cut back international aid continues to curtail the opportunities for women worldwide and yet we permit such a decline to prevail.

One week ago my wife and I returned from south Sudan after leading a large team to assist with development projects we have run there for years. With their own eyes these Canadians saw how for the lack of $300 per annum a girl can’t get a high school education. They learned that for want of $120 a mother can’t provide sustainable food for her family.  They were saddened to discover that women who fled slavery in order to give their children a chance for health and education are considering returning to captivity since precious few resources exist for them in the south.  Ms. Wynne’s victory is important, but compared to such realities it surely must lose some of its lustre. Victory for women in Canada should mean the same for women worldwide; we’re not there yet – not even close. Or as Benjamin Franklin put it: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

I am tired of a kind of politics that doesn’t have enough female representation, but I am equally saddened to live in a Western world that places such emphasis on women’s representation at the same time as it ignores it worldwide. All too many struggle to see women finally have power equal to their male counterparts, but the power they reach for and deserve must be mirrored by their thoughts and actions for their sisters  in the rest of the world. Reach for that and we will truly have reform.

How Was 2012 For Women?

Screen Shot 2012-12-31 at 6.12.50 AMMy new Huffington Post piece on how women fared globally and in Canada in 2012.

For Women, It’s Still the Long Game

“You love your country, as I do mine.” Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf placed her hand on mine as she uttered the words and the irony of it all wasn’t lost on me. She was the first woman in modern African history to become a head of state, succeeding a brutal dictator and a 14-year civil war. Belinda Stronach had asked me to join the two of them for dinner in Ottawa and it was clear from the outset that Sirleaf was an exceptional human being. I was shocked to discover that her son had attended in school in St. Thomas, Ontario.

So I was deeply pleased this past week when she, along with two other remarkable women, received the distinguished Nobel Peace Prize. Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist from Ghana, and Yemeni journalist Tawakkol Karman, who had the double honour of being the youngest laureate and the first Arab women to do so, both shared the spotlight with Sirleaf.

A number of writers celebrated the occasion by commenting that the elevation of these three distinguished women to laureate status is a sign of the growing influence of women worldwide. Perhaps. But consider the following information.

  • Women own only 1% of the world’s land
  • In 76 countries, less than 50% of eligible girls are enrolled in secondary school
  • Over half a million women die in childbirth every year in Africa and Asia
  • The World Health Organization reports that 40% of girls aged 17 or under in South Africa are reported to have been the victim of rape or attempted rape
  • Only a small number of countries do not require women to be paid some form of maternity leave, including Australia and the United States. Struggling countries such as Colombia, Russia, Laos and Morocco have their governments carry the entire bill for 3-6 months of maternity leave.
  • 80% of the 50 million people around the world who are affected by violent conflicts, civil wars, disaster, and displacement are women and children
  • Nearly 4 million women go missing each year in developing countries
  • Women account for almost 60% of unpaid employment globally
  • Globally, 1/6 of girls die in early childhood
  • Globally, over 1/3 of women die in their reproductive years
  • Women are responsible for 80% of all house care and work

Indeed there have been advancements for women’s possibilities worldwide, most especially in the field of education. In the developing world, more girls than boys are now attending secondary school.

But overall it’s still not all that positive. Figures released by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), reveal that a women still dies every minute from complications due to pregnancy or childbirth. Of all the Millennium Development Goals (developed as a global approach to reduce worldwide poverty), efforts to reduce maternal death have made the least progress of all. Half of the people living with AIDS are women, and in sub-Saharan Africa, women make up 60% of those living with HIV.

In an area of my own personal interest – peace and security – of the 10 major peace processes of the past decade, on average, only 6% of negotiators and 3% of signatories were women – all this despite three major Security Council resolutions in the past 10 years that mandated greater women’s participation in such initiatives.

So let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that our charitable efforts at aid and development are turning the corner for women globally. There have been certain advances, to be sure, but with the trend for affluent nations cutting back on development dollars, it is more than possible that any gains might be lost due to a lack of international investment in the state of women.

It is a clear tragedy that just as the affluent nations began jumping on the bandwagon in their understanding and investment in women’s rights and economic progress, the global financial downturn now has the clear capacity to undermine the gains made in women’s programs.

As New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff has quoted repeatedly, “Women hold up half the sky.” Indeed. Sadly, we are now living in an age where the affluent West can’t even hold up to half of its commitments. It’s a good thing that millennia of trial and sacrifice have provided the world’s women with patience above measure; it appears as though they will require it for some time yet until equity is achieved.

Women Of The Sun

Arrival Time

John Garang, deceased visionary and key political figure in south Sudan’s struggle for independence, once called them “the marginalized of the marginalized.” No more. Something is subtly changing in what will soon be the world’s newest nation and it’s not just statehood. It’s the millions of women who make up 65% of the southern population and who have survived decades of brutal war, famine, disease, slavery, and constant mobilization only to emerge as the key voting bloc in this month’s referendum. Politics never interested them much; survival did. But now that peace and likely independence have emerged, they are discerning an opportunity that’s not just about their children or their tribe but themselves – individual beings who up until now were the caregivers of a people consigned to Africa’s colonial past. Suddenly it’s not just about education or health for their children that remains lodged uppermost in their minds, but their own development and pursuit of opportunity.

We saw it everywhere we journeyed as observers to the referendum itself. Men had their own line and talked primarily politics in the lengthy wait until they could vote. The women in their own line were largely silent, and for good reason. They had already waited for this moment for 20 years, had quietly discussed its meaning among themselves, and merely waited for that moment when they placed their inked fingerprint on the ballot. For their male counterparts it was all about freedom and independence, but for the women there was the poignant pageant of just laying their deep and abiding pain to rest. It had been left to them to comfort the dying, feed their children on next to nothing, fill in leadership posts while their men fought in Africa’s longest civil war. They were the greatest caregivers of the modern era and most of the world hardly noticed them, opting instead to concentrate on genocide, MIG fighter jets, war and oil.

But they are now in the process of arising from the collective pain to take their own rightful and long overdue place in the scalding Sudanese sun. They were encouraged to claim that right by what they termed “the women of the snow” – Canadian women who journeyed with an NGO – Canadian Aid for Southern Sudan – to develop women’s programs in their region. Over a decade ago they laughed as they witnessed me washing my wife’s clothing, including underwear, in a basin by a well. They rushed then to stop me, claiming it was their responsibility, I prevailed out of stubbornness, but key lessons were learned by these heroes of history as they gained an understanding that women in other parts of the world claimed equality in ever vital facet of life. These same women asked me to assist them with the dishes two weeks ago as we cleaned up after a celebration. It took no courage on their part; they had changed in the growing understanding that work is meant to be shared. It was in this moment of clarity that I realized their time had arrived.

They had shouldered the greatest responsibilities as their children were lost to death and their husbands were taken to war. They are now joining forces in the realization that those very acts of sacrifice and fortitude rightfully qualify them for leadership in the peace dividend that is now settling on their nation. It’s a bold step, one that male leaders are gradually encouraging, and it will mean an entirely new future for their development. The southern leadership has promised to raise the level of women in key leadership roles from 10% at present to at least 30% over the next year. They are nearly on track to achieve it.

And then there is the great unmentionable truth which they bear in silence: a good many of them suffered rape – repeatedly – and genital mutilation far more humiliating than painful. These aren’t just giants of courage and sacrifice; they are also survivors and the pain they presently bear will be carried to their death. But – and this is their great hope – not to their daughter’s deaths. The sun has intervened and they now stand in its rays, wearing their own internal pain as a quiet shield to protect those that come after them. These are the women of the sun who held up far more than half the sky. They are the prototype African leaders of tomorrow – more empowered than branded by their past and we stand humbled in their shadow.

Note: This is the last of two-week series on the Sudanese referendum. The women and men of Sudan now await our solidarity and support as they seek to steer Africa to a new generation.

Winds of Change – The Referendum and Women

The women of both north and south Sudan are remarkably tenacious and adaptive. This past decade witnessed leaders of women’s groups from both regions holding joint peace conferences in an effort to put an end to two decades of war and to give their children a chance at a better life.

It is this last point that has so come to identify the plight of so many of the Sudanese internally displaced people and the returnees flooding back to south Sudan. They left the south over the years because the war left them little choice. They journeyed to Darfur (part of the north) and deep into northern Sudan itself in pursuit of amenities for their families – education, medical supplies, food, even the opportunity to just hold on to life. It became a trade-off with the devil – a struggle for resources while foregoing their own personal pursuits.

For the women of Sudan the referendum isn’t seen so much as a political or human rights movement. Rather, they view it as the best opportunity in a generation for their kids to have a chance at a better life. In our early years of involvement in Sudan, they became the primary component of slavery and abductions. Along with their children they lived brutal lives, forced against their own will. Yet as slavery itself became more obscure, they nevertheless opted to stay in difficult circumstances often because there was better opportunity for their families in such constrained conditions. They were free to move on, but love of children convinced them to stay.

The referendum is likely changing all that. Our team witnessed thousands of these women traveling for hundreds (sometimes thousands) of kilometers just to reach the southern regions and the opportunities they hoped the referendum and an independent country would provide. For the moment the majority of them are living in transitional camps as they await the chance for land, agriculture and education. Groups like the Organization For Migration (IOM) have done a remarkable job at identifying them and attempting to provide for their most basic needs. But now with thousands more like them pouring into south Sudan every week, their chances of success dwindle. Quiet conversations with them revealed that they were willing to forsake their new-found freedom and head back towards the areas they just left if they can’t provide for their families. For these women, their own human rights takes second place to the welfare of their families.

This returning to their former constrained circumstances is a story that yet remains untold in matters concerning the border regions between north and south Sudan. The Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) invested in women such as these over the past few years and it persuaded many of the returning women in the region where we work to not only stay put for the sake of their children, but also to pursue opportunities in education, health and micro-enterprise. In other words, there was something in it for the women themselves, perhaps for the first times in their lives. While CIDA’s dedication (seen in the video below) proved revolutionary in the region, recent priority changes run the risk of preventing the Agency for providing effective follow-up to their original investment. That might not occur, as the Agency reassesses the conditions that are changing daily, but the risk is there and we must champion the cause of these women who live in such remote regions that the world hardly knows to assist them.

CIDA has done some remarkable work, as you’ll see in the video. Yet if investment dries up and in spite of the new-found ability to make their own choices because of the referendum, their love of children will drive them back to regions from where they came. This could well be the ultimate tragedy at a time when the women of Sudan made their bolt for freedom.  Such is the incredible love these mothers have for their children.

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