Women's leadership role in political spheres as well as development activities remains a serious concern worldwide. Recognition of the importance of women's effective participation and representation in democratic processes has been widely acknowledged, and that genuine democratic elections must contribute to women's empowerment and strengthen gender mainstreaming at all levels of decision making. The Commonwealth Gender Plan of Action for Gender Equality 2005-2015 calls on governments to introduce measures to promote at least 30 per cent representation of women in parliament, government and business. In the book 'The Impact of Women's Political Leadership on Democracy and Development', the authors attempt to describe the barriers to women's political participation and explain why the contribution of women is so crucial to democracy. They also examine the established strategies - electoral reform (New Zealand), party voluntary quotas (South Africa), and legislative quotas (Bangladesh and India) - that have helped these Commonwealth countries to meet the global target of 30 per cent and thus to effectively advance the participation of women in decision making at all levels.
The book begins with the article 'The Impact of Women's Political Leadership on Democracy and Development in South Africa', contributed by Colleen Lowe Morna (Founder and Executive Director of Gender Links in Johannesburg, South Africa) and Mukayi Makaya Magarangoma (Service Manager at Gender Links in Johannesburg, South Africa). In less than 20 years South African women leaders have contributed to radical changes in laws, policies and service delivery that have resulted in far greater gender awareness and responsiveness in South Africa's governance than ever before. These changes reflect in new institutional norms and discourse; sea changes in the lives of women previously excluded from the corridors of power; and in the 'new men' emerging to champion gender causes. They also reflect in the lives of 'ordinary women' now claiming access to land, mineral resources, finance and other means of production with which to enhance their livelihoods and those of their families. Even so, women remain the majority of the poor, the dispossessed, those living with HIV and AIDS, and daily violated as a result of high levels of gender violence. Women's names do not feature in ongoing power struggles for the top leadership of the African National Congress (ANC). To promote gender equality and empower women, the authors believe, South Africa needs to redouble its efforts to ensure the achievement of gender parity in all areas of decision making. South Africa also needs to ensure that this translates into real changes in the lives of the majority of women.
The chapter 'Impact of Women's Political Leadership on Democracy and Development in New Zealand' is contributed by Margaret Wilson (Professor of Law and Public Policy at the University of Waikato, New Zealand). On 19 September 1893, New Zealand became the first self-governing country in the world in which all women had the right to vote in parliamentary elections, following the landmark Electoral Act. As a result, New Zealand's world leadership in women's suffrage became a central part and image of a 'social laboratory' for other democracies. The 1990s was an outstanding period for women's appointment to new positions, particularly with the change in the electoral system to Mixed Member Proportionality (MMP), which opened up the political space for women. In modern New Zealand, the idea that women could not or should not vote is completely foreign to New Zealanders. In 2012, 32 per cent of Members of Parliament were female, compared with 13 per cent in 1984. In the early twenty-first century women have held key constitutional positions: Prime Minister, Governor-General, Speaker of the House of Representatives, Attorney-General and Chief Justice. The chapter examines how the MMP system has impacted on women's participation in politics. It further examines the contribution, status and role of women after a period of extensive social and political change in New Zealand, and how this has translated into women's voting and representation, women's role in conflict and co-operation, participation and protest, equal access to power, institutional culture and feminism.
The next chapter titled 'Women's Participation in Local Governments in Bangladesh and India' is contributed by Dr. Farah Deeba Chowdhury (Scholar in Residence at Global Labour Research Centre, York University, Canada). Both India and Bangladesh have excelled in mainstreaming women in local governance structures. Following constitutional amendments to reserve one-third of all local government seats for women in India after the 73rd and 74th Amendments to the Constitution in 1992, more than one million women were elected to local government positions. Similarly, institutional reforms to reserve seats for women's active participation in local governance in Bangladesh in 1997 resulted in many women councillors being elected. Despite these advancements, the author observes, women in Bangladesh and India are lagging behind men in all areas. Regardless of having a number of prominent and powerful female politicians, women's participation in politics in both countries is very low. The author argues that for women to fully maximise the opportunity to participate effectively in decision making, certain changes have to be realised. Patriarchal norms and culture should be steadily eliminated through wide sensitisation. In addition, effective measures must be taken to eradicate political corruption and criminalisation and, most importantly, to ensure women's security.
In the recent years there has been a growing recognition of the need to assess the impact of women's leadership on democracy and development. It is evident that with at least a 30 per cent majority of women involved in decision making, a society's overall performance in the areas of health, education, family care, social welfare, the environment etc. improves. By contrast, countries with a low participation of women have seen a fall in the quality of these social-related services. Consequently, more efforts are still required to ensure that a substantial number of women are in the leadership positions in politics and development.
S.M. Rayhanul Islam is an independent researcher.