Increasing Women’s Roles in Political Parties: a programmatic Perspective

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Increasing Women’s Roles in Political Parties: A Programmatic Perspective
Despite comprising more than 50 percent of the world’s population, women remain underrepresented as voters, political leaders and elected officials in every region of the world.

While women’s contributions toward a strong and vibrant society are increasingly well-documented, there is also growing understanding of why women’s meaningful participation is essential to building and sustaining democracy. As demonstrated by the most recent United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Human Development Index (HDI), countries with the highest levels of gender empowerment have been able to provide their citizens with the highest standards of living.1 Women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines, and more sustainable peace.

Yet, women face many hurdles to entering the political sphere, including political parties. One of the major challenges in all women’s participation initiatives is raising the awareness of male party leaders about the need to increase women’s political participation and leadership as both the right and the politically advantageous thing to do. Continuing challenges include women’s lack of influence in party policy and platform development, absence or limited representation on executive bodies in parties, lack of leadership positions, and marginalization of women’s wings within parties.
Recently, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) embarked on an assessment of women’s political party activities across a number of regions to identify the specific elements and approaches which were most effective in encouraging women’s participation and leadership in political parties. Three areas emerged as essential to women's political progress and can be broadly useful for organizations and individuals who are engaged in efforts to improve women’s political participation, particularly through political parties:

  • Capacity to reach across partisan, socio-economic, ethnic, gender, and age boundaries;

  • Provision of: highly effective core skills training, dissemination of critical materials, and confidence-building for women interested in politics; and

  • Ability to provide support and opportunities that enhance women’s capacity to work together and exchange knowledge and resources.

Overall, it should be noted that participants across countries felt empowered by women’s political party initiatives. Several other themes intersected the findings as well. First, women are more politically engaged today than they have been in the past; however, there has not been a corollary increase in the number of women political leaders. Also, an increased perception of women as political leaders can only come with women’s meaningful integration within political parties. Third, internal party reform is critical to women’s advancement; however, obstacles such as decentralization and a lack of transparency, internal democracy and merit-based advancement also limit women’s rise within political parties. Increased communication and cooperation among women across party lines is viewed as a notable success. Finally, democratic advancement has coincided with and contributed to a much-needed cultural shift in attitudes regarding gender.

The most common response to NDI surveys regarding women’s political party programs has been: “give us more.” In that spirit, highlighted below are a number of best practice guidelines based on the NDI assessment.

Best Practices
Communication skills trainings are highly appreciated by participants, particularly as they relate to public speaking and conflict resolution. Consistent training and ongoing practice in public speaking can help women gain the confidence they need to participate more effectively in political party and other meetings, where they report often having to fight to be heard. Communications trainings not only help women to speak publicly, but also to talk persuasively within their own families, specifically with their husbands. Some participants even reported that men inquire about accessing similar skills-building opportunities when they are only being provided to women.
There is also an interest in building message development skills, as many women feel inexperienced and under-prepared in this area. Women want assistance in developing messages around their particular strengths as women leaders and how to use these perceived positive qualities (more transparent, less corrupt, better listeners, etc.) to make themselves more politically appealing to voters, constituents, and other political actors.
Women’s leadership development seeks to build women’s skills and self-confidence to empower them to take on leadership roles in their families, communities and public life. Leadership trainings are therefore aimed at developing effective leaders and encompass key areas of successful leadership, including: communication, mobilization, coalition building, strategic planning, advocacy, and fundraising. Additionally, these activities focus on building awareness of the already existing and valuable leadership roles participants hold in their families and communities; women’s unique perspectives and attributes as leaders; multiple leadership styles and identifying participants’ personal leadership styles; and opportunities and challenges for women leaders. For the majority of participants, the most highly effective leadership training includes developing skills around public speaking, advocacy, and campaigning.
Leadership building efforts and skills-based trainings have a clear and direct impact on women’s competencies and skill-sets; however, it is important not to underestimate the confidence-building element that is inherent in these competencies. One of the most frequently referenced benefits of leadership training is the vast increase in self-confidence that participants feel upon completion of the program and the sense of empowerment that this conveys. The sharp increase in self-confidence that arises as a result of training is consistently noted as the single greatest impact.

Among women, there is a strong demand for efforts that help unite women across political parties. The natural tendency of political parties to be competitive with each other often impedes substantive political work. Stories of party leaders and activists who are unable or unwilling to sit in the same room together much less work together are common. The multi-party approach to party work contributes to distinguishing women political actors, who have often demonstrated an increased capacity to interact with each other as peers, rather than view each other solely as competitors. This interaction helps build the positive perception of women in politics by party leaders and citizens alike. The success of women’s political party initiatives in bringing women together across party lines is significant, and the unique capacity of women to do such cross-party work should be utilized, particularly around issues of importance to all women like violence or citizenship rights.

It is also important to engage in efforts that focus on continued or additional partnerships with political parties, other NGOs, and donors in order to help diminish the risk of duplication and to promote grassroots change. Given the minimal attention that political parties often pay to issues of particular interest to women, it is imperative to encourage women to work on these issues across ideological and organizational boundaries.
Continued resistance to women's leadership within political parties also creates the need for spending more time working with political party leaders on women's leadership and internal reform initiatives instead of spending time solely with individual women or groups of women leaders. Working with men is essential to breaking down barriers to women’s access to leadership and gaining support for initiatives that increase women’s political participation.
As part of this effort, transparency within political parties is essential. Transparency signifies progress, while a lack of transparency is associated with old political party mentalities that both severely limit the participation of women and the average citizen, as well as lack accountability.
Furthermore, there is the need to enforce existing quotas so that they are firm and meaningful. However, quotas alone are not sufficient to ensure the necessary increases in women’s political participation. Additional measures are needed and include a consistency in monitoring party nominating procedures and lists to avoid the sudden removal of women initially included.

Working with politically experienced women, particularly those who have already undergone some political training, is critical to training new generations of women political leaders and to helping women mentor and train each other. Employing a training of trainers methodology has proved to be an effective and sustainable way to increase women’s political knowledge, skills and capacity. Furthermore, this method is empowering and inspiring to both women trainers and trainees.

Training could be tailored for different groups, including women within political parties, members of civil society organizations, and citizens who are interested but not yet involved in politics. Given that training sessions also bring mentoring opportunities for women, strong local women trainers can also serve as much-needed role models. 

Creating and strengthening a cadre of women master trainers boosts the trainers’ self-confidence and sense of investment in efforts to increase women’s political participation and build a network of trained women leaders. Trainees, in turn, are inspired by seeing women from their own parties and communities possessing and actively sharing advanced skills and knowledge.

As more women are elected and appointed to political leadership positions, there becomes the need for extended training in governance issues, particularly as these women often have had little or no opportunity to develop the type of specialized skills necessary to succeed in public office positions. Such skills may be office-specific, such as rules of procedures, drafting and passing legislation and budgets, or more generalized, such as public speaking and staff management.
Truly developing women’s capacity requires the teaching of substantive skills to help them prepare to take on decision-making roles and in turn, to help bring other women into leadership positions. It’s imperative to reach all women – those already in political leadership positions, those newly elected, and those considering running for elected office – as they contribute to paving paths for women to enter and advance within politics.
Sharing experiences and knowledge is tremendously important to respondents, who often emphasize trainings by international organizations as highly valuable for their political learning. The solidarity and sense of empowerment gained through learning from and interacting with female colleagues around the world can be both personally inspiring and professionally useful. The value of this shared experience allows women political leaders to learn from the challenges, successes and models of their counterparts, as well as helps to build an international network of women leaders. Women believe strongly in the benefits that come with visible examples of other women’s political participation strategies and experiences and are particularly eager to learn how women have handled similar issues of political barriers and advancement in other countries.

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