We Have Wasted Our Time Pushing For More Women In Decision Making Positions -- They Have Not Made A Difference: A Great Debate
The Forum hosted multiple concurrent breakout sessions, which allowed smaller and more focused discussion and debate on a wide range of issues affecting women’s rights and movement building in the world today.
The following presents an edited and abridged transcript of We have wasted our time pushing for more women in decision making positions -- they have not made a difference: A Great Debate.
Organized by: Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, African Women's Development Fund (AWDF)
Presenters: Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi, Thelma Ekiyor, Isatou Touray, Rose Mensah Kutin, Njoki Ndugu, Margaret Dongo and Kafui Adjamagbo-Johnson
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi (Moderator): Before us we have a motion, which reads, “We have wasted our time pushing for more women in decision-making positions. They have not made a difference.” We have two debate teams here, to argue for the motion and against the motion.
We have recorded a number of successes in the African women’s movement. A lot of our investments in terms of engaging with state structures and with individual structures have paid off to some extent. Today, for example, we can boast of having more women in parliaments than ever before. Rwanda has broken world records in terms of numbers of women in parliament, over 50 percent. The recently constituted pan-African parliament has a woman as speaker of the parliament. And three years ago, we were delighted to be able to elect the first democratically-elected female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. So we’ve ticked off a number of boxes in terms of our successes in that area.
But every now and then we’ve had complaints and grievances, very lengthy ones, that some of the women we’ve got into positions of decision-making, who got in there off the sweat of our backs – our research, our activism and agency – have not lived up to expectations. So this is why these aggrieved sisters have brought this motion forward.
For the motion, I’d like to introduce the team to my left. I’ll start with Solome Nakaweezi-Kimbugwe – wave your hand. Solome is a feminist activist and the executive director of Akina Mama wa Africa, who are the convenors of the famous African Women’s Leadership Institute. Next to her is Iheoma Obibi from Nigera, journalist, activist and executive director of Alliances For Africa. Alliances For Africa has done a lot of work in some parts of Nigeria, getting women into positions of decision-making. Last but not least, to my immediate left is the very famous feminist activist Everjoice Win, who is currently the head of the women’s rights program at ActionAid International. If that position does not exist, I have just promoted you!
To my left, against the motion, I have the beautiful Thelma Ekiyor from Nigeria and based in Ghana. Researcher, peace activist, feminist activist and conflict resolution specialist. She’s currently the executive director of the West Africa Civil Society Institute. Next to her, we have our very own Rose Mensah Kutin, or Dr. Rose as she’s known in many parts of Ghana. Economist, public policy specialist and feminist activist. She’s a founding member of Netright in Ghana and also Abantu for Development. Next to Rose is another famous sister, whose name was invoked this morning, Margaret Dongo from Zimbabwe. Margaret is a freedom fighter, an opposition independent candidate, and a women’s rights activist. You are all welcome.
For the Motion: Thank you Madame Chair. Let me start by contextualizing what it is that we have done in terms of investing in women’s political participation, because otherwise [we] will be challenged by those who say we have not done anything. And by “we,” I mean women’s movements in their totality, particularly feminist movements. Firstly, we have advocated for laws and policies to be put into place. We have facilitated women to be put in positions of power. Starting with the suffragette movements globally, the right to the vote, the civil rights movements in many countries: feminist activists have been there. The constitutional reforms in many of our countries, the legal reforms: it [was] the feminists and the women’s movements who have been doing [the] work. We have now got [quotas] into our regional constitutive acts, and regional bodies such as SADC now have a target of 30 percent.
All of this has come about because of the investment and the work that has been done by feminist and women’s movements. And yet, very often, the first thing that you hear from women when they get into these positions is, “I pulled myself up by my own boot straps. I got here because I worked really hard, and I have nothing to do with these women.” That is one of our biggest problems.
Secondly, if you look at many African countries, it was not women in political parties who were [originally] fighting for [women’s] rights. It was mostly women in civil society, in feminist groups. It was picked up by political parties [only later on].
Another point we wish to make is that we have invested millions of dollars, that cannot even begin to be quantified. Many of our women’s organizations have raised money from donors – and all of you know how difficult it is to raise money. We have had to account for this money from donors. And what has this money been used for? Training some of these women who did not know the first thing about how to run for office. We have invested money in terms of funding their campaigns, literally printing their T-shirts, their banners, funding their rallies. We have helped to create media spaces and opportunities for these women. In some of those cases, we have put in money to fund air time for them. When some of these women have been targeted with political violence, it was the feminist movement that was there providing shelter, providing counseling, and providing medical support.
But what have we got for all our pain? They get into office and the first thing they do is disown the whole ideology of feminism and its values. Secondly, they disown women’s movements. They will say, “I am not like those ones who are really bad, who have no husbands.” We have not seen any new value systems that these women have brought. In many African countries, they have simply become part of the Kleptocracy. They abuse their positions of power. [They have not] practiced leadership in a new way. They have not set a new framework for how leadership should be practiced. I will leave it here for the moment.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi (Moderator): I’ll now move to the other team.
Against the Motion: Thank you Madame Speaker. Let me start by saying no matter how far apart men are, they still remain organized and they support each other. This is why they have maintained power. I have told my fellow colleagues that politics is like a relay. You should know how to handle a stick, how to pass on your stick, and who to pass it on to. And the dos and don’ts are: “Don’t blame each other.”
We have, as Zimbabwean women, passed a domestic violence bill. We as Zimbabwean women [were historically] not allowed to be signatories to [our] accounts, but today women can sign. And in the Indigenization bill, women can now participate freely in business. That has been done by women that you are claiming have done nothing. I have been in politics from 1990, and I have been a member of parliament from 1992 to 2000. Have you ever knocked on my office to say, “My sister, you were in the struggle. You never had the opportunity to go to school. These are the issues from a learned perspective to bring to parliament.”
There are feminists in Zimbabwe, but feminism has been destroyed. We have been fighting about feminism for years. But if you tell today, the gains of the struggle have been reversed. Why? Because we keep on reducing the numbers. We undermine each other; we don’t help each other. We always think we are important in our own way. Yes, you have raised money. I will ask you, where is the money? The last election, my colleague Everjoice Win came to sign and realized that these women needed support. I think she rushed around to find something, a little token for the three women who ran as independents. And I appreciate that.
But you are blaming us today. But look at the changes. There wouldn’t be a SADC protocol without us. We have created employment for you girls, professionals. You should be happy. Now you are living in air-conditioned offices, and you look down upon us. You don’t recognize the work that we have done, because you are sitting in luxury. We never had luxury offices. The violence that you talk about and get paid for, we are the women who go through the violence. The torture that you talk about, we go through it. Thank you Madame Speaker.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi (Moderator): Over to you the team to my left. Who is going next?
For the Motion: My sisters, I think it’s important for us to look at those women in parliament and what they are doing. Because in my own country, one particular woman has got there and proposed a bill about how I am going to dress. In other countries, other women in parliament are doing similar things. She’s not doing what we sent her to do. She’s not representing us. She is confused. But she’s there.
She has refused to go for training. You are complaining that we’re not inviting you for training, but [you] don’t come. She, like the others, hasn’t been on any. [Politicians] want huge per diems. They want to stay in luxury hotels. They want to stay in the Hilton. If you put them in the Ritz in Cape Town, they won’t come. But they will stay in a five-star. They collect money from the government, and they come with their personal assistants, and probably their husbands and wives and their kids. So tell me sisters, how have they made a difference in our lives? How? Tell me! You can’t tell me. Because in my country, they have not made a difference.
Against the Motion: I will tell you how they have made a difference. Because of these women, we now have at least 53 cracks in the glass ceiling that have kept women out. These bad women that you have described – they are not descriptive of all women. They are descriptive of a dysfunctional system that we send these women into. We have been sending foot soldiers into underwater battles. What we need to do is to send special forces, navy seals, women with subversive tactics that will get in there and transform the system. So that those cracks will be opening up for good women, representative women’s voices to be heard.
For the Motion: Sisters in this room, are we talking about numbers or impact? What is more important to us? OK, the system is flawed. [But] the women who are sent there, the first thing they do is become part of the system. They disown us. They do not push our agenda. When we talk about issues about our own existence – like sexuality, like sexual orientation, like gender identity, like violence – they say, “Oh those feminists are radical. We do not even want to hear anything about them.” They close their offices to us. At the end of the day, they have not added value. For instance, in all these countries that have not ratified the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, the biggest resistance we have is women in decision-making positions, because they are uncomfortable with the article on sexual and reproductive health and rights. In Uganda, the biggest resistance to the family law is from women in political spaces. The biggest resistance to the land amendments is from women, because they have land. They do not think [about] of the bulk of women who do not have land. My debating team says we have wasted our time and our resources, and we need to change our strategy.
Against the Motion: My dear sisters, a journey of a thousand miles starts with one step. And numbers do matter. Numbers matter, because that is where you can get the kind of impact you are talking about. Today, if there is any meeting of the heads of states in Africa, you’ll find one head popping out. That one head is Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. That is the difference we are talking about. We are working to getting many more heads into the meeting rooms of heads of states.
When you invite women to your training, what do you train them on? You train them on grooming, how to use to cutlery, how to make their accounts. You need to give them money, first off. Have you given them the money first off? Have you given them any empowerment tools? You don’t support these women; you look down upon these women. The spaces they are occupying are public spaces, and they are open to you. As for the impact you complain about: we have achieved impact. In many of our countries, we now have domestic violence acts. This did not happen by civil society alone. We were there, standing up and voting for those laws to be passed. So that impact is happening. We have economic policies, and we are passing laws that are making these economic policies responsive to our needs and concerns as women. That is how we have to continue working, to make sure that we increase our numbers, because numbers do matter.
Bisi Adelye-Fayemi (Moderator): Order, order, order! Now, both of you have made damaging, scandalous, libelous allegations against each other. And some have actually hit below the belt. So now, you have an opportunity to respond to these very serious, incriminating allegations, so you can leave this room with your respective reputations intact.
For the Motion: Let me respond to some of the issues that our esteemed opponents have raised. “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a small step.” Unfortunately, we have not even gone beyond 30 centimeters. In fact, it is our contention, contrary to what our esteemed colleague says, that you have to start with the foundation. We have built and invested in these foundations. But, in many countries, instead of the foundation being the site where the building is going up, we are going back to the jungle level. Why am I saying this? Because, as my colleague said, some of the women who have entered these spaces have been the first ones to denigrate the feminist issues that women have been raising.
What are these issues? Let me give examples. It is these women who have been opposed to laws around, for instance, women with HIV. In Sierra Leone today, a law has been passed that actually says, if you as a woman get pregnant, and if you have HIV, and your child comes out with HIV, you will go to prison. Because you have knowingly infected the unborn child. This in a country where, again, we have fought for women to be in [political office]. Where are these women when Sierra Leone is passing such legislation?
The issue for us is, what are the issues that these women [in politics] are choosing [to champion] – and the critical word there is “choosing.” It is our contention that in many cases, they are choosing to not work on any controversial issues. They are choosing to not add any value. That why in many African countries today, after many years, you do not see any positive changes around issues of sexuality, or around issues of abortion. These women, it is our contention, are tending to stay in what we can call safe zones, because they don’t want to be kicked out of office come the next election.
I want to finish by [commenting on the] issue of the content of the training that has been raised. My sisters, we can be as feminist as we want, we can be as progressive as we like, but you and I know the famous expression, “you never get a second chance to make a first impression.” That is why one of the key areas where we train women when they get into political office is [on image], because as we say, “image is important.” How you will sit when you get into office, as we say in my language, is how you will be judged. You and I know that many of the men in power today are not really saying anything. It’s all hat and no cowboy. They have simply been trained in the art of politics, and that is why we have been training women in the art of politics.
But if you look at the content [of the trainings], we go beyond grooming and how to hold a fork. We have gone into training around how does the legislative system work, what are the issues that you need to be raising, how do you deal with opponents, how do you deal with the media. We have invested in them, as feminist movements. That’s why we have brought some of these women into international spaces at our own expense, to make sure that they have those skills. But again, what have we gotten for our pains? Very little.
Bisi Adelye-Fayemi (Moderator): Okay, so that lays that one to rest, the allegation that they only train women in grooming. Because there has to be something else to go with the nice makeup that doesn’t run when you’re under the media glare. So now we get it. I am just trying to explain things! Over to you.
Against the Motion: My sister, you can only measure a snake when the snake is not there. And I happen to be present in this room. I happen to be a test case. [There’s] one question that you have never answered. From 1990, can you tell me [of] even one day [when] you knocked [on my] door and said, “these are the issues, my dear colleagues, that I would want you to focus on during your time in office.” The second thing is, can you say that you have invested a lot of money into grooming politicians? Do you have examples of ladies that have been in parliament from 1990-2000 that have gone through your training?
Against the Motion: My esteemed opponents, so what is the alternative? No women in decision-making? When men mess up, we don’t tell them they have wasted their time. Why are we always pointing and shining the light on the mistakes women make and never accentuating the progress? You talked about women in parliament doing nothing. How many are there? Let me give you facts and figures. In Ghana, we have 25 women out of 230 parliamentarians. Those voices will always be muted if we do not get more women in. We have to get them in so that they can raise the issues. We are all still in the euphoria of the American election. And we saw two types of women. We saw Hillary Clinton and we saw Sarah Palin. Should we say because of Sarah Palin, no more women should go in for vice president? No. We need more women who can represent women the right way. So we will not give up, and we have not wasted our time.
For the Motion: What surprises me is that [we use] the same content [or material] to train women in [political] leadership [as we do] to train women in civil society and in the feminist movement – and it produces different results. That means that the women in political spaces are very problematic. We have a vibrant civil society, we have a vibrant movement. But women in political spaces, they’re the opposite. Same content, different results.
Another issue is communication. It is a two-way channel. I can’t communicate with you, and you’re not communicating with me. Once you get there sister, you change. You disown feminism and disown us. So how do we communicate [when] we do not agree on the principles of communication? Another issue is that when you get [into power], you do not want to mentor other women. You hold the spaces, you’re screwed onto those chairs, and whenever we engage, you think we want to take your political spaces!
Another issue is, how do we trust the blind to lead the way? Women in political spaces are blind to the realities of their constituents. They are blind to the realities of our struggles. So why do we entrust you with all that responsibility? I rest my case.
Bisi Adelye-Fayemi (Moderator): Now, I am going to invite members of the supporters’ clubs of the debate teams to jump in. We do this a number of ways. You can expect some of your supporters to jump up spontaneously to say things, or you can actively recruit certain individuals you think can speak to your cause. Supporters, you have to be willing to speak, otherwise you have no business being supporters and you have wasted our time!
Supporter, Against the Motion: Good morning sisters. We’ve heard a lot. But I think that one thing we are forgetting is that we do not put particular women in office so that they can do particular things for us. It is about the power of example. If we start, and we have people who do not operate according to expectations, we know that after many years, more people will come, and more effective women will join government. I think we are too impatient. Short-termism has become what we always do. We are looking for results immediately. We cannot do that.
We also must always remember that it is the systems that are very difficult for most women. Solome was talking about women who are trained in the women’s movement [being] effective, but women in government have not been effective. It is not the women. It is not their message. It is the system. How many people can stand against 90 percent of men in parliament? It is very difficult. Secondly, we keep saying that women are free to lose office. If these women lose office, what example are they giving? That women cannot even sustain themselves in power! This is why many women become very careful. Not because they are timid, but because they must stay there to play the game.
Now, there may be a few bad eggs among women in politics. But it is the women’s movement that needs to call them to order. We should not be afraid to do so. We should call them to order and say, “You are not representing us well, and we expect more from you as members of our movement.” But instead we badmouth them, we alienate them, and we create such a high wall that they are never able to jump over it and come to us. So let’s see women in politics as the power of an example. And eventually, parliaments will have to change when we have the critical mass. And that’s what we need now, the critical mass.
For the Motion: I am speaking from an experience of 12 years of trying to build the capacity of women. I have travelled to every corner of Uganda to build the capacity of women going into parliament. There are women there who look at me and say, “thank you for helping me to get here.” But when they’ve got there, what have they done? I call them to ask for an appointment, and they say, “I am going to my constituency, I don’t have time to see you.” Every time parliament started, we (the Ugandan Women’s Network) had a party for the women who had gotten into parliament, first of all to congratulate them for getting there, and secondly to give them our agenda and to say, “As women, this is what we expect. We have issues of land, we have issues of domestic relations, we have a gender-sensitive constitution which has not been realized. Please, when you get there, articulate our issues.”
When they got there, we got an appointment, and one of them told us to our faces, “I am not willing to risk my political future for your women’s issues.” And she had been in my training program to get there! Secondly, we have developed minimum agendas for women. We have developed all sorts of publications to give these women before they get there. If the space or the system is problematic, I have never seen any of those women even walking out in protest. And yet, at least the men sometimes have the courage to walk out, even if they walk back. But these women have to wait until they hear what the president feels about these issues before they say anything. And you expect me to stand here and say that they should remain there? No! Politics is for risk-takers, and if these women are not willing to take the risk, let them come back.
Bisi Adelye-Fayemi (Moderator): I see many excited hands, but we will not go for lunch if we continue like this. I would now like to ask the two teams to wrap up. I’m sure you’ve decided who’s going to do what.
For the Motion: We want to state categorically is that our position is that we need feminist women in political leadership. But we need to invest in feminist leadership beyond the numbers. Why are we always holding up women to a higher standard? It is because in many of our countries the bar in politics is too low. We are trying to raise the bar. And as feminists, that is one of our battle cries. Because already we are seeing how our countries are in crisis because the political bar is too low. So when we ask women to do things differently, when we ask women to come with a new agenda, when we ask women to go the extra mile, it is because as women, we are saying we are already suffering from very bad systems and from very low political bars, and we are asking our sisters to raise the bar.
Why do we hold women up to a higher standard? It is because these are spaces and opportunities that as feminists, we have fought for and we have demanded. This is why we want accountability from women when they get in. We do not want to continue the culture of non-accountability, the culture of impunity, the culture of the single big man who is not accountable to the people. We are asking these women to account because some of them, in fact, are beneficiaries of affirmative action policies that have been put in place because the feminist movement demanded those spaces. In some countries, we have seats that are specifically reserved for so-called women’s representatives. When you are called a women’s representative, you must represent the women! Don’t turn around and tell us, “I am representing the whole country. I can’t just stand for one sex. I am accountable to everybody.” Who is everybody? While you are saying that, the men are accounting to their fellow men. Why is it that for women it is difficult to see women as your constituency?
The point was raised about how difficult it is to change systems. Clearly, as feminists, we know how difficult it is to change systems. Whether it is family systems, whether it is organizational systems in NGOs, whether it is parliamentary or political systems, we know how difficult it is to change them. Why do you think that when you go into parliament, or into a decision-making position, you can pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and change the system by yourself? This is why you need a movement behind you, because the movement will help you to change the systems. You can only change systems when you have collective power behind you.
Those of you who have children of my age are familiar with the movie, Shrek. There is a wonderful part in the movie where a little army of small men is sent to arrest Shrek. They turned up at Shrek’s bog, and the major general in front holds up this little sheet, and say, “We have been sent by the king to tell you that you have to vacate this place.” Now, what the major general didn’t realize was that as soon as Shrek stepped out of his hut, the entire army deserted him. Shrek [replied], “You are going to arrest me? You and what army?” The little major general turned around, only to find there was no army. Sadly, my sisters, that will be the reality, and has been the reality, of many women who are in politics and who are not accountable.
Against the Motion: I am really amazed. Is Shrek now the symbol of feminism? My sisters who call themselves feminists, what are you doing on the sidelines? Why can’t you get into the system and change it from there? You have been patronizing us. Your language is not familiar to us. You come, you don’t even argue for the use of local languages in our parliaments. You come with your patronizing voice, and you expect us to make the change that we all need. Why don’t you join politics to strengthen our voices as women? We need to fight from within, not from without.
Your capacity-building programs: they are so limited, because you don’t have a political agenda. Where is your political agenda? Without a political agenda, how can you support us in parliament? You have decided to remain in your comfort zones. You know what has been happening? In some countries, women have refused to take vice-presidential positions because they feel they need something better. And this is because of a political agenda women have provided. We need an agenda that recognizes our differences as women, that unites us across our various boundaries, our various differences, our various orientations. We are not one homogenous group. We are made of different categories of people, and [we’re talking about] transformational change. It will not occur with women alone. We have to bridge those gaps, we have to make those alliances. And those so-called feminists who are sitting on the fence, in their comfort zones, and telling us how to do politics, we want them inside.
Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi (Moderator): Ladies, and the few gentlemen who are with us, we now have to bring this exciting, informative, exhilarating, invigorating, interesting debate to a close. I will not attempt to recap all we have heard. I would just like to leave us with some thoughts.
It seems as if a lot of work has gone into this agenda, a lot of really great work. But somewhere along the line, in doing that work, we have not been explicit in our demands and about our expectations of women in decision-making. So, maybe henceforth, as you continue your capacity-building programs, your empowerment programs, your mobilization programs, your grooming programs, [you ensure that] they go hand in hand with explicit demands and explicit expectations of what you would like to see of women once they get into decision-making positions.
And as for women in decision-making positions, we hear your pleas for better communication. We know that you are extremely busy women. You have to juggle your demands with your political office, with your parties, with your constituencies, with your families. [There are many] trips you have to make for official and non-official reasons. But the feminist movement, which has fought so hard for you to get to these positions, has very specific concerns about the rights of women. About women’s poverty, about women’s access to land, around violence against women, around women’s access to abortion, and a whole range of issues that we know are important to you as well. But because you are so busy trying to manipulate a system that you don’t know much about, and which is so hostile to you, you don’t have time.
We hope that both of you will find some meeting ground as we go forward because we know that this is an ongoing conversation. The debate did not start today; it started many years ago, and it’s going to continue for a while to come. I would like to think, from what I’ve heard from the two parties and the supporters’ clubs, we have not wasted our time getting women into decision-making!