Women and Politics

Tawakkul Karman, Leymah Gbowee, Ellen Johnson Sireleaf accept the Nobel Peace Prize.
Photo by Harry Wad.

Early October of each year I wonder who will receive that one phone call from Oslo - who will be awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize this year, I muse, while trying to name my own list of candidates. In 2011, the winners were three women: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the President of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist also from Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, a pro-democracy campaigner from Yemen. They jointly received the honor “for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women’s rights to full participation in peace-building work.” According to the Norwegian Nobel Committee, “[w]e cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society.” 

President Obama, in congratulating the 2011 laureates, expressed his conviction this way: “When women and girls have the opportunity to pursue their education and careers of their choosing, economies are more likely to prosper. And when women assume their rightful place as equals – in the halls of government and at the negotiating table, and across civil society – governments are more effective, peaceful resolution of disputes are more lasting, and societies are more likely to meet the aspirations of all of their citizens.

The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of WomenUN Women – and the Inter-Parliamentary Union recently published the “Women in Politics: 2012” map in which they rank, per country, the percentage of women in ministerial and parliament positions. The statistics are telling. Of the countries with a unicameral parliamentary system, Andorra has the highest percentage of women parliamentarians, 50%, followed by Cuba with 45.2% and Sweden with 44.7%.  In countries where Parliament consists of both a Lower House and an Upper House or Senate, Rwanda leads the way with 56.3% women in the Lower House, while Bolivia has the highest percentage of women in the Upper House or Senate, 47.2%.

During a recent press conference to celebrate UN Women’s first anniversary, Ms. Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women, reported on the achievements within the first year of operations, the challenges ahead and the priorities for 2012. UN Women has six priorities:

  • advancing women’s political participation and leadership;
  • improving women’s economic empowerment;
  • ending violence against women and girls;
  • expanding the role of women in peace talks, peace-building, and recovery;
  • making budgets and plans benefit women and men equally;
  • increasing coordination and accountability across the UN system for gender equality.

Naming her priorities for 2012, Ms. Bachelet stated that “to make a renewed push for women’s economic empowerment and political participation” will top her list. “This is in response to women’s demands and also to recent events, to the transformations taking place in the political, social and economic spheres” she said.

Living in 19th Century Europe, Madeleine Sophie Barat only indirectly advocated for a role of women in public life. Neither a political leader nor an activist herself, she chose education with the goal “to educate girls so that they could have a transforming influence in society” (Maryvonne Keraly, rscj).

Through the myriad ways in which we express our educational mission today, the Society around the world places a strong emphasis on youth leadership development and the empowerment of women. Both make me muse again – where and how do we model, foster and encourage the desire in young women to become leaders in the political arena, to become leaders in peace-building, visionary servant leaders?

Cecile Meijer, rscj
March 2012