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Six important learnings from gender equality champions in parliaments

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Charles Chauvel and Agata Walzcak

It’s been more than 20 years since the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on the Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Agenda. With support from the Government of Norway, UNDP recently convened members of parliament for a series of South-South knowledge exchanges on how the WPS Agenda can catalyze positive change, especially in the context of the COVID-19 response.

Members of Parliament from Bangladesh, Eswatini, Guatemala, Kenya, Sri Lanka and Tanzania attended. Despite differences in geography and development status, six common themes emerged, each highly relevant as UNDP debates its new gender strategy.

1. Enlist male allies

Gender equality can never be the responsibility of women alone. Getting things done in politics is, at its crudest, a numbers game. So while the leadership of women MPs is critical, in isolation it will almost always be insufficient. Eswatini parliamentarians shared how male MPs have supported sexual and reproductive rights campaigns during the pandemic, and a parliamentary motion to declare a surge in gender-based violence a national emergency. Empowering women MPs to find the most effective ways to enlist the support of their male colleagues, while building the commitments to advance pro-women laws and policy, is critical.

2. It’s a waste to preach to the choir

“Whether we are dealing with vaccinations, or with PPE distribution, curfew, education, jobs, we clearly recognize that gender must be part of all of them.” - Hon. Prof. Jacqueline Oduol, Kenya

Kenya’s pandemic response was initially overseen by an ad-hoc COVID committee, and later by existing sectoral committees. Gender was not constantly integrated. The message from MPs was clear; for development partners to engage only committees working on matters traditionally regarded as “women’s issues” misses the mark. Gender equality and women, peace, and security are the responsibility of all, since they are equally accountable to women constituents. The work of the finance and defence committees so often ignorantly stereotyped as “mens’ business”, is just as important as health, educationand social services committee. They all need gender-mainstreamed term of reference and rules of procedure.

And women are not a one-dimensional group, noted Hon. Aroma Dutta from Bangladesh. Sure, gender equality programming and work to ensure leaving no one behind are distinct. But when designed and implemented together, they can have an effect beyond the mere sum of their parts. Just ask women and girls with disabilities; or those from an ethnic, religious, or linguistic minority about the difference in quality and impact between holistic and ad hoc services.

3. Numbers are necessary, but insufficient

As the number of women in politics continue to grow, albeit slowly, it is also clear that something more is needed. More women means little by way of substantive change in law and policy unless accompanied by a change in attitude. To be effective in institutions originally designed by and for men, women must have equal access to resources, education, mentoring, training, and career advancement. Until it is just as usual for a women to be the minister in charge of the security services as it is to be minister of health, change remains quantitative rather than qualitative.

4. If it’s not in the budget, it doesn’t exist

“The success of gender sensitive laws has everything to do with the budget.” - Sofia Vasquez, Gender Analyst, UNDP Guatemala

Countries are increasingly embracing gender mainstreaming. If, as too often happens, such measures lack adequate funding, they fail. The gateway for the allocation of public resources, the parliamentary budget process, is one of the key determinants of the quality of public policy. Gender-responsive budgeting (GRB) systematically integrates a gender perspective into the budget process. A highly technical exercise, it requires MPs and those who work with them to develop a very specific set of skills. These skills must be mainstreamed in the oversight of COVID-19 responses, as witnessed by the work of the Senate Committees on Finance and Health in Guatemala. They are equally essential to secure the institutionalization and resourcing of gender equality within the parliamentary institution. In Sri Lanka, women members successfully advocated and operationalized a gender-sensitive budget approach in 2018.

5. Inclusivity, integrity, and respect are bulwarks against gendered violence

‘The way in which we can have (a strong voice for gender equality) is by being politically mature and being inclusive to the views and positions of all women and person of diverse SOGIESC.” Marleni Matias, President of the Forum for Women, Guatemala

The WPS and gender equality agendas are not about idealizing women. Some will be elected only to pursue agendas of populism and division. It’s far more important to highlight the importance of an inclusive public space for persons of diverse sexual orientations and gender identities whose positions on key issues will necessarily diverge. Low representation of Indigenous MPs must also be addressed

Inclusivity, integrity, and respectful, evidence-based discourse can act as a powerful bulwark against the rising tide of online and in-person violence against politically active women. MPs from Guatemala noted that the WPS agenda can indicate ways to talk meaningfully about gender and security in the most contested areas. These include sexual and reproductive rights in places where anti-gender movements and where sexist patriarchal perspectives prevail.

6. Democratic supply is window-dressing without democratic demand

“We all have different roles. Unless we (MPs and civil society) can work together, we won’t be able to activate policies needed for transformative change.” - Hon. Aroma Dutta, Bangladesh

In tandem with the SDGs, the WPS agenda places people at the heart of sustainable human development and human security. Such systematic relationships depend on the existence of accountable institutions and the demand for such accountability. That demand needs to be fostered and developed especially for those for women, young people and all those at risk of being left behind.

In Eswatini, MPs have been working with women-led NGOs to address the rise in gender-based violence during the pandemic. In Bangladesh, an extensive consultative process with civil society yielded a people-centred WPS National Action Plan for 2019-2022. In 2020, successful partnerships between women’s rights defenders secured the continuation after a crisis of Guatemala’s Council for Women's Equality, a principal coordinating mechanism for the rights and participation of women. In Kenya, where no law can pass without public consultation, the quality of engagement remains an issue. A lack of awareness and information regarding the opportunities and processes for participation is the main challenge, noted Senator Mercy Chebeni.

Institutional development goes with the empowerment of broad and diverse public engagement. Supporting more systematic relationships between parliaments and civil society was identified as priority for addressing today’s gender gaps. It was observed more than once that one of the most effective partnerships for enduring, inclusive change is a systemic and well-resourced one between MPs and society.