Women's political inclusion is a key strategy for creating inclusive political organizations and participatory processes that strive to deliver on attaining gender and sexual justice. While the numbers of women in parliaments and in local government have risen globally (IPU 2014; UN Women 2014); women still experience significant gendered barriers in accessing and participating in politics and policy making spaces. Women’s ability to enter politics and their effective participation depends on being able to access material and social resources. Studies have largely focused on the impact of gender quotas in women entering politics—but few have explored how women’s ability to mobilize funds and material support for political campaigns and their reproductive responsibilities influence their decisions to participate in politics. We need to understand and address these dimensions for women’s political empowerment.
While studies on conflict resolution, peace building, and reconstruction have explored women’s ability to participate in these larger settlement processes and how women are excluded; few studies have explored how political violence and the threat of sexual harassment influence women’s ability to access participatory and political spaces and be active. This is key area where we need more evidence and policy measures that address these concerns, especially as these trends and dangers are being mirrored strongly in the growth of online and digital spaces. It is widely acknowledged that increasing the number of women in political parties, in elected offices and policy making spaces do not automatically lead to promotion of gender equity in politics. Women’s political inclusion is the first step, and creation of effective voice depends on: the terms of inclusion, the presence of critical allies (including male actors) inside the state and wider coalitions in civil society supporting gender equity concerns. We still lack systematic evidence on when do men become critical actors for promoting gender equity?
Research also shows that autonomous women’s movements are crucial for sustaining political pressure on the state and for strengthening women voice inside policy spaces. Moreover, international policy discourse has been critical as reference points for framing demands at the national level. There is a need to systematically explore how women’s movement actors and international discourses shape openings for gender equity in conflict settings.
Unpaid care responsibilities influence individual women’s ability to participate in politics. The Fawcett Society identifies four Cs that influence women’s to be effective politically: these include: confidence, CARE, culture, and cash. While there is a general agreement that care responsibilities effect women’s time and shapes their ability to access political spaces, few studies have explicitly focused on this aspect. Studies that have include the Pathways of Women’s Empowerment Research Consortium’s study on local level women councillors in seven different countries (Bangladesh, Ghana, Palestine, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Sudan), which include qualitative evidence illustrating how women representatives entered politics only after their children had grown up or if they had help from other family members for child-care or were able to employ someone to look after the children (Tadros ed. 2014). A recent study by Kenny (forthcoming) on the Scottish parliament revealed that unpaid care work was a significant factor in influencing whether women MPs were able to participate in political networking after hours and in parliamentary processes in the evenings. It is important to note that while hiring help for child-care and domestic work enable women to participate in politics, it also indicates that there is a class dimension to women’s political participation as poor women may be unable to hire help for child-care (Nazneen 2016). This barrier to participation is mirrored in sexual rights movements, which remain dominated by richer, male advocates, with the consequent impact on choice of campaign focus. Care responsibilities may also limit women’s ability to move up the political ladder. The women councillors at the local level in Ghana were reluctant to move beyond their roles as community leaders into mainstream politics at the regional and national levels. The women felt that they would be unable to effectively balance their care responsibilities within the home and to the demands of the constituents if they moved into higher echelons of politics (Manuh 2014).
While the evidence discussed here focuses on individual women’s decision to participate in politics, it should be noted that unpaid care work is based on social norms around gender division of labour. In Nicaragua, the provision of child care for women who are members of a national level farmer’s co-operatives (that engaged in discussing use of nature resource management, lobbying local governments etc.) showed that it enhanced women’s ability to participate in local decision-making processes and also in national level policy processes. Strategies for increasing women’s access to political spaces and increasing their representation require moving beyond gender quotas and creating public services for redistributing care responsibilities and changing social norms so that only women are not made responsible for unpaid care work.