Activities for the annual observation of 16 Days of Activism to End Violence Against Women are being promoted once more to raise awareness about this important issue. Essential as it is to remind everyone that this issue must be addressed, it is important to evaluate whether heightened awareness has reduced violence. Sadly, the data indicates that violence against women has not been reduced. This may be partly because more women are reporting violence rather than just accepting it as a fact of life, but the fact remains that violence against women is still a huge problem. Awareness can therefore be seen as a necessary but not sufficient component in reducing gender violence.
Violence occurs when there is a real or perceived power imbalance between the parties involved and thus the perpetrator feels free to inflict violence on the victim. Actions to redress this imbalance must therefore be an integral part of the response and this means that we must address the inequity of female representation within the decision making apparatus. Only 36 lower houses of parliament worldwide have reached the 30% threshold considered necessary for women to have a meaningful impact on political decision making. By this measure the United Kingdom at 23% and the United States of America at 18% both fail, and Belize with 3% elected females and less than 10% counting appointees is very near the bottom of the pile. Contending for political office is a daunting task for anyone but for a multitude of reasons the system is even more difficult to navigate for women than for men. This includes lack of role models, lack of family and social support, fear of violence, fear of lost reputation and multiple family responsibilities that leave little time for running a political campaign. Women are generally uncomfortable with adversarial systems, and through socialisation and maybe biology they are generally modest and reticent about promoting their own competence and other virtues. (Numerous studies have shown this effect in business, politics and other social occasions.)
This makes First Past the Post (FPP) voting arrangements that exist in the majority of countries where elections are held particularly challenging for women. In fact, almost all the countries where significant progress has been made in reaching more equal representation practise some form of proportional representation. However, changing the voting system is not an easy task and requires non-partisan support from all the various interests and political parties involved. Getting politicians (especially male politicians who often do not even think that female under-representation is really a problem) to agree on anything is never easy and any measure that they consider a threat to their ability to win elections will be a hard sell. If one political party supports the measure then the others will smell a conspiracy and campaign against it. The so-called social partners in Belize may pay the idea lip service but parity of female representation is clearly lacking within their own organisations so they have a lot of house cleaning to do before they can lecture anyone else. Women therefore cannot just sit and hope that men (who are in power) will change a system they are comfortable with.
One measure that does seem to be having some success, especially in Africa where 11 countries have reached or exceeded 30% female representation, is the introduction of quota systems. The difficulty is therefore not in finding a suitable quota system to implement in Belize because there are already many successful models to choose from. The problem is in getting the political will and momentum to make it happen. Politicians have a lot to think about – there are constituents who need goods and services; there is the need to run damage control when something bad happens; there are campaigns for re-election to plan and run including internal conventions; and for some there are Ministries and a government to run. Our male politicians from all political stripes will not take up the baton for introducing a quota system and our very few female politicians have to work double time to avoid being marginalised by their male colleagues.
Change will only come about if we have the political will and this political will can only be forged by women. Just like the suffragettes who campaigned for female suffrage (the right to vote) we need women to come together to plan 100 days of Activism to force our male politicians to support and implement a compulsory quota system. It is the suffragettes who gave us the greatest weapon we might need – the power to withdraw our votes – and we must find the collective political will to use it.The Guardian