Yolonda C. Richardson

(WOMENSENEWS)–Here’s to the women of Kuwait!

Women in Kuwait, who won the right to vote in May, just achieved another milestone: The country’s first female cabinet minister was sworn in as minister of planning and administrative development in late June.

Kuwaiti women join their sisters in Afghanistan, who cast their first votes in that country’s historic presidential election last year, and Iraqi women, who went to the polls in January.

This is a critical step, but it is only a first step in ensuring that women’s issues and concerns are addressed fully and fairly in policy.

Just ask the women of Iran how much farther there is to go. There, women have had the right to vote since the 1960s, but just publicly protested for women’s rights after the country’s Guardian Council disqualified all female candidates in Iran’s recent presidential election.

In Arab countries where women can vote, they only hold about 8 percent of the seats in national parliaments, the lowest regional average in the world. This compares with around 15 percent for the United States, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Nordic countries still lead the way, as a region, in women’s political leadership, with almost 40 percent of parliamentary seats going to women. Nowhere in the world, however, have women reached 50 percent of the leadership positions, although Rwanda is coming the closest, with women comprising nearly 49 percent of the National Assembly.

Why Does It Matter?

Why does it matter? Until women are fully represented in local, national and international decision-making bodies, their issues won’t be priorities. And, they won’t be able to allocate resources to their priorities. Research shows that women in legislatures give more attention than men to issues that affect their lives, whether it’s support for their children’s education or their parents’ health care. Put simply, when women lead, their sisters, families and communities are more likely to benefit.

What will it take for Kuwaiti and other women to not just go to the polls, but run for office and lead their nations?

We’ve learned at the Centre for Development and Population Activities that growing women’s leadership takes more than voting rights, though that of course is a critical basic step.

It also takes investments in women and their communities to train future leaders and mobilize community support for women in governance. We must also demand a commitment to women’s leadership at the highest institutional levels, including appointments to both national and international bodies.

Women in the Middle East and worldwide need greater skills and understanding about the policy process.

We must increase training to unleash the leadership potential of women and build the pipeline of future women leaders.

During the past three decades, the center’s staff has trained over 5,000 leaders in more than 140 countries. Our approach is to build the technical, leadership and management skills of women in an environment that encourages peers to learn from each other. Our training participants develop community action plans, videotape and review each others’ presentations to improve public speaking skills, refine messages to use in advocacy or with the media, and hear from other experts about the latest developments in their fields.

Raising Their Voices

These women returned to their communities to raise their voices about the placement of schools, violence against women, availability of girls’ education and the type and quality of healthcare services.

Over time, with increased skills and confidence, they moved into leadership positions. Massouda Jalal, who became the first Afghan woman to run for president in that country’s election last year and who is now the minister of women’s affairs in Afghanistan, is an example. Other alumni include the former vice president of Uganda and the minister of health in Kenya.

Deeply entrenched barriers continue to exclude women from the political arena and building community support for women’s political participation is critical. When women joined the May 25 pro-democracy protests in Egypt, for example, they were singled out for sexual assault.

Women in conflict, post-conflict and transitional environments are particularly disadvantaged. In post-conflict Guatemala, we worked with indigenous women during the implementation of the 1996 peace accords. These women participated in leadership training to challenge their government to integrate indigenous women’s rights into the rebuilding of their nation. One alumna, Manuela Alvarado, was one of two indigenous women elected to the Guatemalan Congress during that time.

Open Pathways to Leadership

Finally, women need a commitment at the highest levels to open pathways for their leadership.

Activist women in Kuwait had ruler Sheikh Jabir al-Ahmad al-Sabah as their champion to push through the legislation that granted them the vote in an all-male parliament. But more can be done in many institutions. Today, for example, only 2.2 percent and 5.5 percent of the Board of Governors of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, respectively, are women. Our current global institutions can and must do better.

The Kuwaiti election of 2007 is the first election in which female voters will be eligible.

American women will celebrate that victory just as we celebrated the women of Afghanistan and Iraq, who proudly displayed their ink-stained fingers to cameras after casting their ballots.

But, as American women know only too well, it’s a long way from a Susan B. Anthony to a Senator Kay Bailey Hutchinson or Hillary Clinton. It’s an even longer way still to a madam president and 50 percent of Congress and the judiciary.

What more will we do to stand with the women of Kuwait and other women worldwide who want a seat at the table where decisions are made?

We must commit to working with them and other women to fulfill the full promise of women’s participation in decision-making. Then, we can build a more promising future for our daughters and theirs.

Yolonda C. Richardson is president and CEO of the Centre for Development and Population Activities, an international non-profit organization working to empower women at all levels of society to be full partners in development.

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