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Add women, change politics

How Rwanda is doing the math better than Canada

written by Erin Brown
March 11, 2016 1:36 am

It’s International Women’s Day on Mar. 8, and as we should, we’ve turned it into a weeklong extraganza of women supporting women so that they might recognize their potential and seek whatever future they choose.

Celebrating our mothers, wives, girlfriends, our CEOs, our cabinet ministers and our game-changers, International Women’s Day is a day to recognize the accomplishments of women from right-to-vote activist Nellie McClung to top-free activist Gwen Jacob.

Our Canadian government this year is doing a fantastic job by showing they will participate in, and hosting, a number of events for IWD 2016. This is great because, despite what we all claim are our best efforts, women only make up 26 per cent of the House of Commons.

In 1993, a historic 476 women ran to be elected to the Parliament of Canada. By 2006, the number of women putting their name forward to seek public office dropped, and has been seeing small fluctuations rising and falling ever since.

The 2016 federal election saw a record number of women elected, with a grand total of 88. Despite this large gain, fewer women ran for election than in previous elections. We have more women getting elected, but less women running for office. Why?

In Rwanda, the world’s leading country for number of female parliamentarians, women make up 63.8 per cent of the lower house of their Parliament. 24 of the 88 seats of the Rwandan member’s chamber is reserved for women, and women chair the majority of parliamentary committees. While there is a quota in place to elect women, the country has elected more and more women each election, surpassing this policy.

Two decades ago, Rwanda was emerging from the disaster of a mass genocide, which killed approximately 1 million people, and left the country in a broken state. During this time, women in rural Rwanda were often illiterate, faced social challenges in the home, and across the country made up less than 18 per cent of the government.

In 2000, the government of Rwanda made the conscious decision that if they were ever to prosper again as a country, they must make inclusiveness and equality their priority. The government adopted a gender-balanced constitution, and made a 12-person government research committee to explore why women don’t enter politics—and in the smartest decision they could have made, had this committee run by women.

Judith Kanakuze, who was one of the lead members of this committee, introduced the idea that this gender-balanced constitution must be participatory and crafted in a way that ensures the equal rights of men and women—explaining to the population the importance of gender equality and how it fosters national development. By 2003, the percentage of women elected to the Rwandan Chamber of Deputies was 50 per cent, and the United Nations had classified Rwanda as a country that was economically and socially on its way to being a developed country.

Juliana Katengwa is a Deputy Member of the Rwandan parliament, and in her opinion piece for Left Foot Forward in 2013, she philosophizes that it was not the quota for women elected that lead to the large influx of female parliamentarians, but rather the grassroots community support.

Kantengwa states that both men and women joined together to educate their communities on the political process. They educated women on how to vote and how to seek office, helping women build networks to larger groups. Men stepped forward to teach the men in their lives that female leadership was crucial to a country’s success, while women stepped forward to support the women in their lives to realize their potential. This societal shift created a culture of confidence in their women and girls that decades ago they would have never thought possible.

I can in no way believe that women in Canada don’t want to run for office, or don’t care about politics. I know too many young women who want to tackle climate change head-on, who spend their days fighting social injustices in their schools, and who are passionate about the future of our country. These young women are powerful enough to change the world, they just haven’t been told it yet.

We cannot rely solely on organizations like Equal Voice to tell our women that they should bring their ideas to the House. We as a national community must make a conscious effort to not undermine our women’s ideas. Encouraging a woman to run for office goes beyond “you should do that;” it’s about supporting her through the long election process, helping her network, and building financial and party supports.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau simply said it best when he declared that “It’s 2015.” It’s past time we started challenging the media in their portrayal of our female MPs compared to their male colleagues, it’s past time we started asking for accountability of misogyny in the House, and it’s past time we had a more family-friendly working environment for all of our MPs, regardless of gender. These steps are how Rwanda is beating Canada in increasing its percentage of women in politics.

Communications, strategy, and policy are all parts of the equation of a successful government. In the 2015 federal election, Canadians voted for a real change from what they were used to, and the government seems to be on their way to providing what they promised. Just add women.

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