Some 92 years since women were first allowed to stand for parliament, Britain still has one of the smallest percentages of women in government in Europe. The cabinet has a woeful four female members, one of them (Lady Warsi) shipped in from the Lords (“a tacit admission that her party was unlikely to find her a safe seat” in the Commons according to Julian Baggini). As the recriminations and soul-searching over the lack of women in top political jobs continues, London’s Tricycle’s theatre is staging a cycle of twelve plays entitled Women, Power and Politics.
Inevitably, one of these looks at the tortured subject of all-women shortlists. I’ve always found this a difficult one. Surely, in this day and age, what could more undermine a female MP in the eyes of her colleagues, constituents and bosses than the suspicion that she’d only got the job because she had breasts and a womb? To me, Cameron’s decision to back the policy looked like a lazy, ill-conceived exercise in window dressing – symptomatic of the thin backbone of his “new” Conservatism.
I still have many of the same suspicions about the Tories, but a recent visit to Rwanda made me think again about what we now – sensitively – call “positive discrimination.”
Rwanda still bears the scars of the genocide of 1994 that left close to 1 million people dead, not least in the mentality of its citizens and leaders. But it has made astonishing progress in the 16 years since that traumatic event. Until the global economic downturn, it was enjoying double-digit GDP growth; even in 2009 its economy grew by 5.5%.
It’s frequently rated the best country in the region for doing business, the least affected by corruption. The streets are clean, crime is low – and much of this success is down to the government’s dogged determination to force change: to shed traditional hierarchies, and, among other things, to actively battle gender discrimination.
Under Rwanda’s constitution, one third of parliamentary seats have to be occupied by females. Over time, this has encouraged many talented women to come forward – people for whom working in government, less than a generation ago, would have been unthinkable.
Female MPs now make up a record 56% of the Rwandan parliament – a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world – and there are eight female cabinet members.
Having met many of these female parliamentarians, “window dressing” is the last description that springs to mind.
Neither does the one-third rule appear to have fostered a sense of entitlement. “We’re not just here just because we’re woman,” MP Constance Mukayuhi told me as we stood in the shadow of the Rwandan parliament in Kigali one afternoon in May.
“I’m here because I’ve performed for the last 11 years.” When elections come round, others tells me, the ruling RPF party ranks candidates strictly according to their track record. The RPF’s objective is, after all, to stay in power.
Fielding substandard candidates, just because of their preferred sex, would not serve this purpose too well.
Rwanda’s foreign minister Louise Mushikiwabo admits that meeting the one-third criteria is sometimes a challenge; they’ve found it tough to track down enough suitable female ambassadors, for instance. It’s something they’re still “working on” she says. But their active willingness to look for, encourage and promote able women puts the efforts of countries like our own to shame.
Of course, Rwanda has the (unenviable) advantage of having started entirely from scratch: after the devastation of the genocide, they needed to rebuild their country from “less than nothing,” as one lifelong Kigali resident put it.
But they used this moment as an opportunity; the country’s new constitution is the product of a long consultation and research process, where systems of government across the world were studied, and elements from many were identified, incorporated and refined.
So we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, comparing like with like. Yet seeing how much this country has achieved for women in the past decade, while affluent, conflict-free Britain has achieved so little, made me think again about the viability of positive discrimination – and even those dreaded all-female shortlists.
At a conference I attended in Kigali, Susan Page from the US state department told a story about how, early in her career, a male colleague assumed that she’d only got into Harvard because of its affirmative action policies.
That may have been so, she conceded, but she still had to do all the hard work to get herself out of Harvard. Just like everybody else.