Friday, December 6, 2013

Women On Top

By Naomi Steer, National Director, Australia for UNHCR 

It can be lonely at the top – and no more so than for women in public life who, despite the rewards, also face daily scrutiny, sometimes personal vilification and in some cases even violence.

 If the recently published  IPU Women in National Parliaments ranking is anything to go by, it looks like it will be even lonelier with Australia’s  ranking of 43, well behind our sisters in New Zealand (25), Denmark (13) and perhaps surprisingly, number one-ranked Rwanda.

However, in this at least we are not alone. The report Sex and Power 2013: Who Runs Britain? by the Centre for Women and Democracy, bemoans the falling numbers of women in the UK in senior levels of the judiciary, education, the arts, finance, the civil service and government.

The UK now sits at a dismal 58 on the global parliamentary ranking. Some might argue, “so what?” Unlike many countries higher up on the scale, British women, like their Australian counterparts, enjoy equal access to education, health care and employment – but this has all been achieved against a background of strong advocacy for equal opportunity backed up by legal and institutional support. And these are also being eroded through a lack of funding and closure. The report expresses concern over what it describes as the “the erasure“ of women in public life and how this will effect in time the very rights we take for granted.

"Women are a majority (51%) of the population, but power is concentrated in the hands of a minority," the Sex and Power report says. "This damages the interests of women and men as well as the country as a whole."

I was lifted out of my despondency over these negative trends by a joyful lunch hosted by the Governor–General, Ms Quentin Bryce AC CVO, in Canberra last week in honour of the leader of the National League for Democracy in Myanmar and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Aung San Suu Kyi AC. The guest list was an eclectic and impressive group of women representing many of the sectors that are now so endangered in the UK.

Will it go the same way here? At least for this lunch I could say we looked in good shape. And how could we not be in a positive and indeed celebratory mood in the presence of a woman who has inspired many other women with her determination, grace, intellect and courage.

In the flesh Daw Suu, as she is often referred to by the Burmese, is as beautiful and elegant as imagined but also down to earth and very human. No remote “iron” lady but a woman of immense substance and warmth.

For three long decades Daw Suu has struggled for democracy. To us it appears to have been at great personal cost, including separation from her husband and children as well as years of isolating house arrest. But she is quick to point out she was never alone. She had the support of her party, millions of Burmese and the international community symbolically represented by the award of the Nobel Peace Prize.

As she stated in her Nobel lecture in 2012, ”When I joined the democracy movement in Burma it never occurred to me that I might ever be the recipient of any prize or honour. The prize we were working for was a free, secure and just society where our people might be able to realize their full potential. The honour lay in our endeavour. History had given us the opportunity to give of our best for a cause in which we believed. When the Nobel Committee chose to honour me, the road I had chosen of my own free will became a less lonely path to follow”.

Now as Myanmar is at another crossroads, Daw Suu is concerned that the winds of change may have lulled, and the desire both within the military leadership and foreign powers for full democracy may have stalled. This doesn’t bode well for increasing women’s participation in public life, with currently only 20 women in the newly elected 659-seat Myanmar parliament.As I sat opposite the Governor-General, herself a moral force in Australia, I marvelled at these two women who have devoted so much of their life to public good and to the service of others.

Quentin Bryce, the first woman to be appointed head of state, has made a unique contribution to the role of the Governor-General. She has defined the role by reaching out to Australian civil society in all its dimensions, some of which were highlighted in her recent series of Boyer lecturers for the ABC. She has also ensured that women who so often are the foundations of these communities have had a champion in the nation’s highest office, and a welcoming space to meet, network and give voice to the aspirations of women.

Only a day earlier I had hosted another forum for women, this time around the status of women in Africa, with our key note speaker the Zimbabwean Ambassador to Australia H. E Jacqueline Zwambila.

Appointed as Zimbabwe’s representative to Australia in 2010, as part of the power-sharing arrangements between the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) and the Mugabe-led Zanu PF, Ambassador Zwambila was one of five diplomats appointed around the world from the MDC. Her role has been an extremely challenging one given the shifting power arrangements in her country.

Matters reached a very personal boiling point when Ambassador Zwambila became the target of slanderous and totally unfounded allegations – of the nature high-profile women, including in Australia, appear to attract – by political opponents. At least one Australian media outlet carelessly repeated the claims. However, far from being cowered, this grandmother, business woman, political activist and now respected diplomat, sued the paper for defamation and won. She will see out the rest of her diplomatic posting with the endorsement of her country.

Despite her rough house political experiences, Ambassador Zwambila is determined to encourage more women to engage in politics in her homeland. She believes that the higher percentage of women in parliament, the better outcomes for women throughout society. Why? Because a parliament with more women is more likely to enact more equitable laws, have more stable and secure political environments, and enable better access to education and health care.

President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, one of only three women heads of government in Africa, and herself a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, acknowledges the difficulties of being sometimes the only women, or indeed the “first’” woman, but chooses to see the future opportunities. As she said, “People sometimes like to ask whether I believe I would have accomplished more or less as a man. I don’t have to hesitate to answer that one—I would have accomplished far, far less. I would have been, really, just another man. I think that as a woman I was an exception, and being an exception gave me both the visibility and the drive to succeed. I was ahead of my time, but I am no longer alone. We are breaking barriers daily; in another decade there will be hundreds of women in real positions of leadership all over Africa and all over the world. I take pride in having helped trample down those barricades. I have been one of the lucky ones.”

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