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Women Parliamentarians: Caucusing for Equality and Effectiveness

Governance Village
March 23, 2009

Last week, as a group of eleven women passed through security at a federal building in Washington, DC, a security guard asked where the group was from. “Sudan,” one of them answered. “Where are the men?” he followed-up. After a brief pause, one replied, “At home, fighting each other.”

The group is part of a women’s parliamentary caucus – the only cross-party caucus in the National Legislature of Sudan. Including all 82 women members of the upper and lower houses, members represent a range of regions, ethnicities and religious communities. Through support from the Parliamentary Centre and The Institute for Inclusive Security, representatives were in New York to attend the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women and in Washington, DC to advocate for women’s inclusion in decision-making.

Around the world, women’s parliamentary caucuses are establishing themselves as effective bodies for strengthening democratic governance. In conflict-affected societies in particular, women’s caucuses are helping bridge social divisions, bolster marginalized voices, and strengthen legislative branches of government.

Sudanese women parliamentarians formed their caucus less than two years ago, but as members explain, “It was a baby born with teeth.” They worked with civil society to achieve a quota guaranteeing women a minimum of 25 percent of the seats in the National Assembly. Members reviewed the budget to ensure its sensitivity to gender issues. They convened a conference with women legislators in state and local bodies from throughout the country. Now looking ahead to elections scheduled for later this year, they’re traveling around Sudan to encourage other women to vote and run for office.

In building the Legislature’s only cross-party caucus, women are modeling the pragmatism and collaboration the international community has long called for and Sudanese citizens have long awaited. When one of the two parties to the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, suspended its participation in the Government of National Unity in 2007, many wondered whether the governing coalition would reunite. During that time, however, the women’s caucus continued to meet.

In Rwanda, where Inclusive Security worked closely with the women’s caucus, members demonstrated women parliamentarians’ unique contributions to fostering good governance. In developing gender-based violence legislation, the group put forward the first substantive piece of legislation initiated by the legislature rather than the executive branch. Equally significant to the content of the legislation was the process through which it was created. The women’s caucus convened Rwandans for public discussions across the country. Their consultations gathered data for the bill, built widespread support for its introduction, and strengthened connections between citizens and their representatives. The caucus then invited male parliamentarians to co-sponsor the bill, further broadening its support and appeal.

Increasingly, data is proving the effectiveness of women’s caucuses, including in areas not emerging from conflict. A US study revealed, for instance, that of the five state legislatures that passed the most legislation related to women’s, children’s, and family interests, four had formal women’s caucuses. None of the states with the worst records on these types of legislation had a women’s caucus.

Experiences from Sudan and Rwanda echo what women members of parliament elsewhere tell development partners. In interviews with members of the Parliamentary Centre’s Africa-Canada Parliamentary Strengthening Program gender network, the word used most frequently by members of parliament was ‘empowerment’. “Participation has been very good for me,” said one, “I have been empowered.”

This confidence results in part from being able to draw strength from numbers. With important influence from program participants, quota systems in Niger and Ethiopia substantially increased the number of women members of parliament in both countries. In Uganda, reserved seats for women were saved from electoral counter-reform. All were considered stand-alone outcomes of the program, which was funded by the Canadian International Development Agency, which also supports the Centre’s Peacebuilding and Strengthening Parliamentary Institutions in Sudan project.

Numbers alone, however, are insufficient. Women parliamentarians – and through them, women’s caucuses - need technical support.

“Budgetary oversight is increasingly viewed by male and female members of parliament alike as job number one,” says Parliamentary Centre President, Amelita Armit, “Demand for assistance in gender budgeting is especially high.” The disproportionate number of women and girls living without equal access to resources which address their basic social, educational, and health needs requires serious scrutiny of estimates of government spending. Building capacity for this kind of scrutiny will be the focus of the Centre’s next phase of pan-Africa programming.

Inclusive Security will continue to deliver support and advocate for technical assistance and financial resources to be directed in areas key to advancing the capacity and confidence of women legislators. These include conducting research to inform legislative priorities; clarifying the separation of powers and the roles, responsibilities, and opportunities of legislators; teaching skills such as public speaking and lobbying and encouraging women to run for office and providing campaign strategies and know-how.

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