International Day of Democracy and Women’s Political Empowerment

15 Sep 2010

By Dr. Francisco Roquette, UNDP Belize Assistant Resident Representative

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution in 2007 (A/62/7), establishing 15 September as the International Day of Democracy. This year’s celebration reminds us of the importance of democratic governance, through citizens’ participation in sound planning, decision-making, provision of public services (including transparency in procurement and service delivery), monitoring and evaluation, for the achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015, for humanity as a whole, and Belize in particular.

It is my belief that the International Day of Democracy provides a great opportunity to highlight some of the UNDP’s lessons learned in the area of governance throughout the globe and reflect on how these can be of benefit to Belize. In achieving the Millennium Development Goals, democratic governance is crucial in providing the responsive institutional framework – understood as laws and strategies, organizational structures and business processes as well as human resource capacity to respond to citizens’ needs – necessary to fight poverty.

Democracy and good governance are particularly important in achieving the Millennium Development Goal number 3 – promote gender equality and empower women –, since equal participation of women and men at all decision making levels is fundamental (indeed a sub-indicator of Goal 3 is ‘proportion of seats held by women in national parliament’). In Belize, women face significant challenges to have equal opportunities at the highest levels of government. While there are 31 members of the House of Representatives, none of these seats is currently held by a woman (and there are no female ministers). The figures are better for the upper house or senate, with 5 female Senate members. Nonetheless, analyzing the listing of women who have served as ministers from 1979 to 2008, indicates that female participation in electoral politics still has a long way to go in Belize: 1979-1989: Parliamentary Secretary and Deputy Minister of Health Jane Usher; 1989-1993: none; 1993-1998: Hon. Faith Babb (Minister of State); 1998-2003: Hon. Dolores Balderamos-Garcia; 2000-2003: Hon. Ana Patty Arceo; 2003-2008: Hon. Sylvia Flores; 2007-2008: Sen. the Hon. Lisa Shoman; and 2008-present: none. Of note however, is that, the 2006 municipal elections registered a sharp increase in the number of female candidates and village council elections in June of this year also as seen an increase in female participation.

While there are many women holding CEO, heads of departments and senior public servants positions, the prevailing under-representation of women at the highest levels of decision-making in Belize represents a fundamental democratic deficit; strong political commitment is critical in addressing this challenge through empowered gender mechanisms and gender sensitive policies. The UNDP works all over the world (166 countries) in the area of democratic governance – namely judicial systems, anti-corruption, local governance and public administration reform, access to information, electoral systems and processes, parliamentary development, civic engagement and gender empowerment – and its knowledge department (www.undp.org/governance) has collected concrete field experiences in women political empowerment that are relevant and can be use for the benefit of Belize. Evaluation findings of projects supported by UNDP point in the direction of a holistic approach to women political empowerment focusing mainly on three levels: a) legal quota; b) the structure of political parties and c) sensitization of political leaders in order to include gender and women empowerment in their strategic visioning. This is also the experience gained in many EU member states (Sweden and Norway, for example): when legal frameworks, institutional structures and political parties are effective and committed to ensure equal rights and benefits for women, there is a higher probability that a change of values at individual and cultural level in order to fully include women in political life happens. Concrete measures that may help to achieve quick wins include special temporary measures for women representation in the parliament such as legal quota (and more broadly a conducive legal framework that guarantees women political rights); at least 50% of the political parties represented in the parliament with gender sensitised party programmes; and members of the parliament trained and sensitize for the empowerment of women in the Parliament, leading to a strong commitment from the side of governmental institutions and political parties. While the revision of the 2002 Gender Policy of Belize will strengthen the human rights framework of the policy, inclusion of men in gender dialogue remains key for the overall success of gender initiatives. Additionally, other countries’ experience show that strong networking of women – from NGOs and government institutions to women in households, schools, clinics and, of course, politics – in order to push for both design and implementation of the above mentioned initiatives.

In Belize, notwithstanding other initiatives, of particular relevance is the Women in Politics Project, a UNIFEM funded project being implemented by the National Women’s Commission, which came about when the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) in its concluding comments to Belize in 2007 urged Belize ‘to establish concrete goals, such as quotas and timetables, to accelerate achievement of substantive equality between men and women for each area of the convention’. The project aims to empower women, particularly young and indigenous women, to stand for village, municipal/town council or general elections. To date the WIP project has graduated 47 such women – and their example should be praised and supported. The Youth Enhancement Services (YES) is also playing an important role in empowering young women to lead independent, secure and fulfilling lives through education, skills training, advocacy and outreach and, along with other non-governmental organizations (e.g. Women’s Issues Network), are laudable initiatives encourage Belizean women to be aware of their rights.

Although it was only in 1954 that Belizean women received the right to vote and stand for election, it is interesting to note that historically ‘women were creators of and activists within the two principal political currents of twentieth-century Belize: colonial-middle class reform and popular labor-nationalism’ (“From colony to nation: women activists and the gendering of politics in Belize, 1912-1982”, Macpherson, 2007, University of Nebraska Press). This book argues that ‘their alliances and struggles with colonial administrators, male reformers, and nationalists and with one another were central to the emergence of this improbable nation-state’. Women’s role in the past, present and future of Belize is undeniable – and I urge Belizeans to celebrate exactly that in this September’s festivities and indeed come together to promote and improve women representation in the political bodies of the country.

As we commemorate the 2010 International Day of Democracy, it is worth highlighting its true significance: democracy is concrete, its results very visible for fundamental rights of both men and women and represents both a means and an end in itself that brings about human development and achievement of Millennium Development Goals in Belize.