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…from the Human Rights Instruments

Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law...

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 6)


21.(1) Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives...

(Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 21)


Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity, without any of the distinctions mentioned in article 2 and without unreasonable restrictions: (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections, which shall be by universal and equal suffrage, and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

(International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Part III, Article 25.)


States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in the political and public life of the country...shall ensure to women...the right: (a) To vote...(b) To participate in the formulation of government policy and the implementation thereof and to hold public office...

(Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Part II, Article 7.)


States Parties shall...ensure to women, on equal terms with men and without any discrimination, the opportunity to represent their Governments at the international level and to participate in the work of international organizations.

(Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, Part II, Article 8.)


…The empowerment and autonomy of women and the improvement of women's social, economic and political status is essential for the achievement of both transparent and accountable government and administration and sustainable development in all areas of life...Women's equal participation in decision-making is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women's interests to be taken into account. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women's perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace, cannot be achieved.

(Beijing Platform for Action, Chap. IV, para. 181.)


Owing to their limited access to the traditional avenues of power, such as the decision-making bodies of political parties, employer organizations and trade unions, women have gained access to power through alternative structures, particularly in the non-governmental organization sector. Through non-governmental organizations and grass-roots organizations, women have been able to articulate their interests and concerns and have placed women's issues on the national, regional and international agendas.

(Beijing Platform for Action, Chap. IV, para. 184.)



What is the political system in your country? Does it grant everyone the right to participate in public affairs?

Can women vote? How long have they had right to the vote?

Is there a difference in the proportion of women and men who vote?

Can women get elected? Can they get elected to the same positions as men? Can women hold public office? What is the highest level of power attained by a woman?

Can a woman be elected president? Prime minister?

Can women be judges? At what level?

Are there specific provisions to guarantee women’s representation?

What are they? Are there quotas for women?

List the different ways in which people organize to influence decision-making and exercize power?

Are all of these ways open to women?

Are there institutions in which women have more influence?

List the different levels at which power is exercized? (neighborhood, town, nation, etc.)

What kinds of decisions get made at different levels?

What kind of roles do women play at these different levels?

Make a list of ways other than voting and office holding in which women can influence the political process.

Do women have special organizations? What are they? How influential are they?

How do they operate?

Make a list of powerful women in your local and national environment--

Are they mostly active in local politics?

National politics?





What are their formal titles?

Do you know of powerful women in the past?

Ask older people to help you find their names and their stories. What did they do? What made them powerful?

Are older women in your community and country politically active?

Are young women politically active?


Political Participation is a Human Right

Over the past two decades, representative democracies have replaced authoritarian regimes in many parts of the developing world, as well as in Eastern and Central Europe. These ‘new democracies’ are beset by problems (such as the elitist character of political parties, the failure of states to guarantee a smooth and reliable use of all civil and political rights guaranteed on paper, the inability – and even the refusal to tackle economic injustices born from brutal transition to an open market). These problems affect all citizens, but they are manifested and experienced in gender-specific ways. In particular, the persistent marginalization of women in formal politics raises a number of specific questions about reforming democratic institutions, since these institutions are not automatically gender-equitable.

In a democracy, citizens are presumed to have equal rights, opportunities and a voice in the governance of the public domain. The right to vote is linked with the right to stand for office. Yet women are hugely under-represented in national assemblies and governments. Women’s political invisibility is particularly shocking in those countries where political mobilization of and by women had contributed to the demise of authoritarianism and the transition to democracy. But the problem is a more general one. Even in old democracies, women’s contribution is still severely limited, sometimes more so than in more recent states.

Ultimately, the goals of equality, development and peace require active participation of women and the incorporation of their perspectives at all levels of decision-making. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPFA) looked in three directions:

1.To take the necessary measures to ensure women’s equal access and full participation in political power structures and decision making.

2. To increase women’s capacity to participate in other arenas of decision-making and leadership.

3. To acknowledge, optimize and give women full credit for the responsibilities they are already shouldering and the experience they can transmit. To end their ‘invisibility’.

There can be no democracy without women’s participation in policymaking processes; citizenship must include rights to participate in the planning, deciding and implementing of public policy. The occasional exercise of voting rights every now and then is not enough to ensure full involvement in the public affairs of one’s society. Realistic and appropriate measures must be taken to ensure women's effective involvement in all public sectors, the agricultural sector, the industrial sector, the financial sector, environmental administration, development planning, as well as politics and policymaking.

The goal of democracy is an accountable government and a sound administration, capable of guaranteeing to all – women, men, youth and children – the fullness of their human rights, without which there can be no democracy worthy of its name: this requires the political empowerment and autonomy of women, the improvement of their social, economic and political condition. Equal participation in decision-making means institutions that more accurately reflect the composition of society, further strengthening democracy and promoting its proper functioning in all spheres of society. The goals of economic, social and cultural human rights, development and peace cannot be achieved without the active participation of women at all levels of decision-making.

Women’s particular needs in health, education, economic activity, the family, environment, and other spheres of public and private life must be taken into consideration as a regular part of policy-making and women themselves should be allowed to articulate these needs and their solution themselves, rather than having to rely on male proxies. The contemporary conception of democracy implies and requires participation of all sections of civil society in decisions about the use of resources and all other public matters. As a major constituency with specific needs, and as major players in civil society, women must have access to leadership positions.

The latest wave of democratization has not – on the whole – changed drastically the relative importance of women in parliaments and local governments. Deeply entrenched barriers continue to exclude women from meaningful participation in political parties. In the post-transition period, the more established political parties in countries like Brazil and Chile have remained remarkably impervious to women’s participation. independently of the extent of women’s active involvement in the struggle against military regimes. In previously socialist countries, democratization has resulted in ‘throwing out the baby with the bathwater’: socialist governments had made had made substantial commitments to gender equality while paying little attention to continued patterns of inequality in daily life; but in almost every single case, the very idea of equality has often been swept aside as part of the socialist regimes’ baggage.

Women make up at least half of the electorate in almost all countries, and in some cases more than half. On the whole, more women than men use their right to vote, possibly because in so many places, the right to vote is still perceived as a relatively new, and painfully earned right. They have the right to vote and hold office in almost all member states of the United Nations. Yet in 1998, five years after Rio, women held only about 11 per cent of the seats in parliaments around the world, only six per cent of cabinet- level positions, and by the year 2000, were virtually invisible at the highest levels of the multilateral financial institutions whose activities weigh so heavily on the economies of nation-states.

The continued masculine construction of political authority makes it difficult for women to be elected into office without some form of social engineering, such as quotas or reserved seats. Wherever these have been adopted, women’s public profile has substantially changed, although their leverage remains weak within the political parties themselves.

The UN Economic and Social Council’s target of 30 percent women at decision-making levels by 1995 has yet to be achieved, and may not be achieved without the imposition of a quota system. In fact, it is graphically illustrative to take a look at national statistics of women’s representation in various public bodies. Scandinavian countries are at the top of the chart, stably seated in the 30+% range, a position they share with relatively young nations; but the reader must scroll down the list for a long time before finally finding the ‘old’ democracies: Great Britain, France, the United States, hovering around or below the 10% level, trailing well behind a number of their former ‘less-developed’ colonies. Clearly, having a ‘democratic tradition’ and having had a stake in early modern revolutions are of no particular help in this case. There are other paradoxes: for instance, that Iran, with clerical control over women’s lives, also has a very high level of female participation in elections, both as electors and as candidates for election; indeed the history of Iranian women is one of high participation in politics by women (as demonstrators, lobbyists, journalists, educators, fighters, martyrs), rarely accompanied by the formal legitimization of their commitment to political participation.

Other strategies are needed for bringing women’s interests into the policy-making process. One such strategy is to enter and work directly the public administration. This tactic has often been used in the 20th century: with the progress of female education, many women have made careers as civil servants, sometimes wielding a great deal of influence. But this tactic can propel the individual careers of particular ambitious women without necessarily bringing about large-scale change for women as a whole. The latter would depend on a sustained/structural relationship between women ‘inside’ the political and administrative machineries and women’s movements on the ‘outside’ but popular movements and groups often feel alienated from the bureaucratic and politic machines. They may deliberately distance themselves from public authorities for fear of co-optation.

In any case, the creation and staffing of egalitarian spaces within the state apparatus can easily coexist with continued, even extreme, inequality in civil society. This was arguably the case in socialist countries and is the case now in several Latin American countries that have very visible ‘Women’s machineries’ in government while remaining quite oppressive at the grassroots level.

The biggest problem, which remains, is how to translate official statements and lofty goals into concrete policies and budgets that make a real difference in the lives of women and girls. Efforts to make real change often get sidestepped when it comes to spending public money. The women’s movements have not necessarily built the structure to translate demands into coherent programs geared toward implementation.

Women have had a significant impact in some critical areas: violence against women has become a legitimate issue in most countries; women have become more aware of their rights; divorce, child custody, domestic violence, and reproductive health and rights have become visible and lasting issues. But media attention and even new laws do not necessarily mean enforcement of the new rules if the police are indifferent and the courts are timid or conservative.

The limitations on women’s public roles operate at many levels of society, from the most personal to the highly public. Women may be discouraged from seeking political office by discriminatory attitudes and practices, by the high cost of seeking and holding public office, by family and childcare responsibilities, or even by the lack of encouragement from other women. But it is also fair to say that the ‘traditional’ working patterns of political parties and government institutions often turn around ‘male deals’ that ignore women or use them for electoral window-dressing.

Inequality in the public arena often starts with discriminatory attitudes and practices and the lopsided division of labor between women and men within the family. The skewed division of labor and responsibilities within households may limit women’s ability to find the time or develop the skills required for participation in decision-making in wider public forums, although some people would argue that the unequal power relationship is probably the key factor. It must however be said that women often play very active roles. A more equal sharing of those responsibilities between women and men will not only provide a better quality of life for women and their daughters but also enhance their opportunities to shape and design political practices, public policy, and expenditure so that their interests may be recognized and addressed.


Government And Civil Society

Women's access to formal political and economic power is out of proportion with their actual contributions to society and communal life. They remain a minority in the corridors of power and decision-making, internationally, as well as nationally. But their numbers have grown steadily in local and provincial bodies, and their contributions to civil society organization have grown in leaps and bounds. The suppression of political movements under authoritarian rule shifted the political center of gravity to "popular movements", associations, non-governmental organizations, leading to the formal recognition of a new ‘institution’: the NGOs, in which women have been prominent. The ‘women’s movement’ is not homogeneous: there are differences in class, ethnic group, education social, political and ideological origins, tensions between the feminist and the feminine streams. Divisions over strategy and long-term goals make it difficult to forge stable coalitions, but they all share a total commitment to bringing about a change in hitherto male-dominated government.

Still and all:

1. The recent recognition of civil society as a contributing factor in public life has created legitimate new spaces for women’s intervention, supplementing established spaces that for the most part remain controlled by men.

2. Once the principle of women’s equal participation in social affairs is accepted, their roles and activities in civil society acquire a new weight, they become more visible, their ‘informal’ participation in political life can act as a source of creative energy for society at large.

In many cases, of course, these seemingly ‘all-new’ civil society spaces are a prolongation or metamorphosis of so-called ‘traditional’ women’s institutions and forms of social action: they have a richness of historic memories which new ‘synthetic’ forms do not always possess. One example of such an institution, the Meira Paibi described below comes from Manipur in Northeast India, but has equivalents in many different areas.

Contrary to widespread clichés, many so-called traditional societies have included channels for women’s participation in the body politic based on a perception that women are ‘better at things like negotiation, deal-making’. This was considered a result of their experience as Mothers, i.e., nurturers of life processes, but also as marriage-matchmakers, not to mention farmers or market women whose work routinely called for travel and networking with people from other communities. Thus when Europeans were negotiating with Plains Indians, the latter expressed their surprise not to see any women in the negotiating circle: "Where are your women?" they wanted to know for it seemed inconceivable that serious business could be taking place without some form of women’s input. The Cherokee writer Awiakta explained her own involvement in environmental politics as the expected expression of her role as "Mother of the Nation. "I should be heard... In the old Cherokee Nation, women served powerfully in the council...to be on the council means fulfilling your women’s role to move in the public sphere. " This is what the meira paibi was doing, and continues to do.


The Meira Paibi

The meira paibi is a mass movement of women human rights defenders in Meitei society. The movement claims its roots from numerous women's institutions and structures of traditional Northeast Indian social organization: the market women's association, women’s roles as community arbitrators and as defenders of community welfare and integrity.

Hundreds of thousands of indigenous women participate in different ways in this movement and are frequently targeted by the state for their activities as human rights defenders.

Public voicing of protest by mass gatherings of women before authority is an ancient and honored practice. In this practice the market women's association has been the key mobilization group due partly to its economic influence and partly to its infibrillating extension into every family, high or low, of Meitei society. The meira paibi has therefore a sound self-supporting base of women upon whose activities society depends in many essential needs, and of whom society must therefore take cognisance. Historically, similar groups have engaged in resistance to tyrannical policies from the chiefs and councils and exploitative practices of the British colonial regime. Several ‘nupilan’ or ’ women's wars’ have been decided and fought by women against perceived tyranny by chiefs and the British in the 20th century.

In the modern State of the Indian Union, under the name of Meira Paibi, the women's movement has been the key agent against threats to community health and wellbeing such as the epidemic of heroin abuse among youth, alcoholism among men and excesses of the Indian Security Forces. Meira Paibi has been an active agent in the establishment of public health clinics for detoxification and rehabilitation for the widespread problem of substance abuse. It is also extremely active against human rights abuses by state security forces. On such issues, mobilization is universal among adult Meitei women of Manipur.

(Source: e-mail from Anna Pinto, Meira Paibi, CORE, Manipur to pdhre)


Military and economic ‘world events’, together with a string of United Nations conferences specifically ‘about women’ have openly ‘politicized’ women. Many people think that women’s involvement in politics is ‘unprecedented in history’. Others point out that we should not lend too much trust to the skewed image of women as eternally passive spectators of history In reality, an important part of the process of giving to women the political realm will consist in restoring the memory of powerful women politicians and women’s political organizations in the earlier centuries. If they are forgotten now, it is due in large part to ‘man-made’ amnesia.

Some governments have established special offices for women’s issues, included women as a key component in development policies and taken some limited steps to increase the number of women decision-makers. Women activists have proven that they have the managerial and negotiating skills needed to move from the town square to the negotiating table, from the spectator's gallery to the assembly floor. But the struggle must continue for policy making truly to reflect the actual needs of society in general and women in particular.

Wanting to be listened to

Political participation means effective involvement in the process of deciding what the public goals are, and how they are to be achieved. For women this may require breaking through an invisible wall of misperceptions about their interest or ability.

"A young farmer and her daughter stood up at the community meeting in Albany at the southern tip of Western Australia and said: "I am flattered at being consulted but I also want to be heard."

"During the nationwide meetings on environmental issues sponsored by the National Women’s Consultative Council through 1991-92, women in Australia repeatedly stressed that merely ‘consulting’ them was not enough... they resented that their time and energy was too often used as a resource to achieve other people’s agendas. They wanted women’s voices, values, knowledge and skills to contribute to defining the pressing problems that face families and societies today. They wanted a part in shaping the agenda for action and in managing the search for solutions. Women all over the world, in global negotiating fora as well as in their own neighborhoods, are enriching and democratizing civil society by their increasingly well-organized, informed and confident participation. "

Women’s Use Of The Power of Resistance

Participation extends to an ability to influence those institutions that translate political decisions into lived reality. Whenever political structures do not allow that, protests and other forms of resistance or agitation may be the only viable form of political participation. Not surprisingly, given the limitations placed on them, much of women’s political activity in the 20th century has taken that form, and they have deployed great organizing talent and tenacity in resisting the erosion of their own or their husbands’ and children’s livelihoods, land, natural resources, dignity.

In her book Women in the New Asia Matsui Yayori balances the tragedies of Asia’s globalization with heartening stories of women’s cooperative credit ventures, democratic movements and resistance to the ‘dictatorship of development’. As she points out, women took the lead in Japan’s national anti-pollution struggle and peace movements in the early 1970s. In Korea it was largely women who protested against their country’s dictatorship and against its patriarchy, despite threat of torture and imprisonment. Thai women took to the streets over the confiscation of land, Indian women over the price of staple foods and East Indian women over the logging of their forests, and Cambodian women took the helm to rebuild their nation. And it is the regions’ women who are protesting against the rise of religious fundamentalism, which Matsui sees as a major instigator of anti-women violence.

Observers have repeatedly noted the important role played in contemporary African countries by women assuming leadership in civil society to end a military or autocratic regime, bringing about the return to democracy, and ending civil wars. In Mali, CADEF - an organization for the protection of women and children’s human rights - took the lead in a national coalition of civil society groups for the return to democracy and the negotiation of a peace in the civil war. In Liberia, LWI (Liberian Women Initiative), a nonpartisan pressure group to unite all Liberian women, regardless of religious, tribal or political affiliation or differences, initiated a response to the continuing stalemate in the peace process. Sudanese Women’s Voice for Peace (SWVP) working at the grassroots level with church and community leaders initiated a constructive dialogue among the warring parties of southern Sudan, negotiating issues of food, shelter, clothing, human rights violations, rape and the problem of refugees.

Pro-Femmes Twese Hamwe, a collection of 32 Rwandan Women’s organizations, worked under extremely difficult conditions to promote peace in Rwanda. Not long after the April 1994 massacres they launched an Action Campaign for Peace to fight for social justice, women’s human rights, rural development programs, aid to widows and orphans, conducting health and community development trainings. Women started the Mozambican Campaign Against Landmines (CMCM), along with the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and other Southern African Landmine Campaigns. In Nigeria’s oil fields, women continued a long tradition of women’s protest, turning it now against the environmental destruction perpetrated by multinational oil corporations.

In Latin America, women again played key roles in neighborhood organizations in response to the economic crisis, engineering land occupations, squatting in empty apartment buildings, resisting the destruction of their favelas, organizing solidarity institutions to ensure the survival of their families in the face of structural adjustment policies. In England, Germany, and North America, women spearheaded protests against the building and continued operation of nuclear power plants or hazardous waste sites.


African Women’s PROTESTS: the Economic Foundations of Power

Whenever we see ‘indigenous feminism ‘ at work nowadays, whether in the forest areas of Northern India, the Negros islands of the Philippines, Indonesian islands etc., we see either the present reality of women controlling in some way a livelihood, or the recent memory of a time when women did control resources that allowed them to feed themselves and others. When we read about effective market women’s political intervention in the colonies we can be sure that they had access, through their regular activity, to strong organizations, to regular places gathering-places, to lines of communication along shared trade routes

African women’s history has many instances of women leading large-scale and successful revolts against abusive male chiefs or against colonial authorities. Although gender oppression in the form of domestic and societal patriarchy did exist in precolonial Sub-Sahara Africa, women encountered increased and intensified forms of economic and political gender oppression with the introduction of European colonialism. The 20th century has seen the steady destruction of women’s livelihoods, the marginalization of women’s political organizations and women’s shrinking access to social and political decision-making. There is a close link between women's economic role and their access to power. In both matrilineal and patrilineal societies market women played important roles, and taxation or pricing issues triggered several ‘women’s wars’.

Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, such ‘Women’s Wars’ occurred throughout Africa. Dahomey, Ghana (then the gold Coast), Togo, South Africa, Transvaal, Uganda, Tanganyika are some of the names mentioned in specialized history books read only by small audiences; unfortunately, only local people remember the names of the women who spearheaded the protests. Whether ‘cocoa holdups’, ‘coffee wars’, ‘beer wars’, protests against exploitative ‘warrant chiefs’, calls for national independence, they usually involved a conflict between subsistence farming geared to local consumption and cash-crops geared for export, issues of women’s land-ownership, resistance to colonial taxation, and attempts to hold back the steady deterioration of women’s power-base.

Traders often were the first to take the initiatives, and would be joined by peasant women and townswomen. Together, they had the social power to withhold food from the cities. With tactics ranging from dramatic techniques like chants, dances, comical skits to closing down markets, road blockades to prevent the passage of food for the cities or cash crops for the colonial authorities, they could effectively paralyze a trading system within which women still held considerable assets. Not only was food denied the cities, but cash crops were denied the colonial authorities and their merchant allies in repeated confrontations over who should determine prices, what taxes would be paid, or the composition of ruling councils.

The Igbo Ogu Umunwanyi, or Women's War, occurred in the Calabar and Owerri provinces in southeastern Nigeria in November 1927 and continued for more than a month with demonstrations, attacks on administrative centers, and damage to property. Before colonial rule, the Igbo women held political power and status in a dual-sex system. The physical conflict between Nwanyeruwa, a woman, and a male official can be seen as serving as a catalyst for feminist discourse and collective actions. The Women’s War began when the Colonial District officer started counting households and property for taxation purposes. Women leaders, Ikonnia, Nwannedie, and Nwugo, called a mikiri, general meeting, at the Orie market, a traditional center of women's discourse and activity, to discuss and plan further actions. The mikiri held by the three Igbo women became a forum for gender and class awareness. Individual fears of economic oppression began to evolve into collective resistance against gender oppression. The women's resistance covered an area of 6,000 square miles, with over two million people. On two occasions police and troops fired on the women, killing 50 and wounding another 50. The Women's War was successful in deferring for a while the taxation of women and in getting rid of the corrupt system of warrant chiefs. (...) .

The Igbo Ogu Umunwani, as a resistance movement that outwardly reflected women's opposition to colonial taxation and economic impositions, was more than that. Opposition to patriarchy, which was equally important in formulating their economic demands against taxation of their produce and animals, for example: traditional Igbo women's rights, for instance to refuse a suitor, for example, were linked to rights to land and resources (...)

The Pare women's uprising in northwest Shambaai, Tanzania, occurred in early 1945 and continued with demonstrations into 1946, involving thousands of women. It began in Usangi, one of the chiefdoms, when the district commissioner arrived for discussions with the local chief. A crowd of five hundred women appeared, demanding an explanation of mbiru, a recently introduced system of graduated taxation. When the commissioner tried to leave without addressing the women, they became enraged and mobbed the assembled officials. Two days later, women surrounded the chief’s house singing songs, and ultimately stoned officials and battled police.

Pare women's resistance caused the graduated-tax idea to be dropped the following year, and the king appointed four women to the tribal council in 1948 (Feierman, 1990). The success of their resistance, however temporary, is extraordinary in view of the failure of earlier, male resistance. Organized resistance by the women of Pare is one example of a number of women’s protests in the Shambaai region at the time. Women performed, individually and collectively, numerous acts of sabotage against colonial agricultural schemes affecting their lives, for example, using inappropriate tools in performing forced agricultural labor. In 1953, women invaded a number of subchief's meetings, expressing opposition to plans for their removal from mountain lands. They also organized around other gender related interests, which included men's interest as well.(...)

In Tanzania's nationalist movement, peasant women were organized along gender lines to press for independence. Women had a common gender interest - working for race and class liberation, through male political leaders, in the hope of achieving gender liberation.

Pare women played a role in nationalist politics, working for the Tanganyika African National Union (TANU)’ s struggle for national independence. TANU were formed by members of an educated class who sought to gain power at the expense of chiefs. In January 1956, the chief of Bungu, prohibited anyone from attending a TANU meeting. Caught in the middle of this conflict were women who revolted against the chief and their husbands in order to attend a rally to see the leader of TANU's women's section, Bibi Titi Mohammed. To punish the men's lack of courage in resisting the chief and supporting the nationalist struggle, women refused to cook, fetch water, or farm. The men relented and sent a delegation inviting Nyerere and Bibi Titi Mohammed to speak in Bungu. A former singer of a women's dance organization explained:

" The women urged their leaders to bring Mr. Nyerere, and told them they also wanted to meet the strong woman. They said they wanted to see Bibi Titi in Vugiri. "We have heard and read about her but we have never seen her. If you don't want to listen to the strong words of Mr. Nyerere, that is up to you. We want to see Bibi Titi, our colleague" (Feierman, 1990).

In Buloho in Eastern Zaire, women revolted against forced taxation on their produce. The revolt began on day in early April 1982 when a woman refused to pay a cassava-toll at a bridge. A scuffle ensued between her and the male tax collector. When the woman informed colleagues in a Catholic support group, this gender conflict served to elaborate awareness of gender and economic oppression, and to press for change. On April 25, women from three areas, over one hundred, met with the local chief and registered a complaint. It was the first time in the history of the area that women took independent action in the (modern) political sphere.

The women persisted in a follow up to their complaint and sent a delegation of six to the offices of the Collectivity. On May 5, when the chief finally met with the women’s delegation, he grew scornful and wanted to know who gave them the idea to petition him about the tolls. A delegation member answered:

" Where we found the idea? We didn't have to go far, and we haven't been advised by anyone other than the fatigue from cassava, because we get very tired. How do we get tired? When we arrive where a barrier is located they seize cassava from us, or money; we arrive there where there's another barrier, and they take more cassava. Now despite that we don't know what that money is used for, yet we're exhausting ourselves carrying cassava. "

By the end of the 20th century, the issues remained the same: colonial authorities having in the meantime been replaced by multinational corporations and colonial taxation now coming under the name of structural adjustment.

Nigerian Women Fighting Oil Corporations

Under Fumilayo Ransome-Kuti’s leadership, song, dance and ridicule - along with market embargoes and sheer force of numbers - were employed in the 1940s’ struggles of Abeokuta women to unseat an exploitative Yoruba chief whom the British were supporting. In 1949, with a membership of some 100,000 the Abeokuta Women's Union was able to force the Alake of Abeokuta out of office for abusing his power as an indirect ruler.

In the 1980s, faced with the Nigerian military’s attempt to impose structural adjustment packages one of whose key element is higher taxes, the women of Ughelli community, in the oil states, plugged directly into this female tradition of protest and laid siege to the local chief’s palace. They berated the local king for supporting the taxation of women, taunting him with reminders that his own mother and grandmother had participated in one of the historic tax revolts by women. How could he, of all people, plan to push through such an outrageous plan? Where, they demanded, were his mother’s and grandmothers’ tax receipts from the colonial authorities? In a matter of days, the anti-tax protest had spread throughout the state and neighboring areas. Market women in Benin City closed the markets, threatening to blockade the sale of food, in protest against taxes and World Bank-mandated school fees. The revolt was successful, and the tax-plan was withdrawn.

Similar uprisings were staged in 1984 and 1986 against the oil companies. In the 1984 Ogharefe uprising, protesting the erosion of their farmland by landgrabs and massive pollution from the oil fields, 10,000 women used a traditional ‘weapon’: public nakedness used as a curse against male dealers and representatives of a U.S. oil company in support of their demand for financial compensation for pollution and alienation of land. In 1986, women shut down the core of the whole oil region. One key feature of the 1980’s struggles, which is studied by Terisa Turner, is the extent to which success in these uprisings hinged partly upon the solidarity that was struck between women and ‘junior males’, often their sons, leading to structural ties within, for instance, the Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People. Interestingly, this latter movement is known to the world at large by the name of one its male leaders, the executed writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, whereas very little is known about his kinswomen, around whom and from whom he acquired his political consciousness. Similarly while the name of the Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka is known the world over for his political activism, no one outside of Nigeria is aware of the importance as a role model of his own mother Ade Soyinka’s and her activism in the 1940’s ‘women’s wars’, when she was Fumyio Ransome-Kuti right arm.

In every case, the women were protesting the drastic shrinking or loss of their access to productive resources, the alienation of farmland, the loss of water resources, the loss of productive work for their children, the general weakening of their economic base, thus embracing a full range of social and economic human rights issues.


Islam And Equality In Iran : The Power And Limitations Of Protest Politics

"Women make up half of any nation. No plan of national significance will move forward unless women are consulted. The potential of one woman aware of her human essence to serve in the progress of her country is equivalent to that of 100 men ...."

(Qan’oon [The Law] Persian Constitutionalist newspaper in exile-- London 1890)

As a Muslim woman, let me proclaim that the peddlers of religion who rule Iran in the name of Islam, but shed blood, suppress the people and advocate export of fundamentalism and terrorism, are themselves the worst enemy of Islam and Muslims. The day will come when they will be forced to let go of the name of Islam.

(Maryam Rajavi, president elect in exile, of the Iranian Council of Resistance,6/16/1995)


When the Iranian Revolution, under Ayatollah Khomeini’s leadership, toppled the government of Shah Reza Pahlavi, it was among other things a victory for the many women who had been among the most valuable supporters of the dream of an egalitarian Islamic republic. For that dream, they had marched, demonstrated, helped organize clandestine meetings and general strikes, braved arrest and torture by the Shah’s feared secret police.

This was not a new role for them. Having been active participants, 10 centuries ago, in the cultural movement born from the interaction of Persian nationalism and Shi’ite Islam’s mystical populism, women were on the frontlines again in Iran’s nationalist resistance to British and Russian control and in the Constitutional movement.

One of the paradoxes of the Iranian women’s situation is that, for the past hundred years, their story has been intertwined with that of the Iranian Revolutionary movement, displaying a peculiar mix of power (i.e., the ability to shape history) and powerlessness (continuous dependency on patronizing male tyrants). They were the first women in the modern Islamic world to struggle for an equal say and standing in society although their sisters in other regions of Central Asia were not far behind them in their activism for modern democratic institutions based on enlightened Islam. Girls schools, women's hospitals, cultural conferences, a flourishing women’s press, political associations and secret societies, marches, demonstrations, market-strikes, road blocks, sit-downs, fundraising, international networking, monitoring and advocacy all were part of those early days’ work.

Twice, inspired by a religious vision of a just society, they were major protagonists in the drama of their country. In both cases, they were given credit for whatever success was gained; it is widely acknowledged that the Constitutionalist movement in the early 20th century and the Fundamentalist revolution of 1979 both owed whatever success they achieved to the women’s persistence in activism. In both cases however, once victory was achieved, they were denied their well-deserved share of power. Yet they never slunk back into the shadows, using every inch of power within their reach, insistently remaining visible when ordered to wear a veil, or proudly wearing the veil when forbidden to do so.

Their potential for defiance was said to be greater than that of the men. They were the ones calling on their husbands and brothers to reject compromises, storming the Shah’s palace, launching city-wide strikes in Teheran and Tabriz, closing down shops in the bazaar. When the parliament was shelled and constitutionalists gunned down in Tabriz in 1905, "women upheld the nation's honor more than anyone else." During the 11 months siege, girls and women sent telegrams abroad to raise international awareness and seek help, they handled logistics, raised money, got food from one bunker to the next, cared for the wounded, prepared ammunition, fought alongside the men, some wearing men’s clothing, some wearing the veil.

In the end, the women were sidelined by the refusal to grant them the vote in 1905, and they were refused the state-supported schools for girls, which they were demanding. Nonetheless, they remained a powerful lobby and vibrant organizational presence in the country’s political and cultural life throughout the twentieth century.

The reign of the Shahs, from the 1920’s to the 1960’s were years of despotic modernization with an interlude of real democracy under Dr. Mossadeq’s rule. Those years brought real benefits to women in the form of relaxed divorce laws, relaxed dress codes, high level international education for a highly competent elite of professional women, an official governmental agency in charge of women’s issues. But all women’s democratic associations were banned and those women who persisted on conducting their activities were driven underground and at times brutally repressed. Literacy in the countryside was neglected. More importantly, Iran’s prosperity built on oil revenue was made to serve the interests of a small elite, and all attempts to ask for economic justice were ruthlessly suppressed by SAVAK, the feared secret police.

In time, the dream of egalitarian Islam became the most powerful ferment in the social movement of the 1960’s and 70’s. The legacy and ideals of the fundamentalist Mojahedin spreads among the younger generation including activist women in the search of an egalitarian modern Islam. Women were the first to stage street demonstrations whose main demand was the freedom of political prisoners. Women led the millions that poured into the streets. Their shouts echoed across the years, tapping the powerful historic memories of Iran's women.

Neither the constitutionalist revolution of the early 1900’s, nor the Islamic populist revolution of the 1970’s could have taken place without the women. Their bodies, their energies, their sufferings –as demonstrators, as martyred prisoners, and as wives, sisters and daughters of martyrs, were twice at the center stage. Betrayal by the Constitutionalists had been a terrible blow. In the 1980’s when the fundamentalist regime designated women as symbols and guardians of cultural and religious authenticity, this honor was paid at the price of excluding women from professions and higher political posts, and subjecting them to crushing repression in daily life.

They were however given the vote and the right to be elected to all positions, except that of President. Thirty years later, the last electoral campaigns made clear that the women of Iran are still tenacious, still fighting and still participating intensely in the political process, using every crack in the armor, every loophole, every opportunity.

Between their insistent presence and economic developments,

"an Iranian version of affirmative action policies began to take root, and policy shifts indicated a trend towards greater advocacy for women. Included in this trend were a women's bureau in the office of the president with the express purpose of examining and enhancing the status of women, and women's affairs offices in each ministry and government agency. In 1987 the High Council of the Cultural Revolution also set up the Women's Social and Cultural Council, charged with studying the legal, social, and economic problems of women. Although 1992 directives still emphasized the importance of family roles and rules out certain occupations and professions as religiously inappropriate, it also encouraged the integration of women in the labor force and attention to their interests and needs, higher rates of female participation in the political process , overcoming barriers to high rates of female unemployment, reproductive support and public daycare, reform of the laws about rape, abuse, marriage, and family, or at least acknowledgment of their deficiencies and creation of institutions such as safe houses to give support to victims. "

(Source: Farideh Farhi in Focus (Vol. 12 & 13) -- newsletter of the Asia-Pacific Human Rights Information Center (Hurights-Osaka)

In the following item, the letter-writer acknowledges the existence of a tradition of female activism in her country. Indeed, India also has been the site of important women’s protest movements and the letter reminds us that when it comes to our own lives, we may have contradictory notions of what we can and cannot do. The lessons of the past need to be learnt over and over again.

Letter From Kerala, India

I would like to tell you about our work in Southern India. I work in a small NGO in a small town in the State of Kerala. Women have always been very strong in Kerala and there are a lot of women in villages that have an understanding of women's rights, even if they don't use those words.

I think that an important part of building women's rights in a country like India is to start in the villages, where the women live, and to start with the ways that they think about themselves and their own lives. Here's our strategy -- we decided to start by getting women to see their rights. Then we will have the women organize to help each other. Then, maybe, we can start organizing for political power.

What we did was to first help women talk of all of the ways that they have control and are strong in their families and communities. What we noticed is that if we asked women whether they had any power and knew what their rights were, they would say no. But if we started to talk about specific tasks or incidents, then the women really did see they have some areas of power, and a strong feeling about what their rights are.

For example, if we asked a women what her rights were in the family, she would say that she should obey her husband and her mother-in-law. But then, when we talked about who disciplines the children, and who should decide if the daughter should go to school, then the woman would start to talk about how she should have some say in these things. If we talked about what rights women have within the family, then the women would say that it is entirely their responsibility to keep the family together and happy. But if we ask about domestic violence or problems when husbands are drunk, then they say that they should not be beaten and that their husbands should not come home drunk. So in this way, by having women talk together and develop their feelings of rights, we can develop a support group for women to use to understand their rights and to back their rights.

After we have done this in different communities in the town, we will start to organize women to help each other. The women are already starting to see that they have more power if they talk and act together than if they try to do it as individuals. When they feel stronger and that they can really rely on each other, then we can help them become a real support group, so that if a women's husband beats her, she can get some help from other women in the area.

The next step will be to organize for political elections. This will be very hard because although women see their rights at the home level, they don't feel much rights at the political level. They think they don't have enough education and knowledge of the world to get involved in political battles. But we will get them to take that on too! One thing at a time!

Signed Sudha Sharma / Kerala, India (Contribution to Women-Rights The Beijing +5 online forum- hosted by WomenWatch, United Nations. http://sdnhq.undp.org/ww/women-rights/)



These stories from Africa, Iran and India hold many different messages about women and power. As you ask questions about those women’s experience, try and feel how parts match your own experience.

Did you know about the active role African women played in their country three quarters of a century ago? Were you aware of the role Iranian women played in Iran’s revolutions?

What kinds of power did these women display?

How did they acquire this attitude to power?

What was the foundation of their political clout?

Women’s leadership in political struggles in Africa and Iran earlier in the century failed to produce sustainable power for women in the long run. What in the letter from Kerala helps explain why?

What do you know about the roles played by your own mother and grandmother and their generations of women? Swap stories within your group.

Interview some older women about their experiences in the economic realm and in the political realm. How do they perceive the connection between economic decision-making and political power?


Treading On Male Ground

New Zealand

"Those who enter politics must be especially strong, Women are not always trained for that kind of strength." This is the way Marilyn Waring of New Zealand sees her encounter with the male-dominated electoral sphere.

An early and continually brutal lesson for the woman politician is the attention now given to your life, and the images of you that are portrayed. I should not have been surprised by this. The editor of my regional newspaper, the Waikato Times, had advised me on my first visit to him as a candidate in 1975, "I am a salesman. I have a daily product. I am not here to educate, I am here to sell."

Women have a particular difficulty with self-marketing when seeking political office, and this is a reflection of their motives for doing so. Socialized as selfless rather than selfish, we face a shortage of role models; we are often insecure about image-making and fell discomfort at being seen as or feeling like a product. The intimidations built into the system will feel alien. The printed curriculum vitae forms of political parties, for instance, were established for men, not women. Mine requested information on such things as local authority positions held and war and military service. Years of volunteerism and community service were forced into a small paragraph marked " Other: please specify " at the bottom of the second page.

Helen Clark, a member of the New Zealand Parliament since 1981 and Leader of the Opposition in 1996, recognizes the image-making as a political statement. " Commentators have an image in mind and they trot it all out again. But "the media say she has an image problem" is a male media construction. There are no appropriate standards available by which to assess women in leadership. To be strong or to be assertive, while appropriate for male leaders, are seen as unwomanly.


Former senator and leader of the Australian Democrats, Janine Haines, explains: "The fact is that women often have to be tougher if not smarter than men to survive in politics and it goes without saying that they have to be tougher as well as smarter in order to succeed."

(Excerpted from Three Masquerades: Essays on Equality, Work and Human Rights, Marilyn Waring, 1996, pp. 7-8 and 40.)



In her book Women’s Voices, Janet Williamson-Fien included that of ‘Jan’ a Queensland grazer, who with her husband was running a large family sheep-herding farm. Both of them had grown up in farming families. Like all graziers’ wives, Jan had been actively involved in the day-to-day work and decision-making, especially involved in accounting, but never encouraged to stand for election and become visible in the industry. When she was elected President of the SouthEast branch of the United Graziers’ Association, in 1992, she was the first woman leader the organization had ever had. In the past, some producer associations even discouraged women from attending their branch meetings and organized separate programs for women at their conferences, meaning that the women had no input into discussions about matters which they knew in depth.

Ironically, while Jan acknowledges that the rural recession has had a dreadful impact on families in the bush, she believes that it has proved to he a 'watershed for women'. With men leaving the land in search of additional work, the women left behind are 'taking on roles they have not done before; they are being forced to make decisions and become more independent'. Jan hopes that this new confidence and visibility will encourage more rural women to have their say in primary organizations.

Apart from insisting that women should be appropriately represented in producers' associations, Jan believes that women's experiences and insights can offer 'new perspectives on many issues'. Such perspectives will enable the associations to keep abreast of the concerns of the wider community, she argues.

Jan's concerns about producing for changing market requirements, along with a keen interest in animal welfare and a desire to promote unity across producer groups occupy a lot of her time and energy. In addition, she is acutely aware of the need to avoid what she calls 'development without progress’, by which she means the application of new ideas, or new technologies, which do little to improve the final outcome, or the final product, but which might actually make the situation worse than it was before. The active involvement of more women in agricultural politics might help to ensure that this sort of development does not occur.

[Source: Williamson-Fien, J.(1993) Women's Voices, p. 32-33 Global Learning Centre, Windsor, Australia.]



"There should be many more women in Parliament because they know better all the problems women face. Women are the builders of the nation"

In preparation for the Beijing Conference, the Zimbabwe Women’s Resource Centre and Network conceived the idea of Zimbabwe Women’s Voices, to allow the silent voices of many Zimbabwean women to be heard: to be heard by other participants at the Beijing forum, but just as importantly heard by each other. More than two thousand grassroots women were interviewed either singly or in groups, and on top of that more than thirty (urban) women were interviewed singly. They tackled all aspects of what was to be the BPFA. Among others, women from various origins gave their perception of the difficulty of playing a political role.

"Women are not being given chances in politics. Men are dominating all important decision-making positions. Women need political empowerment and there should be positions specifically set aside for women in Parliament and Government" (Women from seven villages in Chitando, Buhera-Bulawayo, ibid.)

"Women are the ones who are oppressing themselves in that they don’t want to vote for each other. They prefer to vote for a man even if there is a woman competing for candidacy. The women are jealous and ignorant and they lack confidence amongst themselves. The women need to be educated on these issues."

(Women from Magunje; villages in Chikore, Chiponge; villages in Kotwa, Mudai, Nketa, Bulawayo. ibid.)

"The women are their own worst enemies because they do not elect one another to Parliament "(President Mugabe)

" Although women participated in the liberation struggle to the same extent as males, it is very difficult for them to get into politics. The most important obstacles women have to deal with are male prejudices.(..) In 1994 I was nominated to be a councillor [in Rukweza district]. Many men were angry because they were going to be led by a woman. At the council there are people who accept us and our problems. But in the village there are people who do not accept us simply because we are women. Even if you raise very important issues, they do not accept them simply because the issues were raised by a woman...

"I contested against very prominent people, one of them a minister...But can you believe it, after winning the primary elections, someone in the Central Committee informed me that he was going to nullify the results, because someone else had been chosen for the post. Like always I had to fight, and, with the help of the late First Lady, Sally Mugabe, I became a Member of Parliament ...

In the liberation struggle women fought side by side with men and received the same training irrespective of sex. But it took some time before women participated in the real fighting, because when the Rhodesian forces heard that women were on the front, the situation became tough. They wanted to kill a woman guerrilla. They wanted to see what a woman guerilla looked like. But they realized the women fighters were tougher than the men and they abandoned the idea. That was when the women went full-time to the front.

Life in Parliament has been tough for the few women who have made it. Male parliamentarians quickly label them in order to silence them. But most of those who know exactly why they are in the house are difficult to silence....I am here in Parliament to fight for justice for both men and women. People complain that I am a controversial figure but I believe I am not. I believe I am the people’s voice. If you give me facts, no matter how hast nasty they are, and you convince me, and there is need for me to present a change I will do it. For women’s lives to improve we have got to be outspoken, that’s what brings about change. (Margaret Dongo, MP, Harare.ibid.)

(Source: Ciru Getecha and Jesimen Chipika eds., Harare, 1995

in Zimbabwe Women’s Voices,.62-72)


Uganda – When Hens Begin to Crow

When hens begin to crow is the fascinating title of a book by the Ugandan historian Sylvia Tamale and she explains the title on the first page: "Have you ever heard a hen crow?" someone shouted at a woman candidate during the 1996 Ugandan general elections. Female chickens do not normally crow and in many African cultures a crowing hen is considered an omen of bad tidings. Killing the offending bird is the way to protect oneself from the threatening evil. In other words, women have no business running for political office.

Uganda is a contradictory example of the re-emergence of women into African politics: its Constitution provides for designated ‘women’s seats’ for each of the parliamentary districts; a national machinery for gender issues was instituted almost ten years before Beijing; a National Gender Policy followed Beijing; women have 30%’s quotas in local councils; and there is a woman vice-president and a very strong candidate for the 2002 presidential election in the person of Winnie Binyema, a veteran from the bush-war and designated parliamentarian. Uganda is one country where the role of women in the National Resistance Movement’s bush-war was acknowledged. Following the Nairobi Conference (1985), active mobilization by women, youth and disabled NGOs led to a national policy of affirmative action, which was restated when President Museveni came to power in 1986. In other ways, there remain very strong obstacles to this power being used to the full. Female parliamentarians are subjected to ridicule and sexual harassment, their contributions overlooked. In one particularly flagrant case, MP Miriam Matembe lobbied successfully for an amendment to the Land Act (1998), so as to make provisions for joint ownership of the family residence by husband and wife. Even though the amendment received all the necessary votes, when the Land Act was actually promulgated, the amendment was missing. Likewise, patriarchal opposition to reforms in the Domestic Relations Bill has stalled the passage of that bill through Parliament

(source: Prof. Rosemarie McNairn - review of Sylvia Tamale (1999) When Hens Begin To Crow: Gender And Parliamentary Politics In Uganda. (web.africa.ufl.edu/asq/v3/v3i3a7.htm.).



What are the main obstacles to women's equal participation in political decision-making in this country?

What groups and organizations are working to overcome these obstacles?

Are women in your culture encouraged by their education to become active in politics?

Are they trained for leadership in public affairs?

What kinds of strategies, campaigns and movements have been used to bring full political equality to women in this society? How many women in your country are in the executive branch? how many in the legislative branch? how many in local councils?

Do you agree with the Zimbabwe women’s skepticism about women‘s willingness to support each other? How do you feel about women in power positions?

How might some of the barriers to women's power be overcome?

Could men be enlisted to support movements for women's political equality?


Do Women In Politics Make A Difference?

Besides the issue of political equality and democratic justice, the argument for increasing women’s representation in decision-making bodies often hinges on an assumption that women can, more effectively than men, contribute to the formulation of woman-friendly policies because they are somehow better able to represent women’s interests. But this is a controversial assumption. Questions continue to be raised about how such a diverse group as "women" can find meaningful representation in the polity in the absence of procedures for establishing what the group wants or thinks, and in the absence of mechanisms for keeping the "representatives" accountable to their constituents. Questions have also been raised as to why the growing presence of women in politics (in some contexts) is not translating into substantive change toward policies capable of making a positive impact on the lives of ordinary women.

Research in a number of countries has proven that the involvement of women in current public leadership and decision-making makes a qualitative difference in policy-making. In the United States and Sweden, for example, women legislators, irrespective of political party affiliation, tend more than men to raise parliamentary questions on ‘quality of life issues’ (which is a way of saying "basic human rights issues") such as health, education, poverty and family welfare. In addition, women leaders have been found to vote in favor of allocating more resources to these basic sectors than to the military.

Again, we can quote here an example from Cherokee practices, where, according to Awiakta:

" The women’s dance [is] very important. Ceremonially, when the Cherokee women danced for the poor, no one could leave the ground until the Mothers of the Nation judged that there was enough donated to care for the people whose fortune had been bad that year..."

In Europe, where women received the vote relatively late, and are still underrepresented in the political sphere, they have often done better in local elections, based on a perception that the local level is where decisions are made about areas of life which women are very good at. Therefore they need to be elected to city councils, regional assemblies, etc.

Similar patterns apply in Africa:

In her (three year) parliamentary career in Botswana, Hon. Phumaphi has raised more questions on women' s status than any other MP in the 30 years that the House has been in existence. She was able to get through a bill on rape which women NGOs had been suggesting for a long time; she raised issues of child maintenance the reform of which NGOs had lobbied for a long time; she consistently raised the issues of law that discriminates against women; she pushed through motions on women’s property rights and on marital power.

In Gambia, Isatou H.E. Njie-Saidy has been committed to the protection of human rights and gender mainstreaming. Under her auspices, a significant amount of work was done on the twin issues of women’s empowerment and the emancipation of the girl-child.

In South Africa, in only a few years as speakers, Dr. Ginwale and her Deputy Speaker are changing the South African legislative culture to make it more accessible to the people. Following very soon after the Beijing Assembly, the government identified what could be done to achieve gender equality. In line with South African women’s history of massive involvement in resistance to apartheid, women moved en masse into the political process. Out of 490 members of the first National Assembly and Senate, 117 were women, a dramatic change from the apartheid regime

Hon. Charity Kaluki Ngilu, MP, the Presidential Candidate for the 1997 Elections in Kenya addressed the question of the difference a woman can make in parliament. She commented that:

" In 1992, when only six women were elected to the Kenyan Parliament, (there were 200 men), we made such a big difference because of the quality of motions that we brought. Although some of them were not supported, we really believe (they deserved to) have been supported by all our colleagues. We lost some of them and if we had more women in parliament, it would have been easier to look for support to our motion to abolish the law that allows female genital mutilation that thus far has remained defeated. We brought it to parliament, and it was defeated... We fought very hard, and were supported by women in Parliament and women out of Parliament, but still were defeated. Another motion, which was also defeated, aimed to amend the Constitution to make room for affirmative action, i.e., that there should be at least 10 percent representation of women by law in all government offices and in parliament. "

(Adapted from Pramila Patten Women in Power and Decision Making, paper prepared for PDHRE, 1999.)


Kenya’s Great Female Hope: Charity Ngili

In Kenya, one very courageous woman ran for election to the Presidency. Asked about her political adversary, President Daniel Arap Moi, her voice rose and she gave a fiery list of his faults against the Kenyan people. She blamed him for sending his henchmen to buy votes from her supporters in Machakos province and complained about his use of corruption as a political tool. She said she was extremely hopeful regarding the election outcome and would campaign to the bitter end, yet seemed remarkably calm about the prospect of losing, saying she would continue to fight for her party's causes and to change the current political situation.

Ngili came in fifth out of 14, with only 7.91 percent of the vote. However, she is still someone to watch on the political scene. Approximately 65 percent of the estimated 10 million registered Kenyan voters are women and if Ngili could garner their support, combined with the surprisingly large number of men who voted for her, she would have a viable chance. As the leader of her Social Democratic Party, which has 16 members of parliament and is the fourth largest with 139 elected councilors for local authorities, Ngilu is in a prime position to challenge the 2002 presidential contenders. And with Moi in the midst of his last term, she stands a promising chance of success.

Ngilu has made it clear that she intends to run in the next election, and is now focused on her role as a Member of Parliament. She is seeking to politically sensitize Kenyan women who have long been conditioned to accept suppression of their rights by men who insist that they be supported by women, not opposed by them...Ngili is an active member of the Kenyan women's political caucus, and was endorsed by Kenya‘ s League of Women Voters in addition to numerous other political women's groups. During her campaign, she stressed that political reform should be focused on the reduction of poverty, and urged women to take up the cause...

Ngili officially entered politics seven years ago when she was elected to parliament on the Democratic Party ticket. A graduate of the Kenya Institute of Management, she ran a thriving plastics business, while raising three children. Her husband Michael Ngili, who owns an electrical engineering firm, kept a low profile during the campaign. Yet at one rally, he openly supported his wife by encouraging men to let their wives become involved in politics, although reassuring them that his wife still makes his breakfast...

"Constitutional reforms first, because we have to give Kenyans their freedoms if they are to shape their destiny," she told the Nation newspaper. "Nobody else is going to shape Kenya's destiny. The only way to shape Kenya’s destiny is to make [it] truly free. To make sure that we have created a conducive environment for them to do their business in peace. The other priority is the provision of basic needs for Kenyans. People are hungry. You have not gone out to see what I have now seen. Everywhere I have been, Kenyans will first tell you: Tupatie kitu kidogo. Tupatie chai. Tupatie soda (Give us something small. Give us tea. Give us a bottle of soda). Kenyans have been reduced to begging due to poverty."

Her drive to strike out corruption was no less impassioned and aimed directly at the top leaders in the country: "Kenya does not lack intellectual resources," she told newspapers. "It has plenty. Unfortunately what has taken place in this country is that the intellectual resources that should be running and managing offices well have been replaced by sycophants. Then there is corruption. You cannot touch or take anybody to court over corruption when you yourself are corrupt."

Further emphasizing Moi's deficiencies, she vowed to accomplish in five years what he still has not in almost 20. "Kenyans are resourceful and will be ready to work hard as soon as they see a committed, willing and able leader. That is what is lacking," she said. One day, she may get the chance to prove it.

(Cassandra Sullivan, Kenya ' s Great Female Hope: Charity Ngili. in- WIN Magazine, 19, B. 3/5/’99



What difference might it make to have more women in public office in our country?

Do you agree with those who feel that women are more likely to promote peace and social welfare issues than men?

How effective have women leaders been in advancing women’s status?

Have they demonstrated awareness of human rights issues?

Have they championed the implementation of CEDAW and BPFA?

Prepare a list of criteria to circulate among women's groups urging them to assess their representatives and officials on the basis of the criteria and to inform these officials of their ratings..


Getting out the votes - B.a.B.e. Report on Campaign 97 in Croatia

Through the activities of the Women's Ad Hoc Coalitions in 1995 and 1997 women's rights and the need for women's political participation have become increasingly visible and one of the issues politicians and political parties have addressed while campaigning. Some political parties have developed women's programs and two of them have even introduced gender quotas (which are not always respected in practice). Several women candidates have started to advocate women's issues while campaigning. We consider this a big accomplishment in our work, since before we started our activities women's issues rarely appeared in the political life of Croatia.

The number of women representatives in Parliament increased after the April '97 elections for the House of Counties. Compared with the previous total of 5,6 % there are now 7,23 % women representatives in both Houses: 6,66 % in the House of Representatives and 7,8 % women in the House of Counties. The Speaker of the House of Counties is a woman, but the House of Representatives does not even have one woman among its deputy speakers. At the county level, the representation of women in the county assemblies is even lower. Out of 776 seats there are altogether 33 women, or 4,25 %. Four county assemblies do not have any women members at all. The greatest proportion of women members is in the Zagreb County Assembly with 13,7 %. [Analyses of the April '97 elections and the results produced by Women's Infoteka, Zagreb]

In July we learned that Semina Loncar was elected the new President of SDU (Social Democratic Union), a nonparliamentary party, but important for its strategic place on the left wing of the Croatian public landscape. We are proud to say that Semina is a member of B.a.B.e., and attended one of our education workshops on women's human rights in early 1996. She has been very active in all our campaigns and actions, and she has introduced women's politics to SDU and has started a petition on the rights of pensioners after receiving our analyses of the draft of the new Pension Law.

(Source: Vesna Kesic Report to PDHRE on B.a.B.e. ‘s activities)

Dominican women use the vote to get rights

In 1996, women activists in the Dominican Republic pledged to give their votes to the candidate who would promise to give them a (Women’s) Ministry. Only one agreed. He was elected, and he delivered. The Ministry can now really push women’s rights, with support from the United Nations Development Program and the United Nations Population Fund.

Women’s share of voters grew by 17 % in 1996. Before the elections, women activists from different organizations said they would give their vote to the candidate who promised them a Ministry for Women’s Affairs. Leonel Fernandez agreed, was elected, and delivered.

By 1999, Congress had indeed passed a law to create the Ministry, and now some 60 Ministry civil servants are busy extending services to the entire country of eight million people. "In previous campaigns, women were the tool of the political parties", says Minister Gladys Gutierrez. "But by 1996, we got organized".

There had already been a Women’s Department, which had, since 1996, worked with members of political parties and women’s groups to amend five laws ending discrimination against women. The new Ministry would have greater power to ensure that the laws were implemented. For example, women had previously been unable to secure loans from the agricultural bank to buy state land. This has changed, and training was provided for women in rural are understand their rights under the law. Since the law was amended, 73 per cent of the bank’s loans have gone to women.

Working across party lines, women’s groups also lobbied for a law on a mandatory 25 per cent of women in elective office. Initial results are promising: 24 women in Congress, two in the Senate, and 409 in municipal positions. Judges in the country are appointed, and today 37 per cent are women. They are taking action on issues of domestic violence and personal security. They got a new law passed, and worked with the police force to establish woman-friendly precincts where women could report physical abuse and receive support.

They have also organized training for the police, attorneys and politicians on ways to deal with these cases. Another problem facing the country is the high rate of women who emigrate for work to send money home (official figures for 1998, 25,000; unofficial, much higher). Many fall prey to sexual traffickers. Ministry staff approach potential women migrants, and try to provide employment for them within the country, and at the very least to warn them of the risks abroad.

The Ministry’s budget for 2000 is 55 million pesos – way up from the four million previously allocated to the department for women

The Ministry estimates that the Dominican Republic has met 90 per cent of the commitments the international community agreed (to) at the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995. Women account for 34 per cent of the diplomatic corps.

According to the 1999 Human Development Report, women live longer than men in the Dominican Republic (73 years vs. 69), and more go to school (69 per cent of females, 63 per cent of males). But women have a per capita income nearly a third that of men ($2,374 for women to $7,186 for men). Nearly 50 per cent of men and women work in the informal sector, many in micro-enterprises.

There are some 20 political parties in the Dominican Republic. The current president belongs to the party with the highest number of women members (44.2 per cent of the total). But women account for only 8.7 per cent of the biggest party in the country, which is estimated to have about a million members

(source: UNDP report online http://www.undp.org/humanrights)


Elli Nur Hayati, an Indonesian activist, provides this account of her organization' s work to encourage women's political participation in the 1999 election.

In advocating and promoting Indonesian women's participation in the elections, RAWCC (Rifka Annisa Women's Crisis Center) joined forces with a coalition group (GAPTPI -Gerakan Anti Kekerasan Terhadap Permpuan Indonesia) working throughout Indonesia against gender-based violence .

During the New Order era (under Soeharto), women were expected to vote for their husbands’ or supervisors’ party. In most cases, religion was used as a rationale for the legitimization of this government policy: man is the leader of women or women are subordinate to their husbands etc (..)

Prior to election day, GAKTPI offered voter education and awareness classes especially targeted at women. These activities were designed to empower women to make their own free and well informed choices when voting. They were also designed to let women know which parties were sensitive to the needs of women, or who had included the fight for women's rights within their platform.

RAWCC has participated as an independent organization in many events, sending letters and making phone calls, and sending criticism and opinions to newspapers and radio stations. RAWCC also participated in street protests and related street actions, petition signing . They were fully involved in the movement for unity against the status quo, which has manifested itself in various movements here in recent times. During the campaign weeks running up to the election, RAWCC ran a hotline service to provide counseling and advocacy for women who had become victims of electoral campaign violence.

.(Rifka Annisa, e-mail from Elli Nur Hayati, July 3, 1999.)

Africa: quotas and Women’s Charters

At least seven countries -- Botswana, Lesotho, Namibia, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe -- have publicly identified equal sharing of power and decision-making as one of their national priorities.

Women in southern African countries are still invisible in key decision-making bodies: in academic institutions, judiciary, financial institutions, parastatal bodies and their governing bodies, and the private sector. Governments and the NGO sector in the SADC countries have adopted various measures intended to correct past and present gender imbalances, such as affirmative action and quotas systems (all introduced in Angola, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Tanzania, and Zimbabwe). The effectiveness of these measures however will depend and their enforcement, and on training being made available to women to allow them to acquire the necessary skills.

In Namibia, by mid-1997, the number of women parliamentarians had risen from seven to fourteen as a result of affirmative action to include more women in decision-making. In South Africa, a quota system in the ruling African Parliamentary gives 50 percent of local government seats to women. Mozambique and South Africa have the highest percentage of women parliamentarians in the region, at 25 and 24 % respectively. Some fear has been expressed that in the absence of adequate support from their families and political parties, this figure may fall again in the future. As part of the government's plan to implement the BPFA and promote women's participation at governmental level, the Mozambican government has proposed that women occupy 50 percent of positions as deputies at cabinet level, 30 percent in local authorities and 40 percent in government organs.

Various civic organizations and women's NGOs are embarking on leadership training for women, which are however dependent on external donor funding, since they rarely receive financial support from their own governments.

Since 1994 Emang Basadi, a local Botswana NGO, has been conducting one such political education programme whose objective is to increase the number of women in decision-making positions. The organization conducts workshops on lobbying, advocacy and campaign management for prospective women candidates. A voter education programme is aimed at sensitizing the public on gender, women's rights and leadership issues. Emang Basadi facilitated the formation of a Caucus of Women Councilors and Parliamentarians to ensure that gender and women's issues are put on the agenda of the decision-making institutions. Emang Basadi has started focusing on sensitizing women to participate as candidates in upcoming general elections. Starting in 1998 it extended its work management in the public and private sectors. A survey of women in key positions was conducted, and a directory is being prepared.

In Zambia, the National Women's Lobby Group (NWLG) in collaboration with other NGOs has been working to train women in campaigning skills, public speaking and communication skills. A campaign support fund for women candidates regardless of political affiliation, was set up for the 1996 elections and contributed significantly to increasing the number of women parliamentarians to 14, the highest so far. Female parliamentarians formed a caucus to strategize on speaking "with one voice" on national issues that critically affect women and children, regardless of their political affiliation.

In Zimbabwe, a two-year project was launched. to increase the number of women in politics and decision-making in cabinet, local government, parastatals, NGOs and in the churches


Empowerment of a different Kind

Earthquake in India

Women’s empowerment in public affairs can take many forms. More often than not, it occurs in nongovernmental contexts. It may take a communal crisis for women’s capacities to emerge and be given free range, as was the case at the time of the 1993 Marathwada earthquake... Mile upon mile of utter devastation; survivors — mostly old men – sitting in a daze on mounds of stone that were once their homes; the stench of bodies yet to be recovered from under the rubble; rescue teams working day and night. Would these communities ever be able to rebuild their lives and their homes, we wondered, as the politicians busily ran around making all manner of promises?

One of the NGOs working in the area of devastation decided to explore the possibility of using the disaster relief effort to introduce systems that could continue long after the immediate emergency was over. The Swayam Shikshan Prayog (SSP), a group working with women's collectives, which assisted the government in its massive repair and reconstruction program, realized early on that women were completely left out of all discussion and decision making processes. Traditionally, women repair cracks in walls, apply cow dung on floors and in the courtyards and even plaster the outside of their homes. But in the government' s program they had no place.

Believing that women's participation was essential for the long-term effectiveness of any program, whether disaster relief or development, SSP suggested that women become the communicators – the link between the government and the affected communities. Samva Sahayaks or Communication Assistants would be appointed and trained to convince home owners of the value of repair and strengthening.

Although sound, the idea initially failed because it was in the hands of the government. SSP proposed an alternative: reviving the Mahila Mandals [women's associations] that exist in most Maharashtra villages. In the eighties, the state government had implemented developmental programs such as the Integrated Child Development Program (ICDP) through such Mahila Mandals. But in the last years, the MMs have not had much focus and thus had become dysfunctional.

SSP sought to revive these existing women's groups and suggested that they should identify and appoint the Samvad Sahayak [work overseer]. In this way, the SSP was accountable to the Mahila Mandal and not to some distant government official. Three hundred such individuals were identified and appointed in the two districts, they were paid Rs. 500 per month for a period of six months and their task was to monitor the progress in repair and reconstruction of between 150 to 200 houses.

Of course, it was no easy task to get the male dominated teams in the villages to accept these women. What did they know about construction? They would be scoffed at by the junior engineers, village leaders and other officials. But the women persisted. SSP helped train them by sending them to villages where repair work was being done. Concepts like earthquake resistant features were demystified. Within no time, the women understood what was meant by strengthening existing structures. Words like bands, plinths, foundation, became part of their daily vocabulary.

The Samvad Sevaks were also not deterred if officials did not cooperate. They conducted their own house to house surveys, identified the beneficiaries, and ensured that they received the money to which they were entitled. Thus, they introduced transparency in the system.

The presence of the Samvad Sahyaks also ensured that women were included in the decision-making about the repair of the houses. In many of the new houses built in the 52 villages most affected by the earthquake, women had not been consulted. As a result, they were nonfunctional in meeting many daily household needs. They did not have storage places for water and other items or an adequate space for the stove.

SSP' s experience during this period revealed an interesting difference in how people view a house. For the junior engineers, a house was reinforced concrete, CGI sheets, rooms completed within the time frame with earthquake resistant features. For the men, the house was mainly the baithak (living room) where they could entertain their friends and shelter for the family. For the women, a house signified safety, privacy, a place to cook, store, sleep, and to bring up children. Women's involvement made an immediate difference in the way the functional spaces within these houses were organized.

The newly activated Mahila Mandals did not restrict their role to the disaster relief work. They insisted that Gram Sabhas, many of which had never been convened, were called. They opened up issues surrounding the reconstruction program for discussion in the village. The Samvad Sahayaks became the information channels between the communities and officialdom thereby forcing the latter to respond.

For the women who acted as Samvad Sahayak, the six month job resulted in a dramatic change. Says one such woman from Jagji village, Osmanabad district: "I have traveled to Osmanabad many times to meet officials. It was a new experience for me to go out of the village to Osmanabad. Before this, I used to go from my house to the field in the morning and come home from the field to my house in the evening. I did not know anyone in the village as I never had a chance to meet anybody. After working as a Samvad Sahayak, everyone in the village knows me."

The disaster relief program has ended. But the villages of these two districts have gained more than just new or repaired houses. They now know how to build and repair, they know how the government system works and they know that if they are organized, they can hold the government accountable. The Mahila Mandals are determined to continue to use what they have learned. Empowerment of this kind cannot easily be shaken – even by an earthquake.

(Kalpua Sharma, Empowerment of a Different Kind, The Hindu (India), Opinion Section, Sept. 27, 1998)

Rebuilding a country: Mozambique

At the time of the country census in 1980, just over half of the population were women. Yet, the country 's legislation and politics have limited the evolving potential of women. According to Mozambican law, as heads of families only men can get title to land. Politically this is reflected in the fact that Mozambique had only one woman minister. These indicators reflect the values and structures of the former system. The situation started to improve after approval of the 1990 constitution. Of 249 members of parliament taken as a whole, 17.3 percent are women. Thirty nine percent of Frelimo Party members are women as are 33 percent of central committee members. Still, among 128 district administrators, we can find only one woman. The process of change is long.

After the first democratic elections held in 1994, a handful of women were appointed to Government. One was a minister and the others assumed roles as deputy ministers. For the first time, the fixed idea that women should only be responsible for portfolios dealing with social issues such as education was broken. We now find women dealing with other very important issues, such as finance, foreign affairs, labor and justice.

In efforts to maintain the momentum, diverse events were held throughout Mozambique with greater and lesser degrees of success. In one workshop in Inhambane Province, participants were supposed to be drawn from women's leagues of different political parties. In actual fact, political parties simply sent women relatives of party leaders because none of their party members were women...Research undertaken about women in the civil service, shows that illiteracy is not the only reason why women are not being appointed to decision-making bodies: out of 965 women in the public administration, 604 have attended university courses. Of this number, only 346 have assumed leadership functions. Curiously, while women appear to need high levels of education to occupy positions which entail great responsibility, the same requirements are not demanded of men.

Faced with this situation, women started to organize themselves publicly. At present, a small group are intent on mobilizing women to participate in local elections, as voters and also as potential candidates for election to govern life in their cities or towns. Women are already doing this at the family level. Given this context, women in small groups travel different places where elections will be held, and hold meetings with women in the public administration as part of a mobilization and organizational effort.

Women are already working together for the development of the country in other areas. In the agricultural sector, they form cooperative associations. They organize creches where they leave their small children and carry on with their work. Women work as business managers and women own enterprises. But there remain obstacles to the developmental impact that women can make, given the limitations placed upon them. Mozambican law still demands that in some cases women get permission from their husbands to carry out certain commercial activities...However, it seems that the situation of Mozambican women will continue to improve since the will exists among women.

(Luisa Fernand Uachisso, Rebuilding A Country: Women in Mozambique, Community Development in Southern Africa: Sustaining Peace and Preventing Conflict, Volume 4, Second Half 1997)

Restoring Power to Mothers and Children

The story of the German Mother Centers is one of a fast-spreading grassroots women’s movement. Since the first 3 centers were officially started in 1985, around 400 ‘mother centers’ were formed, in West as well as East Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Ukraine.

(...) The Muetterforum movement started as the response to the growing marginalization of mothers of small children and of children themselves, in developed societies (...) One way to define "grassroots" is marginalized groups excluded from societies’ channels of participation and decision making. Their culture, resources and capacities are made invisible by the society at large and in consequence are often hidden to the people themselves: what is not openly valued and validated seems not to exist. This in turn leads to a lack of self confidence, paralleled by a lack of access to economic and social power in society, often entrenching the sense of isolation, distrust and withdrawal. This – in a nutshell– is true of all excluded groups all over the world. The founders of the Mutterforum are acutely aware of the extent to which the dynamics they observed among mothers of young children in our post-industrial societies are similar to those operating among migrants, refugees, homeless people (...)

The focus is on the quality of human settlements and habitat not only as a built environment, a flourishing market and an efficient transportation system, but as a community involving family life, social relationships and "social capital". Mother centers are places where women organize without being ‘clientelized’. They experience themselves as experts on family and community life, supporting each other on a peer level in creating problem-solving strategies for themselves and their environment.

In industrialized societies of today the experience of motherhood is marginalized, the mother child relationship experienced under conditions of isolation.....Northern societies have developed social structures that avoid encounters between adults and children other than in highly specialized children’s islands (i.e. childcare services) or inside the walls of the family home or car. It is becoming increasingly difficult for children to move on their own in public.

Children experience decreasing access to peer contacts and to public space, due to the increase of single child families and increasingly dangerous environments. Their mothers often lack peer contacts. More often than not, parent education and outreach programs reach only a small segment of middle class families and are ineffective with others.

This is a culture characterized by a growing schism between public and private, between political and community life. Going into politics– at all levels, including local governance - in northern societies usually means actually disconnecting from the community and from everyday life. One of the main barriers to grassroots participation in politics and local governance is that grassroots women do not disconnect from, but rather are fully rooted in everyday life and the daily needs of their families and communities.

Childcare should be an obvious part of political infrastructure, just like meeting rooms, chauffeured car parks, telephones, computers and technical equipment, which are considered necessary and are generally provided to hold political meetings and conduct political decision making. That childcare is not included shows that people involved in the political process are clearly not expected to be personally involved in taking care of children (...) Children are cared for on the other side of the fence of public life, on the "dark side of the moon", as it were, the side never seen in public, the side that grassroots women are connected to.

The objective is to create visibility, validation and equity for women’s work in the family and in the communities and for the competencies and expertise developed in this "other side of life" so that they can be included in the decision making processes in the community. Major resources and expertise are wasted by not consulting with users at the grassroots level and by not considering their daily life experience as qualification.(...)

The Mothers’ Platform (was) involved in a major publicity campaign about the pauperization of families (...) this "everyday life scandal" in one of the richest countries of the world.(...) The Mothers Forum (...) creates channels of participation for community women which did not exist before and which are usually not foreseen ... in local governance procedures. Creating direct channels for grassroots participation in planning and development programs improves gender equity in decision making by including a group of women that usually are excluded from public decision making.

Mothers are often highly aware of the consequences of political decisions in fields like transportation, architecture and environmental policies on the lives of children and families. ... Making these competencies visible, reappropriating them collectively, and reintegrating them into local governance is the agenda of the mother centers.

Over the years, they ... have become recognized as a grassroots political voice and partner in urban planning and development and in family policy. The Mothers’ Forum Baden Wuerttemberg ... supported the involvement by the local mothers’ groups in the Habitat II Agenda and in Agenda 21, by lobbying for mother centers to be recognized as partners in local policy making and representing the mother centers in environmental planning and management councils. Community women won access to family and youth welfare councils and municipal decision making bodies. They won seats in district and municipal government. In one city, the local mother center took the mayor on a walk through town to "look at the community through the eyes of women with children at their hand". They pointed out places that were inaccessible with children’s buggies or places that were dangerous for unaccompanied children; they initiated improvements like the installation of red lights at dangerous crossings, pedestrian lanes, and family friendly parking spaces.

Mothers are not approached as problem-people and „deficiencies", but in reference to their strengths and talents, capacities, resources and positive visions... women learn that they are entitled to support and how to create it for themselves. Leadership training and networking are an integral part of their program. Mother centers are places where women experience validation as mothers, where they are empowered by motherhood, rather than being burdened by it. Furthermore, the situation of motherhood cuts across ethnic and class barriers and provides a common issue bringing together women from different social and cultural backgrounds.


Source UNCHS /SCP ( Sustainable Cities Programme) Source Book on "Gender Responsiveness EPM" of (SCP) Muetterforum Baden Wuerttemberg, e mail: mufobawu@aol.com


Are there any public issues in your country or community that could be more effectively addressed through women’s active participation ? How might women contribute to the resolution of these issues and any related problems?

Do you know of women who are qualified for public office and committed to the human rights of women? Is there such a woman in your group? Urge such women to stand for election. Choose a woman candidate for whom your group will campaign.

Design the campaign around goals related to women’s human rights, and choose the particular issues most important to the women of the particular electoral district concerned.

Use the campaign to educate the public on women’s human rights, as well as all human rights.

Are women’s talents fully utilized in the political parties? Are they given the publicity they deserve?

Make a list of women now serving in public office, elected or appointed, and women leaders of NGOs and enterprises, acquire their biographies and information about their leadership skills and capacities. Keep the list updated, consistently adding new names.

Put their names in categories such as Ministry of Defense, Secretary of Labor, Prime Minister. At appointed times send this list with as many signed endorsements as possible to the government executives and leaders of political parties.

What can you do to ensure that women's human rights and political empowerment are featured in political parties’ platform and campaign?


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