An important standard by which the quality of a democracy is determined, is not only the degree to which all citizens – men and women – are able to effectively participate in the political system, but also how equitably represented they are public office. The participation of women in positions of political power not only confers a greater sense of political legitimacy to a government, but it also increases the likelihood that policy debates and deliberations include the perspectives and experiences of women. In effect, including women in political office increases their chance to contribute to the transformation of society and of politics itself.
The recent world ranking of women’s participation in national parliaments, as reported by the Inter-Parliamentary Union as of February 2014, has placed Belize among the lowest ten of all 150 countries, and the worst in the Americas and Caribbean. Belize, ranked 141st, shares the bottom of this global list with such countries as Iran, Lebanon, Comoros, Marshal Islands and very few others.
As part of Belize’s obligation to the Millennium Development Goals (MDG), one of the targets for accomplishment by the year 2015 is the increase in proportion of seats held by women in national parliament. Thus far, women representation remains extremely low, with hardly a dent made to this target that was set almost fourteen years ago. Given the current practices, there seems no indication that this trend will change in the foreseeable future.
Comprising almost 50% of the Belize’s population, Belizean women have made significant progress in access to higher education and in achieving leadership roles in the public service and civil society. About 70% of graduates from the University of Belize are women. Most of Executive Directors among NGOs and Civil Society Organizations in Belize are women. A number of women are CEOs in the public service. Despite these accomplishments, however, they have not broken the barriers to political leadership. But this is not surprising, given that Belize is a relatively very young nation merely 33 years of independence.
Comparatively, the progress in women’s participation in national parliaments of far older, advanced and more resourced democracies such as Canada, United Kingdom, and U. S. A. have been very slow and less than impressive. Even after almost 240 years of its independence, gender parity in electoral office in the United States, for example, is well below the global average. Currently, U.S.A., which is ranked 84th in the report, shows that women make up less than 20% of its parliament. In factit wasn’t until 1920, well over a century after its independence that women in the U.S. were granted the right to vote.
In the sphere of governance and politics in Belize, as is in several other democratic countries, it is still a man’s world. Globally, men not only dominate the key institutions of power – business, military, government and church – but they also wield tremendous power through various exclusive secret societies, business organizations and wealth. In order to change this deeply embedded structure, persistent efforts must be made to nurture inclusive ways for people to interact with each other. These efforts should also start within our schools. But that will take enlightened school leadership, which, with many stuck to the status quo, has become virtually lacking in our education system.
As an outcome of the established cultural value system, Belizean women face several constraints that have persistently excluded them from participation in elected office. These include traditional family obligations of women for household work and childcare, perceptions of their own personal capabilities to successfully run for office, low levels of encouragement and support by political leaders and potential constituents (including fellow women), discriminatory and sexist recruitment practices for political party candidates, blatant disrespect by some male political leaders, aversion to potentially negative and often degrading political campaigning, lack of campaign financing, potential hindrance to professional goals as a result of running for office, fear of a loss of privacy for self and family, among several other constraints which tend to affect men less.
Unfortunately, there are few women in leadership positions in various organizations who have exhibited similar undesirable traits of some of the men in similar positions. As such, they become poor examples and harm the perception of a potential difference of women’s leadership. Rather than exercising genuine leadership, they tend to get too caught up in the ego of their positions, becoming pompous, disrespectful, disconnected, condescending and unable to genuinely listen. Because of their inability to nurture team spirit, the culture within their organizations becomes fractured, full of misery and persistent tension.
The few women who have been elected to Belize’s National Assembly tend to be those less constrained by traditional family obligations, are connected to the inner circles of political parties through family, social class or other political affiliations, and are actively encouraged and supported by the oligarchy.
Leadership that originates from within the core party structure rather than promoted through genuine connections with the masses are not always genuinely representative of the people’s aspirations. Therein lies a problem. Such leaders represent party, rather than people, first. As such, with people’s participation limited to vote casting, there remains the tendency to neglect genuine consultation and collaboration with the people about their vision, aspirations and matters that affect them.
If Belizean women want real representation and change in our democracy, they cannot expect a different result by hoping and waiting to be accepted within the political status quo. Rather, if there is genuine interest in participation, women must also nurture and prove their leadership outside the political party system. The people must be able to know, feel and trust that the women who emerge as leaders, genuinely have their interest at heart and will make a difference. And the people’s trust must never be broken. All this require high levels of integrity and honesty, deep respect for people, humility, equanimity, courage, clearly communicated vision and fresh approaches in pursuit of the highest good for the people.
As the Belizean people continue to cry out for real leadership, women who are capable and willing to genuinely serve ought to courageously step out of their comfort zones and demonstrate that they can really make a difference. For some this may require taking off the jacket, high heels, jewelry and lipstick, grounding oneself to a higher spirit and purpose, and constantly nurturing genuine relations with the people, in their homes, at schools, churches, town meetings or wherever people’s aspirations are expressed. The focus must not merely be on party politics but rather on a spirit of genuine service and nurturing, perhaps in ways that men have not, a culture of leadership that truly desires optimal opportunities for the development of all.
When the people themselves grow to deeply trust and strongly support an upright leader outside the divisive political party system, no political force can stop this. Authentic effective leaders shine forth in their own right and above the divisiveness of party politics because they are deeply rooted in honesty and integrity and the pursuit of the people’s interest and wellbeing.
Fruitless repetitive intellectual ruminations about getting more Belizean women in politics will not make the cut, just as it hasn’t in the past 14 years of this failed MDG target. The effective difference will be made by women with the right mix of intelligence, positive character traits and soul-force, who rise above the status quo, actively engage people, earn their trust, and work selflessly with the people to enable the accomplishment of their collective aspirations. When these flames of light burn and shine forth anywhere, we the people – women and men alike – must nurture and support them. Will the women leaders now step forward?
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