Women stir up the zeal of women at the ALDE Congress in Budapest

International Office_with textOn Friday 20 November the Liberal Democrats International Office organised a roundtable discussion on promoting women in politics at the 2015 Congress of the Alliance of Liberal and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), sharing success stories from across Europe. 

International Research Officer Nick Thorne tells us more about the event here.

“The most important thing women have to do is to stir up the zeal of women themselves.” Kicking off the discussion with this inspiring quote from John Stuart Mill, Baroness Sal Brinton set the tone for what was to be a dynamic debate. Women are 51% of the population, but in the UK, they make up just 29% of MPs. Frighteningly, this is higher than the European average of 25.5% and it is not much better than the average of 23.2% in Sub-Saharan Africa.

While there have been incremental improvements over the past decades, progress remains frustratingly slow, and at the current rate, gender equality in the House of Commons will not be achieved until the year 2085. The aim of this discussion was share experiences among political parties across Europe, to share strategies and learn from each other to promote women more effectively, with the long-term goal of accelerating our movement towards gender parity in politics. If we can harness new and innovative approaches to advance gender equality used in other European countries, we may not need to wait until 2085 for women to be fully represented in governments across the continent.

Chaired by Baroness Sal Brinton, President of the Liberal Democrats, the discussion began with speeches from Dina Durakovic, International Officer for the Bosnian Nasa Stranka party; Lousewies van der Laan, outgoing Vice President of ALDE and former MEP for the Dutch D66 party; Gunilla Hjelm, President of the Swedish Centre Party’s women’s organisation; and Petra Stienen, a Senator for D66 in the Netherlands, followed by an open discussion.

This event was coordinated by the Liberal Democrats International Office as part of our project with Nasa Stranka, working promote women in politics in Bosnia, and was organised in conjunction with the Swedish Centre Party and Dutch D66. The ALDE Congress presented a unique opportunity to bring together leading women in political parties across Europe, and the participants in the discussion included representatives from the Danish Radikale Venstre, German FDP, Swedish People’s Party of Finland, Latvian Attistibai party, Irish Fianna Fail, Belgian Open VLD, and the ALDE Gender Equality Network.

The discussion brought out a fascinating range of perspectives. Nasa Stranka has launched ‘Initiative 50%’, an ambitious programme to ensure that women make up 50% of all candidates in the local election in 2016 and national elections in 2018. At the municipal level, an impressive 46% of elected Nasa Stranka councillors are female, thanks to the implementation of a female quota.

Petra Stienen argued that gender equality is not just important for women, but also for men. She strives to be a role-model for both women and men. “A lot of men are put off politics because they think it’s too testosterone-fuelled and macho”, she said.

Lousewies van der Laan alluded to a scientific analysis conducted by the Austrian NEOS party, on why women are often dissuaded from going into politics. The findings were often very simple: for example, for women with children, starting meetings at 8pm in the evening puts them off getting involved. Other political parties would do well to follow suit in investigating this issue.

A wide variety of strategies to overcome the barriers facing women in politics were discussed. Gunilla Hjelm suggested establishing women’s organisations and support networks; Karin Riis Jorgensen of the Danish Venstre party advocated mentorship for female candidates; Anna Jungner Nordgren from the Swedish People’s Party argued that providing affordable day care is crucial; Flo Clucas, President of the ALDE Gender Equality Network, proposed that governments could enforce female quotas by fining or suspending the lists of parties which do not comply.

While there was agreement on many issues, there was a healthy debate on the question of female quotas. Sissel Kvist from the Danish Radikale Venstre party argued that quotas do not work and are a short-term fix which may succeed in getting women on to party lists, but do not get women elected. Dina Durakovic and Sal Brinton took the opposing view, claiming that affirmative action was the only way effect real change, and that the lack of progress in the UK is indicative of this. Catherine Bearder, MEP for the Liberal Democrats, suggested that ‘targets’ could be a more appealing word than ‘quotas’ to promote the strategy.

With contributions flying from all corners of the room, the discussion showed no sign of stopping and the commitment of those ALDE member parties to tackling gender inequality in politics was evident. However, the battle is not over, and all agreed that the outcomes of the discussion must feed into follow-up events and inform strategies to put them into practice across the ALDE network. Watch this space!

* Nick Thorne is International Programme Development and Research Officer for the Liberal Democrats

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