Women cannot abandon the struggle

Podium: Shirley Williams; From a speech by the Liberal Democrat peer given at a British Council seminar in South Africa
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The Independent Culture
SOUTH AFRICA remains for many of us an inspiration. Yes, I know that poverty is endemic, and the battle against it is heartbreakingly hard. I know poverty breeds crime, sometimes violent and grotesque. I know that power - side-by-side with poverty - often tempts public officials in all countries to abuse that power. But none of that vitiates the achievement of a democratic, multiracial society after the apartheid regime, which was a blasphemy on the human race.

For South Africa 1994 was an annus mirabilis. It was also a good year for women, a year in which women were elected to a quarter of the seats in South Africa's National Assembly, the sixth highest proportion in the world. That annus mirabilis fell within the United Nations' Decade for Women, a decade that began with the great 1985 Nairobi conference.

Riding the high tide of that decade, women were elected in unprecedented numbers. In India, a third of all local government-elected posts were reserved for women. In the US, women broke through the 10 per cent glass ceiling of seats in Congress for the first time. In the UK, women-only constituency selections led to nearly a fifth of the members of the House of Commons being female. And in Europe, too, nearly a quarter of those elected to the European Parliament were women.

Now the tide is ebbing. Perhaps we are seeing only a slight setback, to be followed by a yet stronger recovery. Or maybe we have to resume the struggle all over again.

Let me read the tide-marks. First, recession and crisis in the developing world. That is bad news for women, who are always the first to suffer. In a fight for jobs, women are pushed out of the labour market even though they are often the family breadwinners. Poverty has the face of a woman and the body of a child.

Second, institutional rigidity. The wave of newly elected women in the late Eighties and early Nineties moved confidently towards the reform of traditional institutions: Parliament, the law, the bureaucracy. They underestimated the rigidity of institutions that have been shaped, constructed and operated for one gender only. There is no good reason why parliaments should not provide decent child-care facilities, or reasonable timetables. Such characteristics of our legislatures make life particularly hard for women members.

Third, the rigidity of traditional attitudes. A few years ago a radically- minded peer proposed in that most hoary of ancient institutions, the House of Lords, that the eldest child of a family should inherit the title, regardless of gender. "Unfair to boys", declared many of his colleagues. But, of course, it wasn't. The proposal simply established a level playing- field for sons and daughters. It was rejected. But attitudes of that kind - the unquestioned assumption that men are cleverer, more able, more rational, more reliable - slumber just below the surface in the minds of many men and, alas, of many women too.

There is no inevitability of progress.

Quotas or special measures are, I believe, essential to break the mould of institutionalised inequality. In South Africa the African National Congress committed itself to a one-third quota of women candidates in the 1994 elections. In India, a quota of one-third of all council seats and of all council chairmanships for women is transforming local government. I recently met a Rajasthani woman who had been in purdah for more than 20 years, and today is chair of a major district council.

As well as campaigning within parties, women need to campaign for a legal framework to reject discrimination.

Women in decision-making posts need to concentrate not just on so-called "women's issues", but on a tax and expenditure pattern that narrows inequalities and provides basic public services.

Poverty continues to be the greatest enemy of social justice and of equality.

The last frontier is global. As the world passes through recession, those social services that protect and enhance human potential - education and public health - need to be safeguarded. Compulsory primary education is the key to literacy and to equal opportunities as well.

Women bring fresh values to politics. Where they play a large part in shaping the culture of public life, as in Scandinavia, politics begin to change. Look at the participation of women in politics in countries characterised by the violent abuse of power - Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Cambodia - and you see that in these countries the participation of women is minimal. Our voices should be heard. In a world wracked by violence and by poverty, we cannot abandon the struggle.