Monday, March 16, 2009

COMMENTARY: "Founding Sisters"

A Commentary by CEDPA President Carol Peasley

March 16, 2009 from

As we celebrate International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month throughout March, we need to remember that the origins of these events go back to long-ago protests in Europe and the United States for the political rights of working women. Those political roots are important, especially for those of us who care about history and want to learn from the past. Certainly, in the United States, our public media has been filled with recent celebrations of our history, including remarkable insights about Abraham Lincoln on the 200th anniversary of his birth and about John (and Abigail) Adams during the brilliantly produced HBO television series. They certainly provoked me to go back to my history books and to read more about our founders. One of my favorites was “Founding Brothers” by Joseph Ellis. That book was a wonderful reminder of how fortunate the United States was to have such exceptional founders – people who put community and nation first, people who knew how to compromise, and people who had the highest standards of integrity.

Now, why would the CEO of an organization known for training and empowering women promote a book titled “Founding Brothers”? The answer is simple: I hope future generations around the world will be reading about the “founding sisters” in their countries.

There are many women around the globe who are writing the initial chapters of those books. While most are unseen by the elites in their countries, these grassroots activists are providing services and pushing for reforms in their countries. These “sisters” abound with the unique characteristics of those founding brothers in 18th century America – i.e., intelligence, integrity, commitment, collegiality, energy, the ability to compromise and a willingness to sacrifice for the larger whole.

The challenge for all of us, as we celebrate women this month, is to find new ways to expand the voices and profiles of these women. Certainly we at CEDPA, and those in our sister organizations around the world, are committed to helping a new generation of women leaders emerge so that they can become their country’s “founding sisters.” We want them to emulate women like CEDPA board member, Phoebe M. Asiyo, a former commissioner of the Constitution of Kenya Review Commission and current chair of Kenya’s Caucus for Women’s Leadership. Phoebe has had a remarkable impact in Kenya and on all of us who have had the honor to work with her at CEDPA. What are some of the steps we need to take to help build more “Phoebes”?

  1. We need to strengthen women’s leadership training around the world and do it the right way. Only highly motivated participants who are committed to replicating their training should be selected; trainees should be challenged to develop and then implement action plans to apply their training; and they must have the chance to learn from one another and to network with others. When done right, the results can be remarkable.

  2. We need to build coalitions of individuals and organizations that can advocate for change and achieve concrete goals. Such coalitions can have substantial impact, as reflected by CEDPA’s experience with women’s advocacy networks in Egyptian governorates. Those networks led to thousands of new female registered voters, health improvements and new microenterprise opportunities.

  3. We need to mobilize women voters and ensure that women participate in all aspects of the electoral process: as candidates, activists, poll workers and election monitors as well as voters. Again, CEDPA has seen first-hand the important role women’s groups can play in fledgling democracies such as Nigeria over the past ten years. Five Nigerian women’s coalitions launched voter education activities in 1998 and mobilized more than 750,000 new registrants for the country’s critically important 1999 election. In later years, these coalitions took on even broader roles, moving beyond voter education to active roles in monitoring election posts and in securing greater confidence in the democratic process.

  4. We need to elect more women candidates. Women hold less than 20 percent of all parliamentary seats worldwide and are underrepresented in other community and national decision-making bodies, thus limiting their influence on the policies and resources that govern their daily lives.

  5. We need to hold public officials accountable. Some successful strategies have included the formation of local advocacy groups; the collection of data and monitoring by “watchdog” groups; use of report cards for public officials; and work with journalists. When local groups are persistent and when they take the time to adequately document government performance, they can bring about change. Certainly we saw this in Kaolack, Senegal where community activists convincingly pointed out government shortfalls and thus increased the funding for reproductive health, including the free provision of medical kits for delivery and caesarean births.

  6. We need to advance peace and security. When countries emerge from conflict, a window of opportunity opens to advance women’s leadership, foster democratic systems and create new policy frameworks, governing structures and institutions. We need to ensure that women are represented at all stages of the process of securing and maintaining peace, whether in mobilizing communities to end hostilities; providing support to victims; strengthening community institutions that bring people together; serving as military observers; designing and implementing demobilization plans; training the security forces to address gender-based violence; or leading and participating in political processes to develop new governing structures. We have certainly seen the success of this approach through our work with the WomenAct coalition, a group that has ensured active female participation in Nepal’s constituent assembly and constitution-writing process.

As we move forward on all of these steps, we can be sure that we are paving the way for that next generation of “founding sisters.” I can hardly wait to read that book.

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