This year we celebrate a hundred years since some women in the UK gained suffrage. It was achieved after eighty-six years of tireless campaigning from peaceful protest to hunger strikes and everything in between, all of which followed the presentation of the first women’s suffrage petition to parliament in 1832. 2018 is also the 100th anniversary of the election of Constance Markievicz, the first ever women elected to parliament.
A hundred years on and despite having had two female Prime Ministers, the increase in the number of female MPs in the UK has been glacial at best. Currently, there are 208 female members of Parliament, and although this is the highest level ever, it is merely 32% of parliamentary seats. Following Theresa May’s recent reshuffle, the UK Cabinet now only has six female members, including the Prime Minister, just 26% of cabinet positions.
Emily Thornberry, the first shadow secretary of state, perfectly put the issue of female political representation into perspective during a session of PMQs last month when she highlighted that, in the last one hundred years of British politics, she has been the only ‘Emily’ elected as a Member of Parliament whilst there have been 155 named ‘David’.
Clearly, there is much work to be done on increasing the level of female representation in Parliament. However, with inspiring feminist organisations such as ‘The Fawcett Society’ and ‘50:50 Parliament’ leading the way on this issue with campaigns such as #OurTimeNow and #AskHerToStand, it is also clear that women are as dedicated as ever to increasing our presence in politics.
Why is it necessary, though, to have equal numbers of men and women in politics?
It is evident that the lived realities of manhood and womanhood in our society are very different. It is therefore vital that the experiences of both men and women should be taken into account when our political institutions draft, debate and pass legislation.
Last March, when a picture emerged of US president Donald Trump and twenty-nine other American politicians gathering to discuss the new healthcare bill there was something extremely odd about this image of lawmakers at work. Considering that these men were specifically discussing how this bill would affect women’s access to pregnancy and maternity care was shocking given that all thirty of them were men; men who never have, and never will, become pregnant or need maternity care. This is a perfect example of why it is vital that we see more women entering politics. Surely policy and legislative decisions relating to pregnancy and maternity care should have a significant input from women who are much more likely to understand the lived reality of pregnancy?
Including women in politics has been clearly shown to have produced policy and legislation that is hugely beneficial to women in several nations around the world like Rwanda, Bolivia and South Africa. Rwanda, for example, has the world’s highest representation of women in government. Thanks to a very successfully quota system, women currently make up 61.3% of the Rwandan legislature. This increase in the representation of women has been noticeably beneficial to women and girls in Rwanda. Boys and girls now attend school in equal numbers and, in 2008, the majority female legislature passed a Gender-Based Violence bill which protects women from physical and sexual violence. The passing of this bill also means that Rwanda is now one of only six sub-Saharan African countries where marital rape is illegal.
It is also important to note increased female participation in politics has been linked to less corruption and increased spending on education and the environment. Put simply, the life of a woman is not the same as that of a man’s and we need laws and policies that reflect this. In order to achieve this, we simply need to include women in the legislative process. We need more women in politics.