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Challenging the current

Jillian Terry

By Jillian Terry

On the issue of women and politics, I have to admit I’m biased. I’m completing my third year of an honours degree in political science, and I’m female. I have a vested interest in the status of women in political society, and may even picture myself as a future member of the House of Commons every now and then. I recognize that I may be at least a partial anomaly compared to some of my peers, but nonetheless am amazed and dissatisfied with the perceptions of women in politics that continue to permeate modern society.

As of Feb. 29th of this year, Canada stands at 49th in the world on the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s (IPU) rankings of women in national parliaments. Not surprisingly, the Nordic social democracies of Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway, and Iceland all rank in the top 15. It has been a long-standing fact that the progressive systems of government and electoral processes in Scandinavia give women a better chance of being elected, and that more equitable numbers of women in elected office is accepted as part of a functioning democracy in Nordic society.

What may come as a shock, however, are some of the other countries that stand between Canada and the number one ranking on the IPU’s list. Rwanda currently holds the top spot, with 48.8 per cent of seats in its lower house of government filled by women. South Africa, Uganda, Burundi, Afghanistan, Namibia, Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Iraq all have more women in their national parliaments than Canada, our supposedly advanced democracy, coming in a distant 49th with only 21.3 per cent of seats in the House of Commons occupied by females. If women constitute 52 per cent of Canada’s population, why does such a pronounced gap exist between the numbers of men and women in elected office at all levels of government?

Last month, an introductory meeting by Equal Voice was held in St. John’s in an attempt to answer this very question. Equal Voice is a national multi-partisan organization that operates with the specific mandate of electing more women to public office in Canada. With chapters across the country, Equal Voice works with political parties and local women to train potential candidates and try to remove some of the many barriers facing females in political campaigning. Attendees at the St. John’s meeting included current and former female politicians and local businesswomen, as well as women and men from journalism and academia sitting amongst other interested individuals. With such a diverse pool of interest, I was hopeful and inspired that a local Equal Voice chapter would be off the ground in no time, and that men and women in Newfoundland and Labrador are committed to a gender balance in the politics of this province. That is, until I began to talk to my peers.

In discussing Equal Voice and the idea of electing more women in politics with students, friends, and colleagues, responses run the gamut from optimistic to arrogant. While some of those I spoke to (of both sexes) are incredibly open to the idea, acknowledging that for over half of our country’s population to be fairly represented in politics a more equitable distribution of women in elected office is necessary, others continue to believe stereotypes about women that I had thought (and hoped) had been dispelled in recent decades. For example, the widely held belief that women just aren’t interested in politics.

This is 2008, not the 1800s. Even in the early 20th century, suffragettes in Canada represented women who were keenly interested in the world of politics – and we’ve come a long way since then. Sure, there are women who aren’t interested in government and elections, just like there are men who could care less about the action in the House of Commons. That doesn’t mean that as a gender, women aren’t involved in politics because they have no interest in it. Reducing the phenomenon to such a simple explanation spurred by stereotype can only further the misunderstandings seen by many Canadians in modern society.

No matter what the popular opinion in Newfoundland and Labrador may be, this province and country is facing a challenge regarding the lack of women in politics at all levels of government. This is not a matter of party, platform, or popularity. All it takes is a little common sense: 52 per cent of the country with only 21 per cent of seats shows the incredible and deep-rooted under-representation of women in Parliament. Political science student or not, woman or not, the fact that a strong female voice is not present during policymaking that is shaping the ways our towns, provinces, and country will be in the future should be an issue for everyone – equally.

You can let student writer Jillian Terry know how you felt about her suggestions by e-mailing her at jterry@mun.ca. You never know, she may just find it in amongst all those spam messages.

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