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'Women should be at the centre': Summit proves worth of gender equality in politics worldwide

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Participants were filled with energy and enthusiasm; sounds of optimistic laughter echoed under the dome of Parliament of Jordan. Instead of men in black, grey or blue suits, the place was filled with finely dressed women. Some of them wore their traditional attires. During breaks, women exchange art pieces, scarves and beaded fabric purses with each other. Peace building was a priority during their discussions and panels.  

In a country surrounded by tensions and conflicts, more than 400 women Members of Parliaments and governments from more than 80 countries found a safe space in Amman to meet, network and discuss their perspectives during Women in Parliament (WIP) Global Summit on May 4-6, 2016. Currently, there are 18 women MPs in Jordan and eight members of the Senate.

The summit, "Women in Politics: Fast Forward" was co-hosted by the Jordanian Parliament and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in collaboration with the Jordanian National Commission for Women (JNCW) and Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL). The summit focused on the importance of parity of power and addressed crucial matters such as peace, security, migration and integration.  

"The mission of Women in Parliaments Global Forum (WIP) is to increase the number and influence of female parliamentarians across the globe," said Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder of WIP and former vice president of the European Parliament. "Politics need women more than women need politics," said Hanna Birna Kristjansdottir, Iceland member of parliament and WIP's chair.

While numbers matter, the role women take when they are leaders is the most essential.  "Increasing number of women in parliament is not the only objective. In fact, it's half the battle," said Mari Kiviniemi, deputy secretary general of OECD and former Prime Minister of Finland. "We are here because we know that governance is at the centre of women empowerment."

According to UN Women, only 22 per cent of all national parliamentarians were female as of August 2015. Globally, there are 37 States in which women account for less than 10 per cent of parliamentarians in single or lower houses; there are six chambers with no women at all. 

Government of Canada was one of the partners that made the summit possible. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Foreign Affairs Pamela Goldsmith-Jones announced Canada's contribution of $ 16.3 million to further support of women’s empowerment in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region through a project implemented by the Forum of Federations. "Women's participation in political spheres and decision-making spaces is essential to ensuring that democracies are truly representative," said Goldsmith-Jones. "More women in leadership positions means a more balanced view on policy. And it tells young girls and boys that power can, and should, be held equally."

"We are being led equally by men and women in our cabinet," said Goldsmith-Jones. She also mentioned that the Canadian government puts special emphasis on caring for vulnerable women as thousands of Syrian refugees arrive. "Canada has welcomed 25,000 Syrian refugees and will do more," said Goldsmith-Jones.  

This summit took place in the MENA region for the first time; Jordan was the destination. It gave women in governments an opportunity to know more about each other's work. I spoke to some of them who shared with me their reflections on the WIP summit experience.

"Women who are active and leaders in their countries are gathering together. This is a great network,"said Hiam Kalimat Tuguz, Jordanian senator. She told that although Jordanian women have closed the gender gap in education, this is not reflected in the workforce where women unemployment rate is drastically higher than that of men. Tuguz added that the summit gave an opportunity to learn from the experiences of women in other countries. 

"I am very thrilled and happy to have this event in Jordan. This event is the first of its kind in the MENA region and we are proud to have it here in the Jordanian Parliament. It's a strong message for peace, economy, development and reform," said Rula Al-Hroob, Jordanian MP. "Jordan is telling the world: 'I am opening my hands to you and I want to listen and learn from your experiences.' Jordan has managed to be the oasis of peace."

However, Al-Hroob mentioned that Jordan could learn from other countries to close the political gender gap. "Perhaps we could have more courage in implementing reforms when it comes to legislations and when it comes to government policies concerning women empowerment," said Al-Hroob.

Women from several Arab countries including Egypt and Tunisia, where the Arab Spring changed the political systems, attended and participated in the summit. "Women have reached to high positions and are ambitious. This summit gives us hope in the coming future," said Sanaa Anwer Barghash, Egyptian MP.

"Having a global network of women Members of Parliaments to empower women politically and in all fields will create solidarity. It will not only help empower women in the political arena, but in all other fields," said Magda Nasr, Egyptian MP.

"It's important to put all of this energy to make women help women put gender lens in every law, not to forget and not to leave any woman behind," said Olaf SoukriChrif, Tunisian MP who insisted that each delegation has the obligation to take and work on at least one action to improve the status of women in their countries.

It was Italiam MP Lia Quartapelle’s first time attending "an only women's conference," especially a parliamentary one. To her, it was clear that the issue of women's rights is not imported to anywhere in the world.

"I will go home with the feeling that there is an ongoing discussion and the issue of women's rights is not something that we, in the West, have to spread across the world, but we have to find ways to accompany debates in different parts of the world," said Quartapelle. "We are discussing in our delegation how to promote occasions of exchanges on legislative reforms concerning women’s rights, especially health and development."

Julie Ward is not only a Labour and Co-operative Party Member of the European Parliament for the North West of England, but is a woman’s rights activist and a poet. "Until we see ourselves represented in elected bodies, we are never going to achieve full equality and we are never going to get rid of violence against women," said Ward. "You realize that despite differences in language and nationality, many of us want the same things. We have to reach out to each other across these boundaries and borders."

Louise Mushikiwaba, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation Rwanda, was one of the keynote speakers. The Rwandan experience is a unique one. Despite the challenges, women in Rwanda hold 64 per cent of the parliamentary seats. This is the highest number of parliamentarians worldwide. "More women in politics means better and faster transformation of society," said Mushikiwaba. "The impact has been tremendous in changing some of the laws that have made our society better: laws on inheritance, equal pay for men and women, laws on ownership of the land."

"Men should stop using culture as an excuse to not allow women to be alongside with them in politics,"said Mushikiwaba in her presentation. "Women should be at the centre....Woman is the giver of life."

Several speakers and participants reiterated the importance of women solidarity in order to close the gender gap. During her presentation, Åsa Regnér, said that women should protect and defend each other. Regnér is Sweden’s minister for children, the elderly and gender equality. Sweden is well know for its feminist foreign policy.

Although the status of women's rights is advancing in several places in the world, a huge gender gap still exists in many countries. Governance is one of the sectors in which the gap is evident. But in addition to that, basic rights are still missing in some of the countries in which participants came from. For instance, the Saudi delegation to the forum comes from a place where women are still banned from driving and live under the control of male guardians. According to Amnesty International 2015/2016 annual report, "women had subordinate status to men under the law" in Saudi Arabia. In December 2015, Saudi women were allowed to vote and to stand as candidates in municipal elections for the first time. However, they were not allowed to publicly campaign with male voters.

While hundreds of women took part in discussions pertaining peace, the conflicts in Yemen and Syria are escalating. On the other hand, thousands of Yazidi women have been kidnapped, raped and killed by ISIL in Iraq and Syria. This urgent situation proves that women need to be at the centre as decision-makers during peace talks. While women and children are most affected by armed conflicts and wars, only nine per cent of peace negotiators are women.  

"Without the empowerment of women, there can be no global culture of peace," said Marie Louise Preca, President of Malta.

This Project was carried out with the aid of a grant from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Ottawa, Canada.

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