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Capacity for effective participation Good practices in brief


Capacity for effective participation

Affirmative action measures aimed at enhancing women’s participation as political representatives in decentralised government bodies is a growing field of research and development practice. Several issues need to be addressed first, however, to realise these goals.

Affirmative action has made it possible in some countries for women to be included in significant numbers in local government. At the same time, devolution policies are granting more powers to local government. Do these combined policies improve the effectiveness of women’s participation in decision making? This article explores the institutional and capacity development issues that need addressing in order for elected women to participate substantively in local government.

Whether or not women will effectively exercise participation and power in practice at the local level depends to a great extent on the terms of their inclusion (the specific features of affirmative action, for example), the extent to which the rules and decentralisation encourage gendered participation, and the strength of women’s organisations in civil society at the local level. This article analyses these issues in a number of countries, based on research conducted by the Royal Tropical Institute (KIT) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in collaboration with IDRC.


Terms of inclusion

In Bangladesh, women representatives are disadvantaged by structural constraints related to the way quotas for women are incorporated into the electoral system. The Union Parishad (a rural local government institution) is made up of nine wards, and the electorate in each of these wards elects a general member. The quotas for women provide three additional seats within each Union Parishad , and potential women representatives of these seats are elected by and responsible for three wards.

This means that women candidates have to canvass and oversee an area three times the size of the area covered by a general (male) member. Women are further disadvantaged by resource constraints.

Although they receive the same budgetary and other resources as general members, women have a wider area to cover. There is also role confusion, as the role of women representatives in given constituencies, which also have three general members, is often ambiguous.

In India, where women receive 33% reservation at all levels of local government, the seats reserved for women rotate during every election. Thus a ward reserved for all-female competition becomes a general ward (in which women and men can compete) in the next election. As a result, political parties simply do not take women’s candidacy seriously nor do they invest in the elected women, knowing very well that in the next round of elections these women will be of no use to their electoral prospects.

In Uganda, the 1997 Local Government Act requires 30% of local council seats to be reserved for all-female competition. However, these seats are an addition to the council body, not part of the existing seats. New wards are created for women’s representation, combining two to three regular wards. In effect, this at least doubles the constituency which women are meant to represent compared to regular ward representatives.

Elections for the women’s seats are held separately, a good two weeks after the ward elections. In the 1998 local government elections, irritation with this unwieldy system, as well as voter fatigue, resulted in a failure to achieve quorum for women’s elections all over the country. Many reruns were subsequently held, but the process undermined the perceived legitimacy and credibility of women politicians.

In Niger, very few women become councillors, despite a law stipulating a 10% quota of women councillors. Action research by a local NGO (Alternatieve) shows that during the 2006 and 2009 election processes in the Zinder Region of Niger, all political parties complied with the law by running women as 10% of their candidates. On some occasions, they even put women with strong voter appeal at the top of the list.

Women are systematically pushed to the bottom of the list as soon as the elections are over, however, thereby destroying any chance of their becoming councillors. Political parties abuse the quota law in that sense, taking advantage of the fact that it does not prescribe a quota for the number of seats in the council, only for the party lists.

Affirmative action clearly helps women to access local and national power structures. However, these examples show that the credibility and legitimacy of elected women as political actors can also be undermined by policy design issues or the partial implementation of affirmative action measures.

Affirmative action will only succeed in getting more women into office if more attention is focused on three levels of policy:

  • the clear definition and formulation of affirmative action policy (the quality of the quota law)

  • the translation of the law into regulations, procedures and accountability mechanisms (e.g. terms of inclusion); and

  • the actual implementation of the policy.

Decision making about resources

Decentralisation processes have been seized upon to enhance political participation among poor women. Decentralisation has introduced measures giving women greater representation in some contexts and has led to civil society initiatives that focus on building the capacity of women elected to local government bodies, organising women’s constituencies, introducing gender audits and using existing institutional spaces. In Latin America, for example, participatory budgeting (a statutory requirement in Peru and Brazil) is being used both as a political tool for mobilisation and for increasing local government accountability towards poor women’s interests.

Experience shows, however, that women’s participation in decision making depends on a number of factors. They include the specific institutional rules governing planning, the extent of devolution of funds and other resources to the local level, and the extent to which power is decentralised so that the use of resources can be monitored and audited by local government bodies.

A common problem in India, for example, is that not all states have devolved financial and administrative powers to the lowestlevel local government bodies, the panchayats . In many instances, panchayats are merely the implementing agency for national poverty eradication and other related programmes and have no role in their planning.

There are similar obstacles in many other countries, where citizens participate in development planning through major consultation processes, and yet local governments still only have limited autonomy and control over revenues and resources to implement their plans. A lack of decision-making space undermines the integration of citizens’ priorities, in particular women’s interests that may also undermine local government legitimacy in the long run.

Even if local governments have the power and resources to implement their plans, few mechanisms exist that enable citizens to hold their local government accountable for budgeting and implementation decisions, in particular with regard to gender equality. No state in India, with the exception of Kerala, has actually earmarked a percentage of its budget for women’s development, making it even more difficult to press for decisions that would further women’s agendas.

In her 2004 essay, Decentralization and gender equality , Anne-Marie Goetz provides examples of institutional innovations that have made women’s participation possible in different national contexts and rendered planning and monitoring functions more accountable to women’s interests. These innovations include earmarking a percentage of the budget for women-only deliberations, gender-sensitive local revenue and spending analysis. These are some of the measures that should amplify women’s voices in local deliberations, and support spending on women’s needs.

Focus on individual capacities

There is no getting around the fact that affirmative action in local governments in South Asia has given rise to what has been termed ‘de facto’ politics. De facto politics refers to a political situation where a person, despite being an elected representative, does not actively participate in governance processes. This is not to suggest that all women always find themselves in this situation, nor that it is irreversible. There is ample evidence to suggest that rural and urban women, as well as low caste, tribal women elected to local government institutions have functioned and are functioning as elected representatives.

NGOs and civil society organisations continue to support women in local government by enhancing their capacities and voices. In India and Bangladesh they do so on the assumption that women’s political inexperience, and their lack of skills and information, constrains their political participation. Governmental training programmes for elected representatives share these assumptions. Many civil society organisations, especially those representing women’s interests, have also realised the importance of support networks for women’s survival and continuance in public office.

Institutional constraints often ignored

Several research studies on participation in local government institutions by elected women view them as independent agents or rather as women unaffected by gender inequality. According to an assessment carried out by the Asian Development Bank in 2004, Gender and Governance Issues in Local Government , more than 70% of women councillors interviewed in Bangladesh were not aware of their rights and responsibilities as representatives. An even higher percentage – more than 80% – expressed a lack of confidence in their ability to conduct meetings. In Pakistan, only 22% of women councillors reported that they attended council meetings regularly, and less than 30% had any knowledge of the council agendas of the last two sessions or of the council budget.

While participation rates of elected women in local councils are low, they are also contingent on several factors, such as gender norms, family, caste, class and religion. This inadvertently points to the ‘incapacity’ of women, or their ‘indifference’, to get involved in politics and local councils. The solutions offered are generally measures to make up for women’s deficits rather than measures that tackle the institutional conditions that constrain women’s participation, such as the terms of inclusion and the features of the decentralisation reforms discussed above.

Therefore, increased political participation requires a thorough understanding of a country’s political context and its terms of inclusion, and an integrative approach to empowerment, institutional development and the formalisation of spaces for citizen participation and accountability mechanisms.

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