Speaking notes, Emma Bonino, MEP, at the Second Symposium on Participation of Women in Public Life
6 February 2006, Istanbul
It is a great pleasure for me to be here today and I would like to express my sincere thanks to the organisers both for holding this conference and for inviting me to speak on the participation of women in public life, which as you all know is something that I talk about as often as I can because of its critical importance both in and of itself, but also in promoting reform on a range of vital issues.
There is a growing drumbeat of reform that is echoing across the broader Middle East and North Africa and the extraordinary thing is that in many instances, women are the driving force. In fact, we can see a kind of political globalisation taking place across the world, with not just ideas and theories sweeping from nation to nation, but real political action and reform. As countries reap the benefits of reform, their neighbours are watching closely and we can often see trends being mirrored in different places.
Take, for example, the issue of equality and citizenship. For too long in too many countries â€“ including the so-called â€śdevelopedâ€ť countries â€“ citizenship has been handed down through the paternal line. So if your parents have different nationalities, you take your fatherâ€™s citizenship but do not have the option of taking your motherâ€™s. This is slowly being recognised as an important human rights issue, about equality between the sexes, and an important child rights issue, which was in fact already foreseen in the Convention on the Rights of the Child. There are growing calls to change this situation and to recognise the right of children to acquire citizenship from either parent. It became even louder last year in Morocco and Bahrain and just this month, the echo has been heard in Kuwait, where five Islamic members of Parliament have presented a draft law to amend Kuwaitâ€™s nationality law and to base citizenship decisions not on the gender of the parent, but on whether either of the parents is a Kuwaiti citizen.
There are many other examples, from family law reform, such as recognition of the right to use DNA to prove paternity in Egypt; and the opening up of the press and allowing it to play its role in arming the public with the tools they need to become active participants in public life; to the holding of elections in previously unthinkable places. Not just the holding of elections, which in itself can be seen as an incredibly victory, but the implementation of an electoral process in which women are not only allowed to vote but are actively encouraged to do so.
Examples such as these demonstrate not only that things are on the move, that inch by inch progress is being made, but also that political globalisation, the participation of women and the strong voice of women are important components in that reform process, particularly in the broader Middle East and North Africa.
The role of women in this process of political globalisation is of crucial importance, not because women are better at building partnerships, working together and learning from one another, but because women have experiences equal to that of men in issues affecting their lives, the lives of their families and the lives of their friends.
And in this I am not talking only about experiences that are commonly faced only by women, although there does need to be deliberate steps taken to ensure the participation of women in those decisions. That is still something that we need to push for and work towards, despite the fact that it is a denial of common sense to try to take decisions without the active participation of those people whom those decisions will affect the most, including issues such as inheritance laws and harmful traditional practices like female genital mutilation. In these areas it makes no sense at all to exclude women from the decision-making process and from having a say â€“ an informed say â€“ about decisions that will have an impact on their day-to-day lives.
Then again, this is something that could equally be said about the kinds of things we will be discussing at this conference and the decisions made on a daily basis that affect women just as directly as they affect men. It also seems to be a denial of common sense to limit the number of intelligent minds addressing critical and complex issues for which innovative and creative solutions are required on the basis of something as arbitrary as gender.
The views of women is a crucial factor in enhancing women's participation in public life because in my experience, the role of women can only be defined through women taking an active part in public life, be it national, regional or international public life, or all three. Until now, and in some places this is still true, the fight has been about creating the conditions under which women are enabled or empowered to exercise their right to participation in decision-making. This was one of the important advancements made by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women: it provided the basis for realising equality between women and men through ensuring women's equal access to, and equal opportunities in, political and public life. Certainly, there is still a way to go in ensuring proper implementation of that convention, which is one reason why it was encouraging last November that the Foreign Ministers from the BMENA region recognised the importance of monitoring its implementation at the Forum for the Future meeting in Bahrain.
But the fact still remains that it is for women themselves to define what their role should be, depending on their aspirations and their approaches. In many ways it is a self-reinforcing process: women should have a say in what will best help to create the conditions in which their voices can be heard, then adapt those conditions based on their experiences in raising their voices. And this is already happening across the world, perhaps even more so in those regions where such a thing was previously unthinkable: in the broader Middle East and North Africa. Women in the Arab world are taking the choice to raise their voices and demand full enjoyment of their rights and full participation in public and political life as a means to get there.
It is extraordinary what women in the Arab world have been able to achieve just over the past decade: they are finally being able to use a voice that has been muffled for far too many generations and with that voice, they are forcing change that benefits their entire society. The first women, not just one but two, were elected to public office in Saudi Arabia last November. Women in the Palestinian territories and in Kuwait have made their voices heard through the ballot box. In Algeria, Morocco and Egypt, laws have been enacted that provide for basic rights for women when it comes to family law. In Yemen and Egypt there are moves to include women in the political process through a form of affirmative action or quotas. I personally do not believe quotas are the long-term solution; women cannot achieve fair representation through a game of mathematics, but I can see their usefulness on a short-term basis to level the playing field.
Just a few years ago, these achievements would have been unthinkable, but the political landscape has shifted quickly and dramatically, in large part due to the unrelenting pressure of women for greater participation in public life. This is mirrored elsewhere in the world, with Liberia recently electing the first ever female President in Africa and Chile electing the first ever female President in South America, Germany having its first female Chancellor last November and there have even been developments in Japan, where the Japanese government plans to submit a draft law that would allow a female child of a monarch to ascend to the throne.
Of course, laws are not the only thing required to solve problems facing women any more than increased female representation in Parliaments or in government can. But thoughtful laws designed to end inequality and promote equal access and participation that are properly implemented and enforced and increasing representation of women in public life can only demonstrate that women do have equal rights to men and this change in perception is the catalyst that can undo the systemic discrimination faced by women in too many parts of the world.
Common problems exist, but there is not a â€śone-size-fits-allâ€ť solution to any of the issues we are discussing. Numerous solutions can be found and within that context, there are numerous roles that women can play. We all have a responsibility to think along creative lines and to support women who are playing their own part in progress and reform. It is in everybodyâ€™s interest to support the current openings and movement towards reform and to recognise and support the role that women can play in these processes. We must not miss this opportunity, because there is quite simply too much at stake.