By Alice Kinsella
Many people’s first introduction to ‘development’ was the Millennium Development Goals: in 2000, the UN pledged to reach eight targets by 2015, including the eradication of extreme hunger, universal primary education, and the empowerment of women. However, it is misguided to consider the empowerment of women simply an outcome of development; instead, it should be seen as a factor that actively promotes development itself. Female political enfranchisement is the lynch-pin of contemporary development issues. The fight for gender equality has an immeasurable impact on every facet of society, fuelling progress in innumerable areas, from healthcare to education. Our failure to prioritise gender equality will always be the greatest hurdle facing significant developmental progress across the world.
Female political enfranchisement encompasses a range of meanings – generally, ‘enfranchisement’ is synonymous with ‘a right to vote’. However, it can encompass all manner of political empowerment: running for office, engaging in debate, or holding political power. While women should have a de-facto right to full political participation, regardless of the quality of their contributions, they also happen to provide a uniquely important perspective. In many countries, women politicians attend to female-centric issues that are otherwise ignored: for instance, Blaxill and Beelen found that, in the UK since 1945, women MPs have consistently been more likely to raise issues such as family policy, education and care. Men tend to be less aware of – or sympathetic to – areas of everyday life that are generally the purview of women. Yet many such female-dominated areas of life are critical development markers: healthcare, the welfare and education of children, nutrition and the environment are just a few areas that women are, generally, responsible for. Thus, their contributions would significantly progress development in these areas.
The education of children is perhaps the most consequential development target – providing children with a strong foundation will give them the best chances for their futures, as well as equipping their societies with educated adults, ready to take development further. Women are, statistically, the primary carers of children, and therefore the experts when forging child-centred development policy. They are more likely to invest in education – for instance, Clots-Figueras’ 2007 study of India between 1967 and 2001 found that a 10% increase in female political representation resulted in a 6% increase in primary education. Women are also more likely to understand the hurdles facing universal education. For example, many efforts to educate girls are frustrated by other duties demanding their time, or by the difficulties they face physically travelling to school. Women, as primary caregivers, have an intimate understanding of these hurdles, and are therefore better able to combat them.
Reproductive health is another vital developmental issue significantly improved by the political input of women. A classic symptom of a developing society is a high birth rate, due to poor sex education, minimal contraceptive supply, no access to abortion services, and, often, antiquated expectations that women submit to their husbands. With access to sexual health resources and birth control, however, infant mortality drops – as does maternal mortality. Resources, including food and water, are less strained, because there are physically less people to provide for. Crucially, giving women control over their fertility allows them to participate in areas of society, such as further education and employment, that would otherwise have been inaccessible due to their pregnancies and infant children. This is clearly an essential developmental goal, but one that is best achieved by women: many men in both developed and developing nations treat female sexual health with an outdated sense of repulsion, and attempt to avoid the subject altogether, to the detriment of the services. Meanwhile, women, as the potential child-bearers themselves, keenly feel their importance, meaning that the services receive more attention and investment.
Environmental standards are somewhat controversial: internationally, we are painfully aware of the dangers posed by fossil fuels and mass industrialisation, but to place environmental standards on developing societies restricts their potential economic growth. Since the 1993 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, it has been generally acknowledged that it is women in developing societies who possess the expertise and experience, and therefore who we should look to for solutions. Women, when maintaining a household, are subsistence farmers, gardeners, water-collectors, and cooks, spending 3-6 hours on household work everyday (compared to a male average of 30 minutes). They are very familiar with their local environment, natural resources, and fuel consumption, granting them a superior understanding of the environmental pressures and needs of the community, as well as a more vested interest in genuine environmental improvement. Their expertise is increasingly incorporated into policy initiatives: NGOs such as Friends of the Earth advocate the leadership of local women in grassroot, ‘bottom-up’ developmental initiatives.
‘Female political enfranchisement’ is almost as unquantifiable as it is difficult to achieve. Due to uncompromising cultural expectations, officially granting female suffrage will not necessarily make voting accessible, and women’s inclusion in political chambers will not always be tantamount to genuine power, nor will it necessarily encourage full gender equality beyond politics. ‘Female empowerment’ cannot suddenly be thrust on society through one piece of enfranchising legislation. Nonetheless, anyone with a vested interest in development should whole-heartedly pursue female political empowerment: the two are inextricable. Women have, throughout time, been perceived as subordinate members of society, forced into roles as home-keepers and care-givers. This history of suppression has the expedient advantage, however, of endowing women with a wealth of personal and ancestral expertise in social development issues. Genuine, well-rounded, sustainable development is simply impossible without listening to their experience and wisdom.