If democracy is to be vibrant and if its spirit of freedom and equality is to be a living reality, the value of women’s representation in politics cannot be overstated.

Studies have it that when women do not make the number in parliament, generally two things happen – they either conform to male ideology or cower under pressure. So women’s perspective naturally takes the back seat. Women’s concerns may be taken up but often not followed through in the actual decisions and many times women’s concerns will land up yielding to other issues almost with an imposed duty to “give way”.

Another election is at our doorstep and the nomination season has come and gone. As expected, women nominees are just a bare handful. The same old question that buzzed through the country during all the previous elections is making its feeble rounds today, “Why aren’t women coming forth to participate? Women are not very forthcoming because the nuts and bolts of the election system are not tuned to suit them. Once you cross the election hurdle, women can take off quite effortlessly. Unfortunately, gender equality, an important dimension of a democratic culture hasn’t seen anything enabling beyond the mumblings of the same old redundant questions and responses.

If young women today stopped bearing children all together because it doesn’t suit the world of work, society would pounce on women with 101 initiatives to create enabling situations so that women will want to bear children.

This is the same with politics. If women are not very forthcoming to take up politics, it is a societal problem. Society will be the poorer for it. Society will have to create situations that will make women want to join politics. So the real answer lies not only in the acknowledgement that under-representation of women in politics is a societal problem; the real answer lies in the seriousness of the political will power to make a difference. So at the end of the day, it really boils down to the political will power to make politics more desirable or possible for women.

Women activism around the world has had some very strong first movers. Without the sacrifices of such people, many of us wouldn’t have even dared to dream of what we today brandish as “equal opportunity”. The narrative has now changed. “Equal Opportunity” is no more enough. “Equal Outcome” is now what is in demand; we have now got to pursue equality of out-come. The belief that our sons and daughters have equal opportunities must translate into equal outcome – our sons and daughters ought to be seen doing equally well. Equal as the opportunity for women to participate in politics might be, the very poor representation of women in parliament continues to tarnish our democracy. People call it, “token membership in the private reserve of men!” This is notably an unfashionable thing to say but it is true.

This election, just like all other elections before it, cannot hope to produce any significant representation for our half of the population. People say that more women should have to want to join politics in the first place if we are to make the numbers.  Many blame women for not being very forthcoming. This is a convenient excuse that will continue to be used to cover up for women’s under-representation. Experts around the world have said that we should change the focus from blaming the women to blaming political institutions. Why aren’t they more inclusive? Why aren’t they doing more?

“It is the demand that makes the supply”, they say and rightfully so. As long as we have a political situation where men are forced to recruit men, greater demand and supply of women will be a far-fetched dream. So we do not have to scratch much below the surface to see that with homo-social recruitments going on, male gender quotas are already in practice – as indirect as it may be. Gender quotas need not necessarily be an issue if we have a real level-playing field.

Gender quotas are not in place in many Scandinavian countries, but that is because so many other mechanisms are already in place to sustain gender equality. The secret of the sustainable equal status there is rooted in a combination of top-down and bottom-up mechanism. The state pushed equality through legislation and it is made a living and vibrant reality by the hard and persistent work of various civil society organizations, as well as strong individuals.

It’s important to see that gender equality is possible and gender equality means “growth”. We must know that when we are addressing this problem, we are not only helping the women but we are actually helping the whole society, the whole family, and the men as well. Women also need to be seen doing well because we need more role models. We need to move women’s empowerment beyond the success story of a few successful women. There are plenty of girls out there who do not even dare to dream. It’s important that young girls can actually see lots of women who can do a lot more – so they can strive after that. Young girls have got to know their possibilities are just as endless and believe that it is possible to be in politics and still be a mother and still be a woman.

Gender equality is not an individual’s problem; it is not women’s problem; it is a political problem; it is our problem as a society; so it is something that both men and women have to tackle.  Our society as a whole should want to make use of all the resources in our society and both men and women are valuable resources.

Experiences from around the world tell us that great efforts must be in place to tackle the problem of ignorance first. Only when the people can debate intellectually on the topic of gender equality can we help our people see through the gender lens; have a clear picture of the gender gap; understand the true value of gender equality; and then take informed decisions. Only then can we channelize our efforts productively; only then will the flow of our energy precisely match what we aspire to accomplish; only then can we finally succeed in building a strong level of participation of women in politics.

In the absence of any special legislative provision to increase women’s representation in politics and in the absence of any women’s activism in Bhutan, political parties have become the gatekeepers of women’s transition into politics. Until capacity building and training programs enable women to catch up and until legislative reforms for greater inclusion of women are made, the only option left is to compel political parties through our collective votes to be accountable for greater inclusion of women in politics.

The promise of the greater inclusion of women in politics must begin with our own votes.

Contributed by 

Sangay Zam 

The writer is a former National Council member of Thimphu dzongkhag