Women Cannot Abandon the Struggle Podium: Shirley Williams; from a Speech by the Liberal Democrat Peer GI Ven at a British Council Seminar in South Africa
Williams, Shirley, The Independent (London, England)
SOUTH AFRICA remains for many of us an inspiration. Yes, I know that poverty is endemic, and the battle against it is heartbreakingly hard. I know poverty breeds crime, sometimes violent and grotesque. I know that power - side-by-side with poverty - often tempts public officials in all countries to abuse that power. But none of that vitiates the achievement of a democratic, multiracial society after the apartheid regime, which was a blasphemy on the human race.
For South Africa 1994 was an annus mirabilis. It was also a good year for women, a year in which women were elected to a quarter of the seats in South Africa's National Assembly, the sixth highest proportion in the world. That annus mirabilis fell within the United Nations' Decade for Women, a decade that began with the great 1985 Nairobi conference.
Riding the high tide of that decade, women were elected in unprecedented numbers. In India, a third of all local government- elected posts were reserved for women. In the US, women broke through the 10 per cent glass ceiling of seats in Congress for the first time. In the UK, women-only constituency selections led to nearly a fifth of the members of the House of Commons being female. And in Europe, too, nearly a quarter of those elected to the European Parliament were women. Now the tide is ebbing. Perhaps we are seeing only a slight setback, to be followed by a yet stronger recovery. Or maybe we have to resume the struggle all over again. Let me read the tide-marks. First, recession and crisis in the developing world. That is bad news for women, who are always the first to suffer. In a fight for jobs, women are pushed out of the labour market even though they are often the family breadwinners. Poverty has the face of a woman and the body of a child. Second, institutional rigidity. The wave of newly elected women in the late Eighties and early Nineties moved confidently towards the reform of traditional institutions: Parliament, the law, the bureaucracy. They underestimated the rigidity of institutions that have been shaped, constructed and operated for one gender only. There is no good reason why parliaments should not provide decent child- care facilities, or reasonable timetables. Such characteristics of our legislatures make life particularly hard for women members. …