Putting women at global decision making tables requires action!, says Equality Now

Shelby Quast – WNN SOAPBOX

Syrian health worker
Without the work of women health workers in Syrian displacement camps the desperate need for midwives as well as child and reproductive health services would go unmet. This woman health worker in a Syrian displacement camp in Iraq in 2013 is checking newborns to make sure they are free of any health problems that may arise. Image: UNICEF

(WNN) Washington, D.C. UNITED STATES, AMERICAS: Peace accords which include women and civil society organizations have a much higher chance of sustainability than those formulated by only men.  These lessons should be applied to countries-in-transition like EgyptYemen and Syria, where the participation of everyone in the peace-making process is vital.

What does strong leadership really mean?

It’s a big question.  In business or politics, it tends to imply power, control, dominance, status, ‘might and fright’ – often with some ‘collateral damage’ along the way.

For those of us working to advance the rights of women and girls around the world, this territory – and this type of language – is all too familiar.  Power and dominance has to be supposedly ‘over’ somebody for it to be effective.  Something has to be lost if we are to ultimately gain.  The end justifies the means.  Or so we are told.

However, the dominance of one element of society over another means that potential is lost on every level.  And the argument that a ‘firm hand’ needs to be taken has meant that enlightened contributors are more often than not silenced or sidelined.

There has been much discussion already about women’s leadership and the importance of women having a seat at “the table”.  And it is a common phrase in the halls of power:  if you are not at the table, you are on the menu.

Access to this table is presumed to be equally available to everyone.  However, little consideration is given to the ingrained social, political and economic structures in which this potential ‘sitting’ takes place.  The table is also located in a room which is locked by the power structures of government, where women – and, in fact, most of the community it serves – must be granted entry.

This typically patriarchal definition of leadership has not exactly worked well for us and dominance is not a sustainable economic or political model.  Nor is it a sustainable ‘human being’ model.  It denies participation and it causes irreversible harm; it blocks progress and growth.

So, instead of inviting women to this somewhat inaccessible table, maybe it is time to build a new one; an access point that is sits within – rather than above – the community.

At a basic level, the economic argument for redefining leadership in this way is very strong.  Economists from the World BankOECDIMF, Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse and HSBC Bank have all stated that ensuring gender equality is the most beneficial thing we can do to end economic stagnation and unlock a new wave of growth.

Investing in female-led businesses has generated higher rates of return too.  And companies with female board members tend to be more profitable.  We cannot determine if the chicken or egg came first, but the end result is the same.

The economic argument for equality goes even further than this.  Post-2015, a key UN Development goal is to “eradicate poverty and transform economies through sustainable development”.  This can only happen through first of all tackling the root causes of all forms of violence and discrimination against women and girls.  In practice, to complement the donation of billions of aid dollars to the developing world to eliminate poverty, the most cost-effective solution is to remove those blockages which hinder – and often totally eliminate – the contributions of half of that country’s population.

In addition to realizing the economic benefits of gender equality, redefining leadership also means introducing specific legislation, which specifically aims to end violence and discrimination against women and girls – in all respects – to give everyone an equal opportunity to contribute.

The type of leadership, which relies on part of society holding power over another segment, is not sustainable.  However, leadership which ensures justice is something which will prosper over time.

This has transformational implications for some of the biggest issues affecting the world today – and goes much further than national borders.  It also affects more than just the political and economic spheres.  In ‘Sex and World Peace’, Valerie Hudson remarks that international security can be dramatically increased by ensuring gender equality.

New constitutions should clearly reflect these gains too.  Efforts should also be made to ensure that the harmful social norms of the past are urgently addressed, because having laws in place is not enough; these laws need to be systematically implemented to allow all voices to be heard equally.

Ensuring equality for women and girls is the answer to a lot of our big questions – economically, politically and socially, but it is also the fair thing to do.

Redefining leadership will mean building a new table, constructed with material which stands the test of time; a platform, which is accessible for everyone to sit at, in a much more secure position on level ground.

Please take action now with: Equality Now campaigns in Egypt, Yemen and Syria.


Fulbright recipient, author and Juris Doctor with a strong focus on global human rights Ms. Shelby Quast joined Equality Now in 2010 as the Washington, D.C. based Senior Policy Advisor working with the U.S. government, as well as international organizations and NGOs (Non-governmental Organizations), to advance human rights for women and girls to inform U.S. policy. Prior to her work at Equality Now Quast co-founded and worked with the International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC). Her previous work also included Partners for Gender Justice, a network of UN member states, NGOs and civil society organizations which work to facilitate dialogue on gender justice among conflict-affected societies as well as members of the UN Security Council. With experience that spans her career in law Quast continues to participate today in numerous coalitions and working groups including the National Action Plan for Women, Peace and Security, anti-trafficking advocates Girls Not Brides USA, as well as work with the campaign for I-VAWA – International Violence Against Women Act in the U.S. Federal Legislature. Quast is also the current Advocacy, Education and Media chair for the Coalition for Adolescent Girls lead by Nike and the UN Foundation.


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