Agenda for the Dawn of a New Millennium:
Gender and Transformative Politics

Jurgette Honculada

This paper is from the Second Congress of the Global Network of Women in Politics - From Rhetoric to Reality: Women's Political Participation, Accountability and Leadership, which was held on 28-30 August 1998 in Manila and co-sponsored by CAPWIP and the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

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Adopting the credo "The personal is political," feminism in the late 60s and 70s sought to challenge the dichotomy and dualism that subordinated women and trivialized the reality of their lives. Thus the women's movement has, in the past 2 decades or so, raised consciousness, advocated, mobilized, organized and built institutions to bring women's issues and demands to the forefront and into the mainstream.

But the gains of the women's movement are now being threatened by escalating globalization and resurgent fundamentalism, among other forces. Ever more resonant, that credo now compels the women's movement to secure and retrieve those hard-won gains: by claiming political space and tackling head-on the challenge of politics, of governance and public power.

Politics must be genderized or feminized not simply by raising a few women's issues or through token women candidates and appointees but by forwarding an agenda that treats all issues as women's issues, by examining the framework and values that inform traditional politics and counterposing a more holistic and inclusive approach and alternative values; and by enlivening, enriching and correcting current political practice and process with best practices of the women's and people's movements. In a word, transforming politics with the tools and logic of gender.

Essaying an agenda for the new millennium presupposes 2 tasks. The first is to review the gains and failures of the past (or what has worked and what has not worked) and, second to focus on the challenges that women in politics face in the coming millennium.

Incremental politics for women in Malaysia

This brief review of the past starts with the Malaysian experience: how the lack of autonomy constrained the growth of the women's movement and female leadership in political parties. As early as the 1920s and 30s, Chinese and Indian women were involved in politics--but along communal lines and influenced by the political ideology of their homeland. The 1940s integration of a Malay women's organization into the main political party was compelled by the need for their support in the independence struggle. Women's political involvement was limited by what was deemed as politically acceptable by men.

Thus, growth in women's political participation has remained incremental: although women constitute half of UMNO party membership (48.5% in 1995), they formed only 8% of delegates to the party's 1998 general assembly. Women have had increased access to education and jobs, but this has not signified increased political participation.

Incremental growth of women in politics in Malaysia is a case of too little, too late, with women marginalized by the very political structures they helped to establish. This classic tale, echoed across cultures and continents, serves to underscore certain imperatives of the women's movement: autonomy and a clear vision of where it wants to go and what it wants to achieve.

Affirmative action and a quantum leap in India

As in Malaysia, women in India face formidable barriers to equal participation and leadership in the political system, legal equality notwithstanding. These include the perceived conflict between women's domestic and public roles, a male-dominated party leadership at best ambivalent about sharing power with women, lack of political skills among women, and a host of other obstacles.

Yet changes in perception and perspective in India have led to the quantum leap of 33% reserved seats for women in local elective bodies with far-reaching implications: already one million women have been elected under this system. Mindula Sinha credits this unprecedented affirmative action to a supportive Rajiv Gandhi government, equally supportive political parties and, most especially, the unity between women in NGOs and in political parties.

The Nairobi and Beijing conferences have propelled and deepened the cause of gender equality worldwide and thus served as advocates for women's movements including the Indian women's movement. Continuing advocacy of women's groups has underscored the multiple oppression women face, while painstaking research has highlighted the significant contributions they make to the Indian economy.

Women's pressure groups within and across political parties

Women in Canada, New Zealand and the United States may enjoy greater equality in political participation than their sisters in less-developed countries e g.; in Canada they comprise 21% of the House. But the obstacles can be as daunting. Sarmita Bulte and Elspeth Preddy speak of how 2 key weaknesses--financing and support groups-- have been addressed by the specific initiatives of a women's fund and political pressure or action groups within and across political parties.

The Judy LaMarsh Fund of the Canadian Liberal Party raises funds, assists in candidate search programs and aims for a 50% representation of women in Parliament; while Emily's List and WISH in the United States are national political action committees of the Democratic and Republican Parties, respectively, which target greater numbers of women in public office. Affirmative action in regard to state decision-making bodies started in the United States over a decade ago. A National Gender Balance project supports similar legislation for balanced representation not only in regard to gender but also for minorities.

Although women first won voting rights in New Zealand, nearly 9 decades later very few women had occupied top political positions. Thus, the Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) started with a bang in 1975 exploiting the "shock value" of women challenging men in an election year. As a non-political party pressure group, WEL has strong and widespread grassroots presence, developing best practices that include working with media, establishing policy priorities for women and providing women candidates crucial support whether training, information, financial or moral.

Redefining politics in Latin America

The challenge of women's political participation in Latin America has meant not simply a change in perspective but also a process of fundamental reexamination of the role of the state, civil society, and of the dynamics between these 2 key players. Authoritarian rule in the 1960s and 70s shaped revolutionary movements in opposition to established government and formal political systems in the region. But the return of liberal democracy has created open political spaces; and sections of civil society have taken up the challenge of democratizing, and "genderizing," politics.

Silvia Lara's paper marks key shifts in thinking and strategy of the women's movement in the region: moving from concepts of "micro power" to "macro power," developing alliances between women in politics and women in the movement, learning to deal with realpolitik, and building a network of women in politics across the continent. Having engaged in politics "in different ways and from different places"--including such venues as women's groups, NGOs, mixed organizations and political parties, the women's movement brings a wealth of experience and breadth of understanding to the task of envisaging a new politics, corollary to establishing a new order. Yet the women's movement knows it has much to learn, and unlearn.

Diversa, a political feminist association in Mexico, is one such group, highlighting the democratic deficit of women's exclusion and marginalization from political decision-making. Unions and the government are as guilty of this gender bias as are political parties. With economic reconstruction and modernization completed through "bureaucratic and authoritarian means," Diversa seeks to promote democratic modernization with broad social participation, activating heretofore marginalized sectors, especially women. Diversa recognizes the gender inequality that persists in spite of legal gains. Thus, it currently focuses on advocacy and training through seminars, conferences, roundtable discussions and training courses, seeking "to establish the attitude and aptitude for women's active participation in the social process, specifically in electoral politics . . ."

Empowering women in the public sector

Experiences of women in politics in parts of Asia, the Pacific and North America underscore one of the key ingredients in women's growing political participation and empowerment: unity between women NGOs and women in political parties. In the Philippines, where the bureaucracy is the biggest employer, women in government are a potent force for change. CAPWINGS is part of a broader gender mainstreaming effort to address women's issues and demands, including the expressly political goal of equal participation in all levels of decision-making. An empowered and politically active female bureaucracy will expand the critical mass of women in politics acting at various levels as members of the electorate, implementers and policy-makers.

Women's networking

For the women's movement, networking is a way of life, a way of relating. With resources scarce and opportunities limited, networks help overcome the obstacles and compensate for the limitations that women's movements are heir to. Often, these forms of expanded sisterhood are what spell the difference between survival and starvation, disaster and a second chance, prolonged crisis and safe resolution.

No less vital is the role of networks in women's efforts at equal political participation. Women's struggles in the political sphere is an uphill climb, and networks play the role of support groups in diverse ways--financial, emotional, training and education, solidarity--as the articles in the Women's Networking section indicate.

These accounts reveal different facets of networking: as a vehicle of selfhood and survival vis-à-vis a majority culture, as the conjunction of women equally committed to politics and gender nurturing and as a similar network on a global level, as a means of broadcasting truth and seeking justice where mainstream media prove inadequate or constrained. And even when electoral mechanisms and reforms are in place to support and sustain women's political participation, networks will remain because they represent women in solidarity with each other and with the rest of civil society.

The third account merits special mention. With information technology pushing the boundaries of time and space, communicating to a global village takes a few seconds simply by clicking a mouse or ticking off an icon. Modern tools can help transformative politics in many ways, particularly as an alternative means of information dissemination when censorship of the mass media is rigid.

The case of the Indonesian riots in May 1998 is instructive. But for the potent pairing of "net and network," that is to say, the Internet and global civil society, the accounts would have remained superficial, buried in the inside pages of newspapers. The gender violence that accompanied the riots might have gone unreported and un-protested. It was the Internet and fax machine that gave full space and weight to painstaking NGO efforts to document the events and probe the meaning of those dark days in May. These events mark a coming of age of information technology in Southeast Asia from the perspective of NGOs and civil society, including women's groups.

To return to networking, even when electoral mechanisms and reforms are in place to support and sustain women's political participation, networks will remain because they represent women in solidarity with each other and with the rest of civil society.

Women and transformative politics in the new millennium

With that brief review of the papers in this resource book on what does work, what does not work and what promises to work in terms of women in politics, how do we move on to the next millennium? What are among the key challenges women face as they seek to transform politics in the new millennium?

The imperatives are many, the tasks daunting, but we wish to focus on 5 challenges, not in the sense of being comprehensive, but to deepen and sharpen the debate and discussion that has been ongoing "in different ways and from different places." These are the following:

Redefining politics

The founders of the Center for Asia-Pacific Women in Politics (CAPWIP) at an early organizational meeting agonized over whether to use the word "politics" at all, and if so, how were they to define it? In the end, they decided to own the word and, recognizing that it had become so tainted, resolved to infuse it with new content and practice. Women in Latin America faced a similar dilemma with many countries in the region emerging from dictatorial rule. They were used to politics as opposition and deemed involvement in the political system collaboration or, at best, cooptation

Democratic restoration meant growing political spaces for NGOs and people's organizations, but a new political mode and language could not be developed overnight. And there was a second difficulty, as Silvia Lara so lucidly explains: the women's movement was so engaged in the micro-realities of women's lives (including personal power relations), that a shift to macro-realities that formal political engagement implied would take time and a certain level of organizational and political maturity. Nonetheless, the task of redefining politics is well underway and the vibrancy of the process is reflected in the fact that many women come to politics from different starting points (quoting Lara).

Women are especially equipped for the task of redefinition for their movements have critiqued society in whole and in part through the lens of gender. Having dwelt in the margins for so long, women are well placed to challenge the concept of power as "power-over" or domination, contrasting it with an understanding of power as empowerment. Women are also equipped for the task of developing, or transforming, political practice for their culturally ascribed role of reproduction has developed in them such skills as nurturing, healing, negotiating. These human development skills are the currency of a transformative politics.

Yet as Patricia Sto. Tomas warned in an earlier congress, let us be wary of binary categories, of "either/or." Reality cannot be boxed within simple black-and-white categories; the new emerges from the womb of the old and carries with it part of the past. Therefore, the corollary task is to determine what the usable past is. Consider, for instance, that many women politicians- whether of the elite, middle or lower class- were mentored in politics by a senior male kin, for often, there was no other way to learn.

Apart from a new framework that is the new social contract between citizenry and state that Silvia Lara posits in her paper, transformative politics means transformed values, structures and processes, as Rounaq Jahan stresses in an earlier paper.

As we enlarge our understanding of humanity, nature and the universe, this knowledge and understanding must be brought to bear on the processes of political decision-making.


A second key challenge for women aspiring to politics is the area of technology in its most comprehensive sense. What tools can women draw from the toolbox of traditional politics, what new tools must they fashion for the needs of transformative politics? Some tools are time-honored and tested, for instance, mentoring and apprenticeship. Other tools must be crafted for new situations, and here the experiences of building a women's or people's movement is invaluable for developing methods that are participatory, non-hierarchical and consensual.

Yet politics has its own dynamics and set of rules, formal and informal. Women in politics must master these rules and develop a political sense or political savvy, to use a more current phrase.

Women in politics must learn the basics of mass media for this is one way of keeping in touch with constituencies. The print media have a multiplier effect and are less perishable than broadcast media, but the latter have an instantaneous reach that few newspapers can equal. Mastery of the mass media is a necessity for women in politics. At the same time, information technology (IT) has helped even the odds for those with little or no access to the mass or mainstream media of information and communication. A report in this volume details the regional and global networking that served to provide a fuller and fairer account of the "riots" in Indonesia in May. IT and the mass media are essential tools of the trade for women in politics.

But tools can go only so far. It has been observed that women advocates tend to be "generalists" rather than gender specialists. They may know many issues but fail at more rigorous analysis required, for instance, by economics. By the same token, women politicians must develop expertise in the fields within their purview, for example agriculture, trade, industry, health. With a sound knowledge base and sharp analysis, tools can be put to good use.

Globalization and global governance

A third challenge is posed by globalization which has fundamentally changed the shape of our economies and societies. Globalization is premised on free trade in efficiently-produced goods and services. The idea of globally competitive firms producing quality but affordable goods for a market unhampered by tariffs is fine in theory. But its practice has exacted high social and environmental costs. Globalization has served to concentrate wealth and power in a few global megacorporations, rather than serve the needs of human development across countries.

Some quarters would wish away globalization but it is here to stay. The key issue is one of governance. The prime regulatory mechanisms such as the World Trade Organization and Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights in practice favor big and power nations in trade disputes for various reasons. The parameters by which these mechanisms operate are narrowly economic, giving insufficient consideration to the wider social and environmental context within which free trade takes place.

Thus the issue of globalization is an issue of governance- global governance for nations and the global community to put in place regulatory mechanisms to hold corporations to strict standards not only of efficiency and productivity but also of fair compensation, occupational health and safety, environmental protection and social justice in the way they produce goods and do business. The demand is for free trade to also be fair trade, requiring transparency, accountability and social responsibility in place of secrecy, unbridled productivity and the race for profits.

Concerned with the health of babies and healing of the planet, women and their movements have pioneered in keeping gender audits, social audits and environmental audits of various economic development schemes. In India and the Philippines, they have led movements against massive dams that would inundate hundreds of thousands of village families, killing a way of life and an entire cultural heritage. In the north (and south as well), they have launched campaigns against toxic waste and nuclear arms proliferation, often risking arrest and detention. They have spearheaded research on and advocacy against the use of biotechnology for profit at the expense of the lives and livelihood of small farmers, fisher folk and indigenous peoples.

Women and their movements are witness to the human and environmental costs of aggressive development programs, a truth they bear in their hearts, minds and bodies. It is this truth that compels them to move from the task of witnessing and advocacy to that of governance, writing laws and executing policies that will promote human development and environmental sustainability. So that the economy produces goods and services not just for now, but for tomorrow and future generations.

Paraphrasing someone else's comment, the task of governance is too important to leave to the politicians. The market cannot continue to be the main or sole arbiter of decisions that affect the lives and well-being of entire communities and nations. Civil society and good government must not abdicate to the market the task of decision-making.

Meaningful governance must take place at local, national and global levels for globalization to fulfill its potential of meeting human need rather than being the vehicle for accumulation of super-profits. Witness how citizenry and government in local communities are saying no to economic projects that would poison the air and water even as they provide jobs, seeking more viable alternative development schemes. This vigilant and synergized partnership to promote sustainable development must inform national and global governance as well. This is the transformative politics that many women seek to develop.

Genderizing civil society

A fourth key challenge is that of genderizing civil society, including and especially, such mixed organizations as farmers' associations and trade unions. Feminizing politics encompasses not only formal political structures such as political parties and electoral exercises, but also people's movements and the NGO community. Avowing democracy and participation, civil society institutions should more easily affirm gender equality and women's empowerment, but this is not the case. Men-dominated leadership is still the rule in many people's organizations and part of the NGO community.

Organized women in civil society are the bases that propel women to positions of executive-decision making; to them women politicians and leaders are accountable. If the best of these women cannot rise to positions of leadership within their own organizations, with what credibility can they mandate women to top positions in government?

Civil society and government exist in counterpoint, one mandating and holding the other to account. But women cannot lead government if they cannot themselves lead civil society. The agenda of women's leadership in formal political structures in proportion to their numbers is difficult to achieve if civil society structures dis-empower women within their own ranks. Not only is this a question of credibility and integrity. As the Latin American experience shows, many women cut their political teeth in women's, as well as mixed, organizations. Their structures must be leaven to the imperative of gender.

How to genderize political parties? How to match women's numbers within party ranks with quality participation and corresponding leadership? Three elements are called to mind by the Indian experience: mobilizing women on their own demands, developing a critical mass of women NGOs making common cause with women in politics, and positively influencing government and/or political parties for appropriate affirmative action to fast-track women's political empowerment.

Sisterhood and reproduction

Finally we come to the challenge of sisterhood to broaden the support base and ensure continuity into the next generation. A critical mass of women at the base (electorate) and at the top (executive and legislators) is needed to move the gender agenda forward. But women are not an undifferentiated mass that can be rallied on any and all issues of women. While gender issues can unite women, they are also divided by class, race and ethno-linguicity, religion, education, ideology and various other factors.

Witness the phenomenon of elite women using women's groups as launching pad for a political career within the context of traditional politics (political opportunism, admittedly, is not unknown to other classes). Witness also the multiplicity of International Women's Day celebrations by women's groups whose differing ideologies and political affiliations pull them apart on the one day of the year when they should manifest their solidarity with each other. The Malaysian experience recounts that women's political participation was determined by ethnic loyalties.

The challenge of transformative politics is how to mobilize, broaden and deepen that sisterhood while addressing potential or actual points of difference or conflict. Essential to this is a clear vision and program of action. Diversa, the political feminist organization in Mexico, seeks to do this. In Latin America, the conjuncture of women from 3 sectors (women from NGOs and mixed organizations, women politicians and women in political parties) is the solid base from which women are pushing their political project. Accounts from North America and New Zealand show how support for women in politics is institutionalized.

The sisterhood can draw in its train various women's groups: not only women in political parties and women politicians, but also activists from the women's movement, grassroots women in people's movements, women academics and researchers, and women in the bureaucracy.

Sisterhood addresses the needs of today, but what of tomorrow? The task of reproduction of women in politics is as urgent an imperative. It is said that the Australian trade union movement trains its best and brightest for 2 types of leadership; in trade union work and political party work-- something as deliberate as this needs to be undertaken for the upcoming generation of women politicians.

There must be a process of early identification of women with potential for politics (possibly as early as secondary school), their mentoring, exposure and tutelage. Women politicians do not fall from the sky-they are produced by a singular combination of factors (unless they are clan women politicians who proxy for their men) and they must have political savvy as well as staying power. Programs of electoral education help in the process of unearthing potential women leaders and politicians.


Women and their organizations have made great strides in the last decades of this century as they tackle the sphere of formal politics. But politics is, to them, new and one they have to invest with new meaning and values. Even as they draw up a new conceptual framework, they must learn to pick and choose from the toolkit of traditional politics, they must fashion new instruments for the struggle, they must build bases within and across their constituencies, they must gain new expertise, they must develop an abiding sisterhood, they must prepare the next generation of women for political leadership so that hard-won gains are not reversed and politics produces vibrant women leaders from one generation to the next, preserving historical memory and drawing strength from women at the base.

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Dated: 26Feb2001