Monday, December 06, 2010

Enhancing Gender and Human Rights through Election Observations

Election Observation is the fifth objective of the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR), and the analysis of human rights and gender issues is a recurrent element of European Union (EU) Election Observation Mission (EOM) reports. At this year’s EU Observers Forum, held in Brussels 1-2 December 2010, an interesting discussion took place on how EOMs can make a better impact and positive change on human rights and gender issues in the countries they observe.

"As observers, we need to keep asking the question about the role of women in the political process in all countries we observe in", stated Fiona Hall, Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament and a member of the Election Coordination Group - a body of MEPs who decide on which elections the EU should observe in. She was the Chief Observer of the EOM in Togo and in Mozambique this year. "Why do some countries not have a quota for women in government? Why are women so under-represented in political systems? Why are there not enough women manning polling stations? We may think that this is not our role as observers, because it is not our election, but it is important to ask the question to force a discussion, to make government officials address such questions." The question of gender equality in political and electoral processes has to constantly be on the agenda.

Through these questions we also need to consider why are women under-represented in these processes? How can we ensure meaningful participation and equal opportunities for women by making sure that the right legislative and electoral frameworks are in place?It is relatively easy to fill quotas but it does not say anything about the empowerment of women. It is not just about ticking the boxes, we need a more holistic approach.

There are a number of examples where women are beginning to run the show in politics, the most powerful example is the case in Rwanda, where its parliament became the first in the world where women claim the majority - 56% including the speaker's chair. "Rwanda has banished archaic patriarchal laws that are still enforced in many African societies, such as those that prevent women from inheriting land. The legislature has passed bills aimed at ending domestic violence and child abuse, while a committee is now combing through the legal code to purge it of discriminatory laws", as referenced in Stephanie McCrummen's article published in the Washington Post in October 2008.

The unusually high percentage of women in Rwandan government is in part a reflection of popular will in a country of 10 million that is 55 percent female. Such changes can only be enforced through political will, which is sadly lacking in many other developing and developed countries.

The EU is committed to turning EOM recommendations into practice, and supporting the implementation of these recommendations through the provision of technical assistance to countries. There are a number of technical assistance projects funded by EIDHR, who finance civil society organisations directly (CSOs) or via 90 country delegations. How can these links between the EOM Recommendations and technical assistance to NGOs in human rights and gender equality be strengthened?

The EU currently funds over 40 projects in democratising electoral processes, and in increasing participation of women in electoral processes - including participatory media projects, civic awareness training to increase capacity in active political participation, and participation of women, youth and indigenous groups as local observers, these are just some examples amongst many others. For a full compendium of projects implemented between 2007 and 2009 in human rights and democracy, see EIDHR's report here.

The role of international governments and CSOs is an important one in ensuring governments have the political will and are held accountable to enforce positive changes. How could we enhance the participation of CSOs before, during and after electoral processes? During these discussions, Fiona Hall raised a poignant question, "What happens at the end of election observation missions? Often human rights abuses take place at the end of the mission after an election, such as in the case of Kenya, and often there are no other mechanisms in place which work well in ensuring human rights violations are brought to case. We don't yet know how external action would work, whether Head of EOMs should play a more political role or not", added Mrs Hall.

Without doubt we can't underestimate the importance of political dialogue, and the role of international governments and CSOs in making governments accountable for human rights violations beyond EOMs. Observing elections contributes to the promotion of human rights and development, but there need to be in place more robust and long-lasting mechanisms to oversee human rights and gender issues beyond elections.

Political participation is the basis of democracy and a vital part of the enjoyment of all human rights. EOMs play a crucial role in enabling the right of all people to vote in elections - one of the most fundamental of all human rights and civil liberties - by ensuring that elections in developing countries are transparent, fair and by building the capacity of governments through election assistance support. However, there also needs to be more an effective, holistic and robust system in place supported by international governments to oversee human righs, gender issues and democracy beyond elections. However, without political will at the national level in countries, it will be a struggle to create and put into practice such systems.

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