On 6 February 1918, some women in the UK gained the right to vote for the first time. It was a crucial step forward for women’s rights. But 100 years on, we still have a long way to go globally to ensure that women’s voices are heard equally loudly, not just at the ballot box, but at all levels of government too. Women across the world are rising to the challenge, despite the barriers thrown up in their way. Mama Feddis is one of them.
In 2017, Mama Feddis decided she’d had enough of decisions being made that didn’t benefit the women in her village in Kenya.
“Even though there is only around 15 kilometers to Mombasa, the women in the area have low access to health facilities, for instance when they are in labour,” she says.
Often it is Mama Feddis, a mother of five herself, who is called upon to help deliver babies. “I want to contribute to public services such as health care and education becoming accessible to the people in my area. I know what is lacking myself and I know the people here, so I want to play a part in rectifying the lack of public service delivery.”
Running for office
Mama Feddis used her ActionAid training in citizen’s rights, public expenditure tracking and leadership skills to run for office. It was a difficult campaign. “There was discrimination between me and the male candidates. They got between four and five people to help them with their nomination election battle while I was only given two,” she explains.
I want to contribute to public services such as health care and education becoming accessible to the people in my area.
The discriminatory treatment that Mama Feddis experienced is not unusual in Kenyan politics. Female candidates often find that they are not given the same campaign budget as male candidates. Many are threatened with physical violence.
Mama Feddis did not have enough money to put up election posters on the lamp-posts or walls of her village. So instead she walked around, talking to people directly and hearing their concerns. Her tactics worked. At the election on 8 August, Mama Feddis got over 1,000 votes; enough to ensure her membership of the county government in Mombasa.
“If it had not been for the training, I would have been a completely ordinary housewife,” she says.
Votes for women – and seats in parliament
Now, like women in government all over the world, Mama Feddis is able to use her power to improve the lives of people in her community.
Helen Pankhurst, the granddaughter of Sylvia Pankhurst and great-granddaughter of Emmeline Pankhurst, is one of the trustees on ActionAid UK’s board. She believes that we need more women like Mama Feddis in decision-making roles.
“It’s clear that we need more women in politics the world over. That’s why ActionAid’s work supporting women to become leaders at all levels in society, and in tackling the barriers that hold them back, is so vital,” Helen says.
Sylvia and Emmeline led the suffragette movement in the UK, and their long and hard-fought campaign helped to ensure that the Representation of the People Act was passed by parliament 100 years ago this week.
“There are still many barriers to women’s participation in politics, which I see in my work,” says Helen. “The UK is no exception. Here, the challenge is that 100 years on, women are still facing intimidation and violence for wanting to be involved in politics, and to influence decisions that affect their lives. The elections in 2017 saw the worst abuse of women MPs and candidates on record.”
There are still many barriers to women’s participation in politics.
Currently, only 32% of MPs in the UK parliament are women. Some countries have a far higher proportion of women in government – in Rwanda, 61% of seats in parliament are held by women, and in Bolivia it is 53%. But these are the only two countries in the world where women make up at least 50% of elected representatives – a shocking statistic when you consider that 49.5% of the world’s population is female.
Why we’re #StillMarching
For democracy to be effective, it needs political institutions that are representative of all its citizens, not just some of them. This is why it is critical that we increase the participation of women – and other under-represented groups – in politics. It is central to Goal Five of the UN Global Goals, which all countries committed to. The more diverse the decision-makers are, the more likely it is that they will create policies that benefit everyone, including the most marginalised women and girls in the UK and beyond.
Share this blog under the hashtag #StillMarching, to show why we need to continue the fight for equal representation for women in all areas of political life.