The first step in the political empowerment of women is to ensure a critical mass of them are elected to a parliament through an electoral system that is, at the very least, gender neutral or, where possible, encourages the election of women through temporary or permanent measures such as quotas (either legislated or through party nomination processes) or “zipper” lists where men and women are placed on a party nomination list alternatively.
But once women are elected to parliament, what tools are available to promote women’s empowerment from within the institution? One common measure is a multi-party women’s caucus.
A multi-party women’s caucus is an unofficial group of women MPs (as compared to an official parliamentary committee) from all parliamentary groups with representation in the parliament. The structure of the group will vary from parliament to parliament, but generally includes regular meetings in which the MPs discuss issues of concern to them about being a woman MP, advocacy for women’s issues in general and access to support and knowledge to improve their capacity as MPs.
There are definite benefits to a women’s caucus. First, the groups provide space for women to meet and discuss issues of common concern across party lines. Where the group is well organized, the issues discussed can then be brought back to the various parliamentary groups and, in turn, to the parliament, through draft legislation, committee investigations or other methods of promoting government action. Second, such a group allows for direct support to women MPs to allow them to build their capacity as MPs, recognizing the special challenges faced by women in parliament. Third, a women’s caucus is an important voice for women in a country, as this can be perceived as a group of senior political leaders who are working across party lines to affect change that is positive for women in the general public.
There are potential drawbacks to such a caucus as well. Where there is an established parliamentary committee on women’s affairs, such a caucus can cause some confusion with regard to mandates. Recent history has shown that many of these caucuses fail because women MPs are, first and foremost, members of parties and parliamentary groups; therefore, a women’s caucus must acknowledge the strength of the parliamentary groups within the parliament and work with them to achieve its goals. Efforts to support women MPs must not be solely focused on an unofficial multi-party caucus but on official groups within the parliament (i.e. – committees; parliamentary groups) to ensure the MPs build their capacity and their ability to lead within such groups.