Promoting Women’s Leadership Opportunities in Constitution-Making Processes
Panel Discussion co-organized by Interpeace and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva*
Ambassador Pamela Hamamoto
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and Other International Organizations in Geneva
Thursday, November 12, 2015
Thank you, Scott.
I’m really honored to be here today and to have the opportunity to speak about the importance of women’s involvement in constitution-making processes – which of course dovetails nicely with much of the work I’ve been doing lately on women’s empowerment and promoting leadership opportunities for women through the U.S. Mission’s Future She Deserves initiative. So thank you.
Can you all see this? Those in the back of the room might have to squint, because it’s pretty small. This is a copy of the United States Constitution, which I got from President Obama before stepping into this role, and it serves as a guiding force, a moral compass.
It can fit in my pocket, because it’s the shortest written constitution of any major government in the world – yet it has served to guide the people of the United States for more than 200 years!
Interpeace has pointed out that every year, as many as 20 national constitutions are reformed or adopted, and another 20 or more constitutional reform processes are considered or initiated.
One of the reasons there are so many constitutions in some stage of development each year is that most of them don’t last very long, as countries go through political transitions or work to strengthen their governing principles.
The average predicted life expectancy of a national constitution is less than 20 years.
The good news is, this actually presents a great opportunity for women – an opportunity to claim their political, social and economic rights.
But to do this, women need to be involved at all stages of the process – from the establishment of a constitutional commission and the implementation of a public consultation process to the submission of a draft and the final adoption of the constitution.
Constitutions need not be long, or old, but they need to reflect the voices and values of the people they represent – and that means both men and women.
By including women in the process, constitutions enjoy greater legitimacy. In many cases, this is the first step toward national unity and a more peaceful, stable, and prosperous society.
When women have been involved in negotiating peace agreements, they have focused on issues like human rights, health and education, justice and reconciliation, and economic renewal – all critical, but often overlooked issues in formal negotiations.
Women have managed to build coalitions across ethnic and sectarian lines, and to speak on behalf of other marginalized groups. In short, women have shown that sustainable peace can be built if the process is inclusive and all voices are heard equally.
The peace processes in Colombia and the Philippines were successful precisely because of the contributions of women. The same is true for constitutions, especially when their purpose is to rebuild a nation after many years of war and conflict.
There’s no one-size-fits-all model for women’s participation in constitution-making. Like the constitution itself, this process has to be tailored to each country, each with its own culture and values.
Take Tunisia, for example. It’s encouraging to see the progress toward gender equality in Tunisia’s new constitution, which enshrines many rights for women and has been described as being an important step in the right direction.
Much of the credit can be given to women’s groups and civil society, whose active engagement, outreach and advocacy for many months led to significant advances for women.
In Nepal, women have also played an important role in the newly adopted constitution –and this has translated into some progressive steps for women.
But as you’ve seen recently, the new constitution remains controversial, especially with respect to provisions that make it difficult for single mothers to pass their citizenship to their children.
The process isn’t perfect,but for the greatest chance of success, women need to be included every step of the way.
In Rwanda, the 2003 constitutional referendum was preceded by a long, inclusive conversation that intentionally solicited diverse perspectives throughout the country.
The referendum was approved by 93% of voters, with a turnout of almost 90% of eligible voters. That’s how you create a sense of ownership among citizens!
And today, with 64% of seats held by women, Rwanda has the most female-dominated parliament in the world!
Women in Liberia will soon have an excellent opportunity to make their voices heard when their country holds a referendum on constitutional reform next year.The constitutional review process has been extensive and inclusive, having reached out to more than 45,000 participants – more than a third of them being women. So we have high hopes for Liberia. Now, having a progressive constitution is important, but it doesn’t solve everything.
As the World Bank’s 2016 Women, Business and the Law report shows, “laws on paper do not necessarily reflect legal realities.” This holds true for constitutions.
That’s why Michelle Brandt – Director of Interpeace’s Constitution-making for Peace Programme – has warned that “It is hard to achieve constitutions that promote gender equality, but it is even harder to implement those constitutional provisions.”
Consider the situation in South Africa – a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world. In 2012, the OECD ranked South Africa fourth out of 87 countries on its Social Institutions & Gender Index. But last year, the country dropped dramatically to 90th out of 148 nations, proving that equality for women on paper does not necessarily translate into equality for women on the ground.
There’s no doubt that this form of equality will require more women in leadership positions, across all sectors. Only then, will we experience true gender equality – – through prolonged efforts to hold governments accountable.
Meanwhile, we clearly have a lot to learn from the women and men who have participated in the constitution-making and peace-building processes I have referred to. Several of them are on today’s panel,
and I look forward to hearing about their experiences and their suggestions for achieving more inclusive, progressive, legitimate and lasting constitutions for citizens around the world.
Note: The event included the following panelists:
- Fatima Outaleb – Founder of Union de l’Action Féminine
- Farooq Wardaq – Former Minister of Education, Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
- Louise Kasser Genecand – Attaché for Intercantonal affairs. Presidential department of the canton of Geneva
- Michele Brandt – Director of Interpeace’s Constitution-Making for Peace Programme
- Sapana Pradhan Malla – Gender advisor to the Prime Minister of Nepal