Empower young girls early' says Healy Eames, if we want more women in politics

All the talk about gender quotas being the solution to more women in politics remains to be seen. Fundamentally it's false. Let's face it, quotas are a fabricated means (in Ireland's case man-made! ) to put women on tickets because we have failed spectacularly otherwise.

New rules means there is energy behind the idea. The men in suits know quotas are linked to party political funding. But beware, just because we have quotas doesn't mean women will be elected or successful or stay in politics.

Why do I say quotas are fundamentally false? Simply because if women do not want to lead or to be politically active they will not be successful. Such is the drive they need to succeed. Too many blocks will present along the way unless women fundamentally believe in politics as a means to effect change themselves. And can surround themselves with the right personal and family supports too.

Believing in women must start in the cradle. A complete cultural shift is needed to realise greater numbers of Irish women as political leaders. Real attitudinal change. Quotas may help by default but they are a crude means.

In my case I wanted to be politically active when I was offered the opportunity. I was enabled in that process by a supportive husband and family. Otherwise it would have been impossible for me with two very young children at the time. A quota without the family support would not have made a whit of difference to me.

So watch the play - quotas are the new front to be pro-woman in politics. It may work for some women and I hope it does. But I believe much more is needed. Quotas are really the new front to win state funding. So for sure what a party will have to do is to convince more women to 'run' for politics. But that is not the outcome we should be after. That is not success. The outcome we need is more women elected, more women successful in politics and more wishing to stay in politics.

Eleanor Roosevelt once said “A woman is like a tea bag. You never know her strength till she's in hot water”. We shouldn't miss out on this strength. All the evidence shows women's perspective and contribution adds to the quality of the life experience. This is good for society. Women should not fall for the charm of men at the higher echelons of political parties, giving them the impression that they are needed, telling them what to do, de-feminising them in the process. But instead to be equally aware as The Week in Politics' showed this week that women are withdrawing from politics (eg., in Fine Gael on Dublin council ) and these are women that made it onto the ticket in their own right, without quotas!

If we are genuinely serious about getting women active, elected and successful in politics then we must empower our young girls early and invest in that empowerment. This is an inter-generational project. Because politics isn't a natural part of our female culture.

This was the message I delivered to a 90 women strong (and six male ) gathering at a Rotary breakfast to mark International Women's day in Dublin at the weekend.

Belief in oneself or not starts early.

Belief in oneself or not starts early. The teenage years are vital for the development of 'voice' where the young person naturally begins to express opinions and becomes aware that they may have something to say. It is then we need to affirm and validate that 'voice'. Often viewed as a rebellious phase by parents and teachers, adults are sometimes guilty of closing down the 'emerging voice'. On the face of it, It may make for an easier life for us adults but it is misguided. We need our young people to grow into independent adults who can make responsible decisions. We need to encourage and help our young people to figure out what it is they wish to say and to help them to hone it in a socially acceptable way. Otherwise they may end up being suspended or expelled from school - little good in that! Positive work of this kind is also a mighty weapon against bullying, an all too frequent engagement among young girls. That negative energy needs to be channelled towards positive outcomes.

Presenting young people with real life scenarios and asking probing questions to help them figure out their core values and what matters to them is important. This works both for boys and girls but it is even more important for girls. Culturally girls are expected to follow. This is a powerful impediment to women emerging as future political leaders. Pressure on boys to lead is a story for another day. But if we are serious about wanting more women to try and be successful in politics we need to build confidence in young girls and give them the very clear message that women can make great leaders and are needed to create a better society.

Role models help of course and although few, they are there. We can take heart from formidable Irish women like the suffragettes, Countess Markiewicz, Lady Gregory and more recently our own female Presidents of Ireland, Robinson and McAleese.

Action speaks louder than words any day. Every time I see a political party or political programme pay lip service to the subject of women in politics and do nothing practical to develop young women as leaders, I despair at how out of touch they are. Quotas are much too late. Like offering bonus points for Honours Maths in the Leaving Cert for a select few, when what was needed was good Maths teaching and positive attitudes from Junior Infants!

I believe it should be a requirement on all political parties who benefit from state funding to give something back - to invest in young girls and women's programmes so as to develop the next generation of female politicians because that is where the gap is. The 1% rule would be a start.

The emergence of the group 'Women for Election' is commendable. But something more universal is needed so that all our young people, all our young girls can benefit from the experience. We have civic, social and political education (CSPE ) on the second-level curriculum. It is vital that this is safeguarded and extended to Leaving Cert. A new module on female empowerment and women in politics is vital. Engagement of girls in debates and in social projects that make them aware of what they are good at and how their contribution enhances life is really important. Youth groups can play a role here too. We need to 'walk the walk' as well as 'talk the talk' about affirming young girls. Only last week I read about 40 per cent more drop-in callers to COPE Galway due to an increase in domestic violence. The same pattern is replicated nationally. Elected politicians have a duty. Women politicians should partner with local schools and focus on young girls' empowerment. Former President Mary Robinson is doing this on a global scale with her campaign against child brides.

The truth of the matter is every female politician knows in her heart that quotas may get women on the ticket but it won't elect them. No secret there - the political parties and the men in powerful places know this too. Quotas may do no more than serve the status quo.

Women can stand on their own merit any day because their contribution is necessary and worthwhile. But first they must believe it and so must society. We have work to do.


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