Politics, in its most abridged definition from the dictionaries, is described as “the processes by which people and institutions exercise and resist power.” Relating to power, politics is about exercising and contesting authority, influencing decisions, challenging ideas, expressing opinions and mobilizing or negotiating support for one’s views and agenda. At the macro level, this may refer to the political processes involving the “art and science of government” whereby it involves formulating policies, influencing individuals and institutions to better organize societies. In the dominant (male) discourse, this essentially means the access and control of power specifically, State power.
However, if politics broadly refers to power relations then it permeates in every sphere of human life and in the daily social life of peoples, both for women and men. The exercise or contestation of authority and decision-making happens all the time in the homes, in the schools, in communities and continues right through the public institutions of society. Politics happens in the wet market when a buyer haggles for a good price from the fish vendor. There is politics involved when a woman asserts to decide whether to have another child or not. Politics is likewise involved when trade unionists argue for higher benefits during collective bargaining negotiations. Just as politics reign when conflicting policies emerge between and among legislators and executive officials.
The Philippine national elections this May 2004 brings up once again the question of Filipino women’s interaction, influence and access to the formalized political process involving the Philippine State and decision-making. While the political space for women to hold decision-making positions in government and have emerged legislation over the years, Filipino women still hold less than 20% of the national decision-making positions in government. In the last Congress before the May 2004 elections, women compose only 18% of seats in the Lower House and 16.7% in the Senate. However, there are more women now in elective positions than in the past. Eighteen percent or 40 women out of 220 seats in 2003 is already quite a big leap compared to 1% in 1946, 6% in 1965 and 11% in 1992. (Coronel, 2004)
While the political discourse involving women’s rights and concerns permeated the formal structures in governance, women’s access to formal power and decision-making is still far from the UN designated minimum of 30% women participation in positions of leadership. Most often than not, majority of Filipino women in elective leadership positions acquired their positions through association or being a relative of the male politician. Percentage-wise at the global level, the situation is not that better. In total around the world, only 10% of legislative bodies and ministerial positions are held by women.
Participation of women or the lack of it in the public arena can be caused by a host of compounded barriers. The old discriminatory perceptions and attitudes towards women continue to discourage women to seek public office. The masculine working patterns and rules in political engagement usually deter women with family and childcare responsibilities to embark in political work. The cost of seeking and holding an elective position particularly in the Philippines is not only an obstacle to men candidates but more so for women aspirants. Unless some of the rules and conditions in seeking public office change to accommodate women aspirants, the traditional avenues for power (i.e. political parties, trade unions, etc.), access to decision-making remain limited for women.
Women’s empowerment and autonomy as individuals or as collectivities are the key aspects to attain women’s participation in politics and thus, access to decision-making powers. Providing women access to power and decision-making as an individual and as a collective may just be the start to balance inequalities of power relations in the home, public office and the larger society. A more equal sharing of responsibilities in shaping public policy and political decisions may just prove to reshape the power relations in the country.
In the continual process of negotiation, here are some often-discussed, wished-for measures to provide women equal access to and full participation in power structures and decision-making:
• Strive for gender balance in government positions (bodies, committees, judiciary, etc.) and if necessary through positive action;
• Promote and protect equal rights of women in any electoral reform that may be instituted;
• Recognize shared work and parental responsibilities of women and men to allow women to participate in political activities;
• For political parties and trade unions to examine structures and procedures that deter women holding leadership positions;
• For political parties and trade unions to negotiate and push for women’s legislative and political agenda;
• For trade unions to support gender-sensitive development activities both for women and men towards a more equitable power relations; and
• Support for women’s organizations and NGOs committed to the development of women equality and access to political power.