Contributor Uday Nagaraju met The Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC, Secretary- General of The Commonwealth and discussed Commonwealth’s objectives, achievements and goals in gender equality, women’s empowerment and political participation. The Commonwealth is an association of 52 Independent nations which includes advanced economies and developing countries.
Your Excellency, you are the first woman Commonwealth Secretary-General. How did you live that experience? Is being the first woman to hold this position important to you?
I'm very proud to have been chosen to be the first woman to hold this role. Our Commonwealth is made up of almost 2.4 billion people. And, what we know is that this opportunity to serve our citizens is a unique privilege for any Commonwealth citizen. And many of us who were born in small islands or countries right across the commonwealth family have grown up believing that we are part of this wide and very interactive family. So the thought of becoming the secretary general who is tasked with helping to support the work of these 52 governments is an awesome opportunity - one that I think could make any person feel proud.
How does being a woman make your tenure particular?
That enables me to focus on not just the issues which are important to men but also the issues which are important to the other 50 percent of the globe. There are real opportunities for us as women. If we look at the countries which are developing the most quickly, which have had great opportunities; those are the countries which use the talent of their women. And we saw during the financial tsunami in 2010 that those companies which had 50 per cent men and 50 per cent women did much better than those which had either more women than men or more men than women. So this 50/50 is incredibly important. And, I am so pleased that what we will be able to do during my tenure, I hope, is to shine a brighter light on the abilities and opportunities for women. And, if we do want The Commonwealth to be the key to the progress, we have got to encourage our women to come forward and to take their proper role.
You recently organized a Women Leaders’ Summit bringing together key women leaders from across the Commonwealth to develop an action plan on gender equality and women’s empowerment. Can you tell us about the outcome of the meet and the action plan?
We were absolutely determined that we should look at women's empowerment, how we reduce violence against women and how we encourage women in terms of the political and other fields. But, it wasn't just enough to talk about that and there was clear commitment from those women. We decided that we must have an action plan which had clear deliverables and these clear deliverables would be set out in a plan which would be shared amongst all members of the commonwealth. And, right now we're putting that action plan together. One of the things that we have done this year, as you probably know, we have created the theme of a Peace-building Commonwealth.
We are looking at the rights of women and the need to protect our women and children. How do we reduce underage marriages, forced marriages, female genital mutilation? How do we make sure our girls are protected in our home so they can become strong women? And, I'm asking all our parliamentarians to think about how we celebrate this Peace-building Commonwealth. How do we mark Commonwealth Day but also what are we going to do in each of our countries to deliver peace in our homes because I believe that if we want a peaceful world, we have to start by making sure we have peace in our homes. So we have pulled together an action plan for how we prevent and eliminate domestic violence. And a lot of work is going into that now.
Gender equality is one of your top four priority areas along with climate change, good governance and human rights. Within your first 100 days in office, you have accelerated and re-invigorated the Commonwealth’s commitments towards gender equality. What is the current situation and what would you like to achieve during your tenure?
One of the things I found really exciting is that there is so much commitment to this issue of gender equality. We now have a number of vice presidents, prime ministers not least in Bangladesh and the United Kingdom but certainly vice presidents who are women, stepping up to the plate and you would have noticed that The Gambia who I understand are seeking or may be seeking to return to the Commonwealth, are talking about good governance, the rule of law but also the president has just appointed as his vice president a woman. So this opportunity for us to bind together and enthuse people to raise the issue of gender has been very important. And, what we are looking for is getting those champions to speak out and also be able to implement.
We have been able to come up with best practice; as you know when I was the minister for criminal justice in the United Kingdom, we, together with business, the third sector and local government worked to develop a multi-agency, multi- risk assessment approach towards reducing domestic violence. We managed to reduce domestic violence by 64 percent. But, we also reduced the economic cost of domestic violence by 7.1 billion pounds a year. Can you imagine what our commonwealth would look like if we were able to do a similar reduction in the next four or five years in every country in the commonwealth? And, I think because we now know how to do it pulling all the resources together with our Commonwealth working with the World Health Organisation, working with the UN, working with all those other agencies who want to do the same thing. We have a realistic chance of making a real difference.
And, I would love to do that by the end of my term because violence against women affects one in three women and girls in our world. It is the greatest cause of mortality for women and girls around the world. If these women, who are currently inhibited from giving of their talent and best because of violence, if they were able to use that talent to create small businesses, become professionals and give back to their community not just with their love and care and attention but with their skills, we would have a greatly enriched Commonwealth. And all that pain and suffering doesn't just affect women. It affects men and it affects the children, because if children grow up in violence they don't meet their developmental milestones, they don't meet their educational milestones.
And we are harming the next generation - 60 per cent of our Commonwealth right now is under the age of 30. So, we really have to think how do we build that generation, how do we teach them that violence should always be the last port of call, not the first, and those lessons start in the home. So, if we can make the home a safer, more nurturing, more supportive, more respectful place for both men and women. I think it would make a real contribution. It is doable because I think that anything one country in the Commonwealth can do, if we each help each other, all of us will be able to do.
Recently, the Commonwealth launched a project to boost the number of Tanzanian women leaders and to put more women at the helm of public and private sector organizations. Can you explain details of this project and how it will be achieved?
The Commonwealth Ministers of Women Affairs pledged to work towards a “proposed target of no less than 30% of women in decision –making positions in the political, public and private sectors.“ (Commonwealth Secretariat 2013).
The results of the baseline report show that the majority of the commonwealth countries are yet to attain the 30% target of women in cabinet civil service and boardrooms of both public and private enterprises.
- According to the research, out of the 37 countries that provided data:
- 12 countries have 30% Directors of State-owned Enterprises
- 15 countries have 30% female permanent Secretaries
- 26 countries have 30% female Directors/Heads of Government Departments
- 0 countries have 30% female Board members
- 0 countries have 30% female Executives
The research was utilised to advocate for more women in leadership positions through several High-Level events where good practices and strategies were shared.
Tanzania was selected as the first pilot for further support. An action plan was developed by a cross section of stakeholders and strategies and targets required to move the recommendations forward were agreed. A Taskforce of 10 members was formed to take the recommendations forward to government and monitor implementation.
Equitable participation of women in politics and policy making is pivotal in achieving overall gender equality. Aggregating Inter-parliamentary Union figures, the world average of women parliamentarians in lower or single houses is 23.1% and Commonwealth nations have an average of 22.2% which is low. How do you think this can be improved?
I think we can do that by looking at some of the examples of the countries within the Commonwealth where it is not low. Look for example at Rwanda has I think 64 per cent women. How did they get that? How did they manage to persuade, cajole, create this opportunity? Working with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, we have a very strong women's group within them, and they have regional groups.
It's about enabling women to understand what political life actually will be like. Supporting and encouraging them to do that. Setting out examples as to why women in parliament can make a difference. If you look at the legislative program that we've had as a result of the expansion in the numbers of women, then the issues which women are particularly interested about tend to come more to the fore, and they are not overshadowing other issues. I think what's so exciting is we've seen that when you have men and women in equal numbers they do something much more creative.
We've looked at ‘All Women's lists’ which a number of countries have done. We have looked at how you do it proportionately. We have looked at those countries that have done outreach, workshops, and toolkits. Those countries that work with the parliamentary procedures but we also looked at political party structures.
And, what's quite curious is in a number of countries you'll see women in the different political parties coming together and agreeing on certain levels and certain fundamental principles which will affect all of them irrespective of party. So it's working out what works. What has been successful, what is fair? What is deliverable in this different cultural context and pulling it together in a form which is readily digestible and sharing it with our countries and seeing which one will work well for them. But it's doing positive, creative things as opposed to just waiting for change to happen because I think what we've discovered is you have to be creative and active to bring about change, and passivity is unlikely to get the equality you need.
I also think galvanizing good feminist men because so many men feel passionately about equality and I have found that men who have daughters feel particularly passionate about it.