How to Launch Women into Political Leadership

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Erin Vilardi and Jehmu Greene of VoteRunLead (VRL) are moving thousands of women toward political leadership and public life. VRL, a U.S.-based nongovernmental organization, has trained more than 16,000 women over the last 10 years and is now leveraging technology to reach millions more. The VRL team brings a combined 90+ years of experience in political mobilization.

They invited questions on the group’s Facebook page from the YALI Network earlier in February, and we’re following up now with their responses.

Erin and Jehmu: We are excited to answer questions from the YALI network.

unnamed-3First, we wanted to share a few thoughts about the principles of our work.

The work of building a healthy democracy is rewarding, life-changing and, often, difficult and long. The work of changing a culture to value women as full, talented, capable citizens with responsibilities is really, really hard work. But it’s awesome, inspiring and motivating.

It is the work of transformation, and it is the best thing we can do for our daughters and our sons.

The United States does not lead the way when it comes to women’s political representation. Many countries — such as Rwanda, China and Italy — have more women in leadership (often employing tools, such as quotas, that won’t fit culturally here in the United States). So, while we share our  experiences with you, you are the best people to transform your countries and to empower women all across Africa.

Be inspired by some of the greatest human rights champions.

“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” Mahatma Gandhi

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Margaret Mead

One of our personal favorites remains “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.” Plato

In solidarity,

Erin and Jehmu

Coretta Nkhoma: How can one be involved in politics without really being in the forefront?

Erin and Jehmu: There are many roles that you can play to lead a political life without being the “candidate” or the person in front of the cameras. Behind every good candidate or outward-facing leader is a team of individuals. We would encourage you to go and talk with a current female (or male) elected official who represents your area, and ask about the support systems and political infrastructure in place. Specifically, learn the jobs that are behind the scenes that may interest you or fit with your skills. While we encourage you to do this, we also want to note that women too often prefer to be the #2 rather than the #1. We are socialized to serve others. Ask yourself if your discomfort with being in the front is more because you think you belong as #2, rather than where your talents should be, as the #1!

Mel Chipo Njanji Makuwaza: What is the process for women to venture into politics, especially in Zimbabwe? Please, need a step by step. Does it require a certain age, education or background?

Erin and Jehmu: In Zimbabwe, we would suggest reaching out to Netsai Mushonga, national coordinator of the Women’s Coalition of Zimbabwe, or Grace Ruvimbo Chirenje, coordinator of the Zimbabwe Young Women’s Network for Peacebuilding. We recommend the article linked below with more names of female parliamentarians who may be able to help or support you. When you reach out, ask them for something specific and concrete. For example: “Can you connect me to local resources in my area? Who is a woman I should reach out to help me move forward? Are there elections happening soon that I should be getting involved with?”

See more at: http://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2013/9/zimbabwe-women-mps-sworn-in

 Do not be discouraged if you do not hear back right away. It is critical that you keep contacting them. Many people are busy and receive a lot requests.

 We also suggest you connect to WorldPulse.com and start communicating with other women in Zimbabwe who are a part of this supportive global network of sisterhood. In fact, we believe World Pulse is a great resource for women in any country.

Very often there are few or no requirements for holding office. The most popular requirement is age. Research your country and ask around. We need all perspectives in government; don’t think because you are not a lawyer that you cannot be in public office. Many more backgrounds including mothers, farmers, business owners, educators, artists, etc., are desperately needed in public life.

 The basics of running for office or standing for election often mean filing appropriate paperwork to declare your intentions, working with a party to help support your platform, putting a small team together to manage your campaign, and, most importantly, reaching those who vote. This means using events, signs, media, etc., gaining exposure for your name and your message.

Finally, always asking for citizens’ votes on Election Day. That description simplifies an often complex process, but the basics are the same.

Vince Ras Otti: What can be done to encourage women from the marginalized areas to embrace politics? What is the best way of helping them get jobs in the public service?

Erin and Jehmu: Research from the West shows that asking women to consider public office, connecting them to the appropriate people and helping to build their confidence are the best ways to encourage women to run. Talk with women that you think would make great leaders or are ready to run and take the time to answer their questions. There is not enough research on women’s political ambitions specifically related to African women, but I believe encouragement from party officials and other leaders would also hold great weight. The next step is to create favorable conditions that allow her to lead a political life, including talking with her partner or husband about how the family will navigate her political career, what roadblocks to expect from sexist people and how to handle them. Most importantly, get her connected to other women in public life who can share real world experiences and help her to understand the impact they are making by being in politics.

 Don’t forget about the many remarkable African leaders such as recent Nobel Peace Prize winners Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, activists Leymah Gbowee and Tawakkol Karman or leader Wangari Muta Maathai. When and where you can, research the “firsts” all across Africa and share their stories. Find a quick Wiki report on “firsts” here.

Kellvin Aongola: In the case of Africa, I believe the barriers that limit women begin with us men and our male centered culture. For women to fully participate in politics and government, men should change their cultural perceptions of women as inferior beings meant for the kitchen, babies and other domestic activities. Men should encourage women to aspire for greater things.

Erin and Jehmu: Everyone has a role to play in creating an environment, a culture, and a society that values women and men equally.

Ebune AyenuwaHow do married women combine home keeping with active politics?

 Erin and Jehmu: It takes a village, including the husband, to increase the number of women active in politics. The married couple needs to communicate with one another about how the household responsibilities will be shared, how the child rearing will be shared. The children and the larger community will be better off with her and other women leading the country! They can discuss what will get done, what will not get done, and other options, such as allowing family members to live with them to help support their needs.

Mwesigye Siryebo: How can women be encouraged to get involved in local leadership? That’s the starting point of women’s participation in leadership and public service.

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Erin and Jehmu: First, one must understand who currently controls local politics and ask what strategies they have in place for recruiting more women. If they do not have any, help them create those strategies! Next, educate women in the local community who might consider getting involved with local elections or engaging current office holders. Likely candidates might be found among those who are selling goods or have a trade, are advocating or supporting women, working for NGOs, trusted in the community or well-spoken.

We have to show women the real ability to make a difference comes from being involved in local politics. By building understanding of the role of local government, creating more welcoming local parties, and supporting women’s ambitions, we will see more interest in these positions.

Amole Joel Oyebode:How can we drive the message to create a belief system in women that politics is not only for the male folks?

Erin and Jehmu:  Wonderful question. At VoteRunLead, we have a three-part model to create a belief system within themselves that they are capable, strong and needed for public life. Our model is “inspire, equip and inform.” First, we must inspire women to lead by showing them other women who look like them and who can serve as role models for their aspirations. We must inspire them to believe that politics and government help the people and have impact in the lives of their communities. Next, we must equip them with the tools of public leadership — speaking strongly and communicating their vision, storytelling to motivate others, learning to debate, raising campaign funds, and compromising to get to a solution.

Nsude Chinedu Solomon: In a typical African society, a woman’s major role is the home front. Anything that takes her further from home is usually frowned at. This, I think, is a major challenge. It really will take an “exceptional” husband to support his wife to be involved, actively, in politics. Therefore, how do we get husbands/men to trust and support their wives/women political ambitions?

 Erin and Jehmu:  We are not interested in changing husbands, instead we are interested in the harder work of transforming cultures which allow behaviors devaluing women in society.

 Here’s what we’ve seen work in the United States and in our travels to over a dozen international cities, including a few in African countries.

 Products: About a decade ago Erin’s former boss created President Barbie, making the extremely popular doll one that had political aspirations. Now, in the U.S., there is a growing sector of girls’ toys that allow for them to dream big — from engineers to doctors to tech titans! Let’s teach girls to imagine themselves as leaders through play; the impact is significant.

 Art and Media: Across the world, film and documentary, popular radio, and TV have served to spark conversation and tell untold stories. Support women’s films, buy music by female artists, encourage networks and radio programs to have women’s voices and perspectives. Make women’s lives and leadership a part of the mainstream conversation.

 Count the numbers and have a watchdog organization (or many!): Having a basic understanding of the abysmal numbers of women in leadership has helped move the dial not only in U.S. politics, but it is also influencing U.S. and global business. From there, creating watchdog organizations (or even lone individuals) who hold business, government and other institutions accountable for increasing the low numbers of women in their organizations.

Use the Internet to show amazing women and to shame the shameful: We have still not seen the full power of the Internet to transform democracies. Some of us may be skeptical of its power, given the “Arab Spring” uprisings and subsequent results, but nonetheless, the Internet is your personal power tool to help spread the word of women’s leadership, share resources, connect with others around the world and create networks of support. Don’t let this vehicle for change go to waste.

Daughters:In the U.S., we’ve seen that speaking to men about the next generation of women leaders — about their own daughters and the kind of world they want for them — begins to change hearts and minds. This is a powerful tool for getting stubborn thinkers to see the world of gender equality in a new way.

Girls’ Education: This must continue. Must. At all costs.

 As an individual, make sure you are talking with your own family about politics, girls’ and women’s rights, the importance of voting, and participation in democracy. You can bring the newspaper to meals with your family and ask your children their opinion about the issues of the day. You can send your daughter to school and make sure the older women in your life are literate and can help support girls’ education. You can call out other men who perpetuate stereotypes, which hold women and the countries back. You can use social media to tell stories of remarkable women and share resources and connect with others. You can share the Internet with those who may not be able to afford it.

Finally, ask women to run for leadership positions. Encourage like-minded men [who support women as leaders] to do the same. Demonstrate how companies, organizations and local governments with women leaders are doing better, making the “business case” for increasing women’s leadership.

Ezema Chukwudi: How can you encourage women’s participation in politics in a country like Nigeria, where one must have a huge capital base before you venture into politics?

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Erin and Jehmu: In the near term, go to the daughters and wives of the wealthy and encourage them to get involved. Many of the early women leaders in American politics were the wives and daughters of previous male officials (including such notable names as Nancy Pelosi and others in Congress). Here is a recent article on the topic:http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2015/01/dynastic-candidates-of-2016.html

 These women often have the mobility and access to circles of influence that many others do not. And, while you are working to change the system of big capital in politics, you need more female role models to help inspire other women to lead. Role models are a big part of making it seem possible for any marginalized group to run for elected office, especially women who have long been missing from those roles. Then, start programs inside and outside political parties that encourage both men and women candidates — parties that allow for people of lower economic means to have opportunities for leadership or government service.

Some of us are simply going to have to lead even with little financial means. Yes, it will be hard. Yes, it will seem impossible at times. But, one or two breakthrough women candidates can create a whole new structure of possibility.

Building a thriving democracy that includes women is not just a gender issue; you are right in understanding that the influence that class has on the political system is critical to building it right. Keep going!


This post originally appeared on Young African Leaders.