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POLITICS: Decentralisation, a Double-Edged Sword for Women

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Nov 24 2008 (IPS) - Decentralised governments have often been presented as a formula for strengthening democracy and citizen participation, and giving women greater access to power. But experiences like that of Eufrosina Cruz, who was denied the right to run for mayor of her Oaxaca village, on the argument of “uses and customs” of her indigenous community, show that this is not always true.

There are similar stories from other countries as well. Even when decentralisation policies have given rise to gender quota laws that require a certain percentage of candidates for local governments to be women, they often are only the figurehead in posts that are actually under the direct control of male relatives.

This was one of the conclusions of a research study by the Canada-based non-governmental International Development Research Centre (IDRC), which convened 300 policy-makers, academics and women’s rights activists from around the world for a Nov. 18-21 international conference in Mexico City to explore the impact of decentralised governments on women’s right to education, health, security and political representation and present the main findings of its research.

The event was organised by the IDRC in partnership with the Mexican government through the Status of Women Mexico (INMUJERES) and the Foreign Ministry, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT).

Aída Reynaga, a Peruvian activist from Lima, told IPS how she has been fighting for more than 20 years against the corruption of her own neighbours, some of whom are small-time drug dealers but at the same time sit on local government.

“Decentralisation in our case has turned out to be a trap, but now we’re finally getting somewhere,” added Reynaga, president of the Association of Settlers of the Quinta Francia Estate, an organisation that brings together 149 low-income families.

The association, whose members are occupying 32,000 square metres of an old Lima estate, has been fighting for 40 years for the titles to the land and for basic public services, such as running water, electricity and a sewer system.

“Despite the corruption of some of the presidents who have led our group and the Lima municipal authorities that supported them, we were able to obtain running water and electricity, but only because the women have stood up and organised,” said Reynaga, who used to be a newspaper street vendor.

According to Cruz, “decentralisation can make our lives even worse, and that’s what happened in my community, but you still have to fight.”

This indigenous woman from Santa María Quiegolani, a Zapoteca village in the impoverished southern state of Oaxaca, was forced out of her community when the men who control the local assemblies prevented her from running for mayor in 2007. She reported to IPS that after she filed formal complaints for discrimination with several authorities she has been harassed by and received death threats from men in her village.

The IDRC identified the impact on women of decentralised services and decision-making as an important and timely research topic, and since 2004 it has supported studies in countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America.

According to the Conference’s background paper, decentralisation has “given rise in some places to new forms of political representation and participation, such as local elections and village development committees. Such reforms are intended to make government more accessible and responsive, and to give marginalised groups more of a say in decisions that affect their lives.

“Over the past two decades, decentralisation has been widely promoted as a magic bullet for both development and democracy, and most countries in the developing world have undertaken related reforms.”

However, new findings from the research supported by the IDRC show the outcomes may be quite different.

In the case of Nepal, for example, the study reveals that while obligatory quotas for the participation of women in all levels of government have been established by law, this has not translated into greater involvement by women in general in decision-making processes.

Instead, IDRC researchers have found that a “new political class of socially powerful and elite women has emerged, but these same elite women often sit on multiple committees, blocking access by women of lower status,” and both women and men tend to think the participation of women should not go beyond their attendance of meetings.

In Pakistan, “where local government reforms include mandatory representation of women – establishing a 33 percent quota – most of the 345 elected councilwomen who were interviewed turned out to be representatives selected and controlled by a man in their family,” according to the IDRC.

The councilwomen and the female mayor of the small community of Nabón, Ecuador, tell how whenever they have to deal with male personnel they have to “raise their voices and put up with the men’s jokes and their resistance to having to respond to a woman in charge.”

“In southern Sudan, where 48 percent of women give birth without attendants, decentralisation of health services has led to the introduction of user fees at health clinics, a move that has been linked to increased maternal mortality among poor women,” the report says.

Neither does decentralisation give any guarantees in terms of empowerment of women.

In the southern Indian state of Kerala, where a third of the seats in the local parliament are held by women, most of the female legislators see themselves as social workers, and very few of them move on to higher political positions.

In some regions of South Africa, where women receive government funding for community development projects, they do not hold posts of importance in public office and their participation is often limited to traditional domestic roles.

Reynaga, who had never before attended a meeting like the one held in Mexico City, found the experience very productive, as it gave her an opportunity “to learn about other countries and see how there’s corruption there also, just like in my country,” and that decentralisation “is not what they said it would be.”

Cruz, for her part, said that “exchanging points of view is useful, but I can still see how some people are afraid to go against uses and customs like those of my people, because they fear that it could be interpreted as attacking indigenous autonomy. We shouldn’t be afraid of touching the issue of uses and customs. We are not against it, we’re only against those who abuse it to trample women’s rights, like what happened to me.”

After Cruz filed formal complaints, the Oaxaca legislature passed a number of legal reforms aimed at preventing indigenous uses and customs from being employed as an argument to exclude women from political participation.

Oaxaca is one of the poorest states of Mexico and has one of the largest indigenous populations. Of the state’s 570 municipalities, 418 are governed by what they call “uses and customs.”

At the conference, several women participants agreed to use the Internet to network and share information, keep in touch and support each other in their efforts to make decentralisation work in their favour, as according to Cruz, “it could become a trap if we don’t know how to use it and are not aware of its limits.”

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