Canada: Young Girls are Matched With a Political Mentor

By Naunidhi Kaur, Womens Feature Service

Amita Pande is a grade 12 student in a Mississauga, Ontario school. Amita likes to volunteer in the community in her free time. Last summer, she received a government grant to feed the poor using fresh food and vegetables. This was after she participated in a youth leadership programme. However, ask her if she would like to join politics as a profession and she quickly moves in to clarify that she is “not into politics.” “What I don’t like about politics is that a lot of promises are made and then they are never followed up,” she says. “I think most of my friends feel the same. I got to know about the student council in my school only a week ago and nobody seems to run for any office,” she says.

Amita is not alone in her qualms about politics. According to Elections Canada’s research in the federal election in 2000, young voter turnout was at a low figure of 25 per cent. And within the youth, girls seem to be estranged the most to politics and voting. To reverse bleak trends like these, Equal Voice, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit organisation is trying to put women at the forefront. Its mentorship programme called Experiences encourages young women to get more attuned to their political side.

“Our goal is to get young women to talk about politics,” says Beki Scott, national youth chair, equal voice. Scott has been helping open youth chapters in universities in Canada including McGill in Montreal as well as University of Toronto. “It is even better to outreach to girls in middle and high schools,” she says. This is because Equal Voice has figured that just because young women have never imagined what a great politician they could be doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be given the opportunity to fill the posts.

In the Experiences programme young girls are matched with a political mentor – a female politician or a senior public servant. The youth get a chance to see the life of a politician by job-shadowing their mentor, attending question hour and seeing how a political office runs and looks like. Around 100 youth have been placed with political mentors in this programme. “Lately, we had a youth whose mentor was MP Olivia Chow and she got some great hands-on experience with her,” says Rosemary Speirs, Founding Chair, Equal Voice.

Apart from youth, Equal Voice has been trying to get more women represented in politics. This is because of the low number of women in Canadian politics. Women account for 51 per cent of the population, but at present hold only 22 per cent of the seats in city councils, provincial legislature and the House of Commons. A high GDP and quality of life has not translated into more leadership by the women. Canada ranks 49 out of 189 countries in the number of women elected to parliament. It has fewer women elected to the federal government then Rwanda, Iraq and Afghanistan. And diversity might be visible in the women’s faces that use the public transportation or inhabit cities like Toronto and Vancouver but it does not impact the imposing Centre Block building of the Canadian parliament complex in Ottawa.

Three interconnected reasons result in the low representation of women in politics. The first reason is that women need to select themselves to stand for political offices. What dissuades them from doing so is the “culture of exclusion rather than inclusion” that marks the political scene. “Politics is still an old boys’ club which continues to mentor and support men more readily and easily than women. Traditional prejudices against women entering politics prevail even today,” emphasises Kokila Jacob, member, Equal Voice. Besides, women continue to hold a disproportionate share of family responsibilities and continue to be involved in the role of primary caregiver. This dissuades them from joining politics that is seen as a 24 hour job. “If women have the same level of mentorship, financial backing, family and community support and time that men have, you would see more women, that too younger women, joining politics,” emphasises Jacob.

In several cases, when women try and stand for an office they face the second challenge of getting themselves selected as candidates by the parties. “What works against them is the perception that ‘white male professional’ would be a better bet at winning the election,” says Speirs. She finds that first-past-the-post system electoral system works to the disadvantage of women. Under this system the candidate with the most votes wins the seat. Given this formula, most political parties try to keep with the safest and the best bet for winning the seat.

An alternative to this is the Proportional Representation (PR) being followed in Japan, Russia, Germany and Belgium. Under PR, representatives are elected in proportion to the number of votes received. PR assures that political parties or candidates will have the percent of legislative seats that reflects their public support. A party or candidate need not come in first to win seats. This system ensures more diversity and representation of women in politics. For instance, this system ensured 41 per cent representatives in Sweden, 39 per cent women representatives in Sweden. In the past, Equal Voice tried to bring electoral reforms through the parliament but has been repeatedly defeated at the provincial level.

The third hurdle for women trying to fill the political post is by far the easiest to cross. This is convincing the voters that when it comes to running a political office they can do as good a job as men. According to Elections Canada, the 64 women elected in January 2006 represented 17 per cent of all women candidates running for office in that election, only slightly lower than the 19 per cent success for male candidates. Even when the electoral system discriminates against women, the electoral do not.

As a result, Equal Voice has now been urging the male party leaders to run more female candidates in elections. The success of this approach was partly visible in the 2008 federal elections in which Liberal Party leader Stephane Dion pledged to run at least one-third female candidates, and exceeded the target at 37 per cent.

Meanwhile, through the mentorship programme, it tries to convince girls early on that joining politics is an exciting option. So not surprisingly, when given the details of the Experiences programme, Amita Pande says, “Oh cool. I would also like to see how a political office runs like.”

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