Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul: German Parliamentarian, Feminist and Leader

Think of German politicians and the name and face that comes to mind is, of course, that of Angela Merkel, the current chancellor of the country and chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Union. But Germany, which in 1918 was one of the first countries in Europe to give women the vote, has also seen many strong women leaders inhabit the realm of decision making.

Among them is Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, of the Social Democratic Party (SDP), who joined politics in 1968 and was the German minister for Economic Cooperation and Development from 1998 to 2009. She has been an active member of the Bundestag (the German parliament) since 1987. An unabashed feminist, she is also an ardent advocate of renewable energy, which she believes is the key to a sustainable future. Pamela Philipose interviewed her when she was in Delhi recently.

Q: Why is the presence of women in politics is so important?

A: I believe getting equal gender representation in mainstream politics is vital because the experience of women is important in coming up with ways to address the real-life concerns of every person. There is a slogan that I often quote: ‘One woman in politics is changed by politics. But more women in politics can change politics’. Our party, the SDP, incidentally has always been in favour of women and actually fought for women’s rights – including the woman’s right to vote – as far back as the 1890s, although it took another two decades to gain universal franchise. Women got the right to vote in Germany in 1918. It is interesting to try and understand why Germany was one of the first countries in Europe to give women the vote – and perhaps the revolutions of that period had something to do with it.

Q: What about your own political influences?

A: I, of course, having grown up in the 1960s, remember how the situation of women was greatly strengthened by the student movement of 1968. That movement may be associated with the names of many male leaders but there was also a strong women’s presence within it which is often glossed over. The women of that era were often extremely critical of their male colleagues. I remember one popular statement that did the rounds in those days: “Comrades of all countries, who washes your socks?” What this implied is that change needs to come, not just in the public sphere but in the private sphere.

Q: What were the various social triggers that brought women on to the streets?

A: I remember the huge struggle against the general law that forbade abortion. If German women needed an abortion in those days, they had to go either to the Netherlands or the UK! The SDP recognised fairly early the importance of women’s autonomy within politics. In 1987, it came up with a quota formulation that laid down that there had to be at least 40 per cent representation of either gender in all party and parliamentary institutions. Now that particular clause has lapsed, but it has done its work of helping to make the party more gender equal. The party list system also incorporates the principle of equal representation of men and women.

Q: Would you say then that German women have come a long way?

A: There have, of course, been significant changes in terms of unequal laws. At one point, a German woman needed her husband’s permission to exercise her right to work! Not any more. So things have moved on but I believe one should never sit back and say, ‘Well we have accomplished what we set out to do and our struggle is done.’ There are still so many problems for women in contemporary Germany. For instance, child care support is not freely available and not for the whole day. We need to make the system of child care not just women friendly, but family friendly. Currently, there is also a big struggle going on over equal wages for equal work. Women in Germany find themselves poorly paid and most of them are in part-time jobs. Their representation in the corporate sector is around a miserable three per cent, and there is a debate on whether there should be quotas for women in the corporate sector.

Q: As a minister did you try and help hasten the pace of change?

A: Certainly, I found that being in power could help. I started with my own ministry. When I came into the ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development, there was only seven per cent women’s representation within it. By the time I demitted office, the figure had touched 37 per cent. So this can be done. We came up with different models of enabling the greater participation of women by adopting flexible working hours and putting in place child care support. I did this because I believed that any progress demanded the strong presence of women.

Q: How do you see the future?

A: There are huge transformation processes taking place at the global level and there are many aspects of this transformation – for instance, in patterns of life – that are just not sustainable. I believe that nuclear energy is not sustainable and that humankind’s common future depends on renewable energy. One of the things that I feel proud of having achieved as a minister was to be able to enter into partnerships with 20 countries to initiate the switch to renewables. This we did through motivation, counselling and financial support. What is really crying for change is our dominant pattern of urbanisation – everything, from the way food is produced to the manner people commute – is driven by this. I also believe that the fight against poverty the world over has to be combined with more environmentally conscious ways of living.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.