In advance of International Women’s Day, American University School of Public Affairs’ Women & Politics Institute hosted six female ambassadors to the U.S. for a special panel discussion about the progress and challenges involving female political representation and participation around the world. WPI Executive Director Betsy Fischer Martin moderated the event.
“As we examine our own political system, it’s important to learn about other countries as well,” said Fischer Martin, introducing the panelists from Albania, Kosovo, Finland, El Salvador, and New Zealand. “Here in the U.S., we had a midterm election that resulted in a record number of women elected to Congress — 127. It has been referred to as the ‘Year of the Woman.’ Considering there are now 22 female ambassadors serving their countries here in the United States, it appears we are having a ‘Diplomatic Year of the Woman’ as well in Washington, D.C.,” said Fischer Martin.
After Fischer Martin’s introduction, each of the ambassadors shared their personal experience about how far women have come in political leadership roles in their respective countries, but they also acknowledged there is much work to be done to address equal pay, domestic violence, and other critical issues of equality.
“In Albania, nearly one-third of the parliament and half of the municipalities are represented by women,” said H.E. Ambassador Floreta Faber of Albania. “Women play an important role in the decision-making and can help bring attention to critical issues, but we need to do more.”
When asked how Albania observes International Women’s Day, Ambassador Faber explained it is also known as Mother’s Day and that women are honored with flowers and lunches and are celebrated by their families.
However, H.E. Ambassador Vlora Citaku followed up by saying, “Many women in Kosovo take to the streets on International Women's Day with signs that read, ‘No flowers, no Justice.' For my generation, becoming politically active was not a choice. It was a matter of survival. People often associate women with soft power, but let me tell you: We are tough.”
Kosovo was one of several countries represented at the event that have gender quotas in government. The ambassadors explained the importance retaining the visibility of women in office, especially as prime ministers and presidents.
“If we don’t see women in important posts, people don’t perceive women as important for politics,” said H.E. Ambassador Karin Olofsdotter of Sweden.
Finland granted women the right to vote and run for office as early as 1906, said H.E. Ambassador Kirsti Kauppi. “We are a small country, and we realize we have to tap the resources of the whole nation,” she said. “We can’t afford not to utilize the talent of the whole population.”
"Women’s participation in the civil war in El Salvador elevated their status in society," said H.E. Ambassador Claudette Ivette Canjura de Contento. "After the peace accord was signed in 1992, women moved into more positions in the political and academic spheres. Still, women have not achieved top government posts."
“We need to translate to other generations why women have to be in office,” said Ambassador Canjura de Contento.
“Having women in power does make a difference in policy,” said H.E. Ambassador Rosemary Banks of New Zealand. “Research has shown since women’s representation increased in the 1970s, there has been more attention paid to women’s health, employment, and equal pay in New Zealand.”
Ambassador Banks also explained that New Zealand’s current female prime minister is taking “well-being” into account in the budgeting process, not only earning and wealth but also looking at measures of health, environment, and preserving culture.
At the conclusion of the event, Ambassador Banks said that although women are making progress in politics, “Women face different standards and criticism in the media. I still think it’s a tilted playing field.”