Engendering the debate: What could constitutional change mean for gender equality?

futoneWhat could constitutional change mean for gender equality?  Cera Murtagh reports from the Women and Constitutional Futures seminar

(originally posted on the  University of Edinburgh Scotland’s Referendum blog; http://www.referendum.ed.ac.uk/engendering-debate/)

The political debate around the Scottish independence referendum could so far be characterised by two opposing constitutional options being trotted out against a backdrop of bickering over procedural issues. Yet what this change – or status quo – should deliver, has not been so clearly articulated.  A seminar in Edinburgh last week addressed that vacuum, posing the fundamental question: what could a new Scotland look like?

The event, entitled Women and Constitutional Futures: Gender Equality Matters in a New Scotland, held on 14 and 15 February at the Royal Society of Edinburgh, brought together a range of academics, practitioners and activists to discuss what the 2014 referendum could mean for gender equality – and, critically, the opportunities it presents to advance the agenda.[1]  Organised by the University of Edinburgh’s Professor of Politics, Fiona Mackay and Professor of Constitutional Law, Christine Bell, this timely forum explored how women’s voices could be injected into the debate – not only in the run up to the referendum, but in the constitutional negotiations that might follow and, ultimately, the country that will emerge post-2014.  Discussions of macro-economic policy, EU membership, or indeed the timing of the poll or wording of the question, were notably absent.  Instead participants were invited to take a step back and imagine a new Scotland – one where gender equality matters.

The sense that Scotland was approaching a ‘critical juncture’ infused the event.  Constitutional change presents an unprecedented opportunity to advance women’s inclusion in society by getting in at the foundations and enshrining its principles in new constitutions, structures and institutions.  But that is a time-limited window.  Focusing minds, seminar chair Lesley Riddoch reminded the audience that Scotland’s First Minister had committed to a written constitution in an independent Scotland; if gender equality is to be embedded within that, now is the time to act.

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International examples of how human rights and equality have been written into constitutions in countries like South Africa and Columbia, were set out by Georgina Waylen, Professor of Politics at the University of Manchester and Dr Catherine O’Rourke of the Institute for Transitional Justice, University of Ulster.  Sketching the opportunities and the pitfalls, they offered some lessons for women aiming to influence constitutional change: organise in advance, intervene early and form alliances.

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The seminar also heard about constitutional developments closer to home.  Speakers from Iceland and Ireland explained how the recent economic and political crises in their countries had sparked constitutional reform as the public demanded greater citizen participation in their governance.  In the wake of its financial crash a deliberative process was kick started to draw up a new constitution shaped by the people.  Thorvaldur Gylfason, Chair of the Icelandic Alliance for a New Constitution, described the process that involved a Constitutional Council, made up of 25 citizens, which obtained the views of the public through its website as well as Facebook and Twitter.  This innovative approach has not been without its challenges however.  Despite the draft constitution – which includes greater public control of natural resources – being endorsed in a referendum in October, its ratification now faces opposition both from within Parliament and from special interests, Gylfason said.  But, as he reflected: “A good constitution is one that will face serious opposition”.

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Meanwhile, Professor Yvonne Galligan of Queens University Belfast outlined the Constitutional Convention established in Ireland last year to discuss constitutional amendments – including proposals to enhance women’s participation in public life – and made up of one third politicians and two thirds citizens.  The professor sounded a note of caution on the use of deliberative democracy, however, warning that deliberation does not always deliver gender equality outcomes.

Unsurprisingly, women’s political representation was high on the agenda.  Dr Meryl Kenny, Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales, painted a picture of regression in the Scottish Parliament, where the proportion of women has fallen from a high of 39.5% in the 2003 elections to 34.8% in 2011, while speakers from Spain and Ireland showed how things might be done differently.  Tania Verge, of Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, shared experiences from Catalonia and Spain where gender quotas have seen women’s representation rise from 5% in the late 1970s to near parity levels in 2011.

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Meanwhile, across the water, statutory parliamentary quotas of 30% women candidates on the ballot paper at the next General Election (rising to 40% after seven years) were adopted in Ireland last year.  The “system shock” of recession, according to Fiona Buckley, co-founder of the 50/50 campaign, provided the “critical juncture” to address dismal levels of women’s representation – currently 15%.  The lesson to be drawn from the Irish experience, Buckley told delegates, was to, “never waste a good crisis”.  “Women are not the problem”, she added; institutional barriers are and quotas can begin to address them.

But discussions of equality went far beyond electoral quotas to social justice in its broadest sense.  Kate Higgins, political blogger and member of Women for Independence, challenged her fellow-delegates to recognise that, “we are privileged women” and beyond those walls economic and social inequalities mark Scottish society. Tackling that injustice is core to why Scotland needs independence, she argued.

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Former Scottish Socialist MSP Carolyn Leckie likewise drew attention back to class inequality, saying that for many women in Scotland a more pressing issue is how they will afford to buy adequate food for their families, and not just “horse burgers”.  “I always find myself in class environments talking feminism and in feminist environments talking class,” she added.

To round off the day delegates were taken back to the dawn of devolution.  Speakers from Northern Ireland shared their experiences of having formed an all-women’s party – the Northern Ireland Women’s Coalition – in a bid to influence negotiations in advance of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.  Founder member Carmel Roulston recalled how members from nationalist and unionist communities came together to ensure women’s voices were represented in the negotiations.

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Professor Alice Brown, a member of the Consultative Steering Group for the Scottish Parliament and founder member of the Scottish Women’s Coordination Group, reflected on that process and its lessons for the forthcoming campaign.

“But what worries me is that this time round there is not that same focus on equal representation,” she said.

“There is political division between the political parties; the debate is quite toxic in some regards. And that means that the broad alliance we were able to achieve in the 90s perhaps is not so possible now.”

Ending on a more positive note, Brown called on those present to consider establishing a ‘Women’s Constitutional Commission’ or ‘Women’s Futures Commission’.  Professor James Mitchell of the University of Strathclyde wholeheartedly backed the proposal, saying women should be “deeply dissatisfied” with the offerings to date of both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns. Around the room, lively debate was sparked about what a body like this might look like – but the enthusiasm for some such initiative was palpable.

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The day drew to a close with a sense of possibility – and a recognition that the time to realise those possibilities is now.

Cera Murtagh is a PhD Candidate in Politics at the University of Edinburgh researching cross-community political parties in divided societies. She is also a member of the Gender Politics Research Group which hosts the genderpolitics blog and the @genderpol twitter feed


[1] The event was co-hosted by the Scottish Universities Insight Institute  and the Scottish Constitutional Forum, and was one of a series of seminars in each programme.

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