Elections matter (aka “If they can do it in Rwanda”)

If I had a dollar for every time, while registering voters, someone had said to me, “it doesn’t matter who wins, they’re all the same”…well, I’d still be sitting here writing this blog post, honestly, but I would have given away more money last year and I’d be drinking the larger size Diet Dr. Pepper. I have simple needs.

But, seriously, social workers are often guilty of this “they’re all the same” mentality when it comes to elected officials, too. And I can understand it, really. On many issues that we care about, there is not that much difference between the views of ‘mainstream’ members of the two major U.S. political parties, and it’s easy to see our issues pushed entirely off the agenda and conclude that all of that electoral work was for naught.

But, now, we have some data that can actually demonstrate that who’s in office CAN make a difference, at least if that who is a woman. Below, I’ve uploaded two publicly-available academic studies that document, empirically, the difference that increasing the density of women elected officials in local communities. Interestingly, the same effects are not found for women elected to higher posts; there is some speculation that this is because of the corrupting effects of the accummulation of sufficient power to mount a national campaign (note for U.S. activists, too?).

These studies found that, when a change to the Indian constitution required that one third of villages (chosen randomly) have the position of chief reserved for women, spending priorities and governance processes were markedly different in the villages with female chiefs: more water pumps and taps, fewer bribes, and better overall infrastructure (as a side note, can a researcher imagine a better set up than random distribution like this? truly manna from heaven). You can read the studies for yourself.

Then check out the story of Rwanda, which I really knew nothing about until I read Half the Sky (you remember that–it’s the book that you all read last fall! 🙂 As of September 2008, Rwanda became the first country in the world with a majority of female legislators. The constitution requires that women make up at least 30% of Parliament; partially because of necessity (after the 1994 genocide, women are 70% of the population) and partially because the population saw electing more women as a sort of safeguard against a reprise of that horrific violence. Once women were elected, voters lost some of their reluctance to elect more, and, as a result, Rwanda is now hailed by many observers as one of the best-governed, most economically promising countries in Africa and, indeed, in the developing world.

And, here’s my New Favorite Thing: Women’s Campaign International. This is a global organization dedicated to helping grassroots women leaders run for office, win elections, and serve effectively. It fulfills this mission by providing technical assistance and capacity building to local women’s organizations, supporting advocacy and grassroots campaigning, and directly increasing women’s incomes through entrepreneurial strategies. They include the U.S. and our rather dismal representation of women in politics nationally as part of their concern, and their website has a blog with current news and some exciting success stories.

Check them out and, then, find a woman candidate locally whom you can support. Ask her how you can help–fundraising, publicity, issue research, voter contacts…hey, watch her kids or clean her house so she can get more campaigning in. Or run for office yourself! Social workers have been highly effective members of local, state, and federal government throughout our profession’s history, and we have an important role to play today. This is the beginning of a critical election year, and we have a lot of work to do between now and the spring local elections, summer primaries, and November general election.

Just think, if they can do it in Rwanda…

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