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The third plenary session of our summit focused largely on assessing women’s role in politics, titled Overcoming the Obstacles to Equality, Development and Peace: A Global Roundtable to Commemorate the 15th Anniversary of the UN Fourth World Conference on Women. Summit moderator Zain Verjee asked panelists to share their personal experience of overcoming barriers – social, structural, cultural and governmental.

In Cambodia, parliamentarian and Vital Voices Global Leadership Network member Mu Sochua has contested bias and paved the way for women’s rights in a recovering post-genocide society that’s often indifferent or ill equipped to address women’s needs:

“The word ‘gender’ cannot be translated in Khmer, because it doesn’t exist. So, we say ‘gender’.”

Sochua urged that women “not shy away from politics,” because every issue that affects women’s daily lives is in some way a political issue. Governor of Uttarakhand state in India and former Vital Voices Global Leadership Award honoree, Margaret Alva, echoed Sochua’s call for women’s engagement in the political realm.

In her 30 years of political activism, Margaret says that she has seen women make considerable strides and now sees a shift materializing in India, owing largely to the adoption of a quota reserving seats for women in the Panchayat, or local bodies of governance.

There are currently one million politically active women engaged at the grassroots level in India, says Margaret, but their one-year term limit ought to be reexamined to ensure that they have the opportunity to have a lasting impact. Women also need to reach out to male counterparts in politics, forming coalitions and networks of support to bolster their campaigns for change and increase chances of success by acting as a collective.

“I believe that women today are creating their own constituency in the grassroots. Women are entering politics with ease now, but survival – you cannot survive purely on women’s constitutes. You have to be part of your party. There are not men’s issues and women’s issues, there are social issues that have to be looked at together, men and women.”

Ambassador Sally Shelton-Colby echoed Margaret’s appeal for collaborative efforts, advocating for the employment of unified bodies for action on global issues affecting women. Sally appealed to delegates convened to join in the Breakthrough Initiative, a project of Vital Voices’ multi-partner La Pietra Coalition to Advance Women and the World. Members of the Breakthrough Initiative include two Nobel Laureates, Muhammad Yunus and Amartya Sen.

Panelist Barbara Cooperman of LexisNexis spoke about the Rule of Law Index project, which pursues an integrated approach to strengthening societies through judicial reform, finding that this has ripple effects in social and economic spheres. Research compiled for the Index examines the practical effects of legislation in the daily lives of women and men.

Patricia Sarenas of the Philippines, deputy director of the Mindanao Commission on Women, shared the success she has found in engaging judges and chief justices in the drafting of laws; Patricia said that it’s critical to involve the judiciary arm of government in the writing of laws, since they are the members who will be implementing the laws.

CEO of The Garden of Hope Foundation in Taiwan, Hui-Jung Chi said that we can shift perceptions and move forward cultural practices that would seek to limit women through innovative campaigns that engage new audiences, especially youth. When launching a campaign for legislation on child sex trafficking in her home country, Chi and members of her foundation organized a flash mob of 50,000 people in central Tai Pei, which garnered critical awareness and increased political pressure just before the bill was up for consideration. The legislation was passed, and Chi says of the experience:

“This campaign might be an example of how a social movement can become a legal reality.”