Accessing Political Power: South Asian Women’s Experiences
Posting Date: 24 Aug 04
Author(s): Sharmini Fernando
Attached file: June 5 Women Accessing Political Power Sharmini Ffinal1.doc
BACKGROUND AND KEY THEMES
The panel discussion “Accessing Political Power: Experiences of South-Asian Women” was designed to prompt discussion under the umbrella concept of citizenship. The conventional western model of citizenship involves both formal membership within a state and a series of substantive rights. Substantive rights include civil and political rights as well as social and economic rights. Political rights include the right to vote and to stand for election. Social rights involve access to health care, education and a daily living wage.
The presentations provided various perspectives on the articulation of citizenship by women in South Asia (India and Sri Lanka) and Canada. Through these presentation a the panelists illustrated the relationship between individuals (specifically women and other marginalized communities), society and the state and about the process of civic and political participation, both of which are crucial to a renewal of real and radical politics in the twenty-first century.
SAP Canada presented an overview of the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts (1992-93) in India, an excellent lens through which to view the participation rural and poor women in local government. Dr. Amali Philips presented a critique of the existing local government system in Sri Lanka and the lack of participation by women and the total invisibility of the plantation sector women in the political process. The Toronto Women’s Call to Action, a network of diverse women and women’s groups presented their position which is to put women back onto the municipal agenda and to highlight the disappearance of women’s and girl’s issues and concerns from the public policy and implementation agenda in the city of Toronto. The last speaker represented the Coalition of Agencies Serving South Asians another Toronto based organization specifically working on building the capacity of the South Asian social service sector. She elaborated on the challenges that visible minorities and youth face when trying to access the political process in Canada.
A RESERVATION POLICY FOR WOMEN IN LOCAL GOVERNMENT
Ms Veena Gokhale, Program Manager, SAP Canada
The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment provides a new thrust to women seeking an active role in public life. The 73rd Constitutional amendment (1993) provides for direct elections every five years to local bodies (panchayats) at three levels – village, taluka and district, and empowers them to assume development responsibilities for their electorate. Through these amendments women have a quota of one-third of all seats in these bodies and a third of the offices of leadership in them. Historically disadvantaged castes and tribal communities have been guaranteed proportionate representation in these bodies.
The 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendment Acts (1992-93) reserves 33 per cent of seats for women in the three tiers of government. While it has taken some time to implement, the net result of this ground breaking legislation has been that an estimated one million women are currently in local government in India, and over five million women have had some experience of local politics in the last ten years. SAP Canada has supported a three-year project in five South Asian countries, including India, to encourage women’s empowerment through participation in local governance. Ms Gokhale said that her presentation was based on the research of a colleague, Dr Bidyut Mohanty, from a partner organization in India – the Institute of Social Sciences (ISS), as from a Canadian-funded workshop that SAP Canada and ISS held in New Delhi, in October 2003, on the impact of the amendments on women’s empowerment in India.
The 73rd and 74th Amendments
Local government in India has a three-tier structure. At the lowest level is the panchayat, a centuries old, village level, self-governing institution, that progressively lost power with the establishment of British rule in India. In 1992-93, the 73rd and 74th Constitutional Amendments started a process of devolution and grassroots democracy by revitalizing the role panchayats have in government. Panchayats were given constitutional recognition and responsibility (although not necessarily the funding) for a range of issues including resource management, family planning, education and health. The most striking feature of these amendments was that they allocated 33 per cent of seats in the rural and urban local government to women. Other disadvantaged, low-caste groups were also granted a percentage of seats. This latter quota is for men and women. Thus women, and women from marginalized communities, and not just privileged women, gained a voice in these institutions, for the first time.
Another innovative change was that the 73rd Amendment recognized a body called the gram sabha, which is akin to a village assembly. This body has to have input in panchayat decision-making. While not perfect in practice, the gram sabha is open to anyone on the village electoral roll and provides a mechanism for the wider community to have a voice in panchayat decisions.
Impact of the amendments on women’s status
Women’s participation in local government can best be understood within the context of a ‘continuum of empowerment’. For some, including women in purdah (veil) and low caste women, just attending the panchayat meetings -is a big step forward. Others, including very marginalized women, have taken their participation much further to become activists for women. These women are powerful role models for others. The sheer numbers that have been elected (one million each term) provide visibility and participation for women in government.
Issues addressed by women representatives within the panchayat are varied and include local issues such as health, education, housing, sanitation, water and roads. Some elected women have reported that they were able to help women deal with family problems including spousal abuse as their position allowed them to play a role in conflict resolution. Others were able to make an outstanding contribution in specific areas such as campaigning for the education of girls and protesting against the custom of purdah (the custom of purdah in many Hindu and Muslim cultures restrict women’s freedom of movement and decision making).
There are various critiques about the process of empowering women in India through participation in local governance. Some critics have claimed that these women representatives are merely ‘proxy women’ who are in practice controlled and manipulated by men in the family and have no real voice of their own. These critiques however are too simplistic. In particular, they do not sufficiently allow for the fact that politics itself is a very gendered space and construct. The critiques analyse women in terms of their ‘deficiencies’ rather than allowing for the fact that women may have different ways than men, of getting their work done. The relationship of male family members with the elected women can be controlling, but is also at times collaborative and consensual. It must also be remembered that men in politics rarely act autonomously. It has been observed that women tend to gain autonomy as they gain political experience. More generally, women have to work with and through a bureaucracy that is overwhelmingly male, sometimes corrupt, and often disdainful of women representatives. This environment can be a barrier to effective participation.
Enabling Factors and Innovations
Women continue to face many constraints to their participation in local government. These constraints include lack of experience, illiteracy, family responsibilities, restrictive social norms, lack of an enabling environment, violence, including family violence triggered by their new position, harassment and character assassination. A few women have even lost their lives as a consequence of becoming active in local politics.
Despite these constraints, recent research shows that family members, including husbands, and especially female family members, are often supportive of these women representatives. (It needs to be noted that many rural Indian women live in extended families.) Prohibitions around women’s participation in public life are slowly diminishing and this change is expected to accelerate over time. Some of these women have stood for re-election, including from unreserved seats, and won. Some now aspire to higher levels of political office as their confidence and understanding of government increases.
Some enabling factors for women elected representatives includes the work of civil society groups, who are providing training and support, as well as the extensive existence of women’s self-help groups. India’s thriving NGO sector allows various synergies to develop that enable progressive social change. Training provided by NGOs also helps. Research shows that where social or environmental movements interact with women elected representatives, the women do much better. This finding does not diminish the fact that women continue to face major constraints in participating in local government. Rather, it further emphasizes that these constraints are easier to address within a supportive, enabling environment, including the active involvement of NGOs and social movements.
WOMEN AND ACTIVE CITIZENSHIP: EXPERIENCES FROM SRI LANKA
Dr. Amali Philips, Wilfred Laurier University, Waterloo
Women’s political representation in Sri Lanka decreased even as human development has improved in the country. Sri Lanka is the only country in South Asia where no quotas exist for women in local government. Overall, Sri Lankan women fare poorly in the area of political representation, which also means that they are absent at all levels of decision making. This is so despite the few women in high-powered positions in government.
Compared with its neighbors, social indicators for Sri Lanka remain high, although they do not include data from the conflict zone, Sri Lanka ranks 81st of 162 countries on the UNDP’s Human Development Index. Per capita income is $826. Life expectancy is 69.3 years for men and 75.0 years for women. Infant mortality is 17 per 1,000 live births; the literacy rate is 88.6% for females and 94.3% for males. These latest statistics from UNDP continue to highlight the positive achievements of a country plagued by a 20-year civil war. Despite the positive achievements of human development, specifically with respect to the status of women in education and employment, Sri Lankan women fare poorly in the area of political participation via the electoral process.
There are three levels of government in Sri Lanka: National government, Provincial government, and Local government bodies. There are 225 elected members in Parliament (elected under a system of proportional representation), and 29 nominated members. Only 4% of women are in national government. At the recent election in April 2004, there were 337 women candidates but only nine were elected to Parliament. This is in contrast to the 2001 general elections in which 11 women were elected out of a total of 55 female candidates.
A study by South Asia Partnership Sri Lanka shows that there were more women being elected to the higher levels of local government bodies compared to the women at the lower levels (Municipal Councils -3.65%; Urban Councils – 2.75%; Pradeshya Sabhas – 2.43%. This adversely impacts rural women whose under representation means that they would not have the means of having their voices heard on matters that affect their daily lives. Overall, Sri Lankan women fare poorly in the area of political representation, which also means that they are absent at all levels of decision making. This is so despite the few women in high-powered positions in government.
Thus, while the numbers of female candidates have increased between 2001 and 2004, fewer women were actually elected to Parliament in 2004. There are no nominated women members in Parliament. It was assumed that the proportional representation system would increase the representation of women in the elected bodies, but this has not happened in Sri Lanka. Women’s participation has declined from 5.5% in 1989 to 4% at present.
The number of women elected to the provincial councils has decreased from 4.7% (18 out of 383) in 1993 to 3.3% (12 out of 377) in 1999. There are three types of local government bodies: Municipal Councils, Urban Councils, and Pradeshya Sabhas in rural Sri Lanka. Of the 3,720 elected representatives in local government bodies only 1.96% are women.
1. Political inheritance syndrome
A study of the list of female candidates elected to parliament in the 2004 general elections shows that many of the women elected to parliament are not first time participants. Many of the women were connected to male politicians as spouses, siblings or daughters. This comes as no surprise since South Asian women leaders have often inherited their positions from male relatives.
2. Absence of a political Quota System.
Sri Lanka is the only South-Asian country without quotas for women in local government. Women’s groups have been lobbying for the introduction of a quota system and have been actively involved in persuading political parties to include more women in their list of candidates. The Ministry of Women’s Affairs urged all political parties to include 25% of women candidates on their list but all parties ignored the request. Political party officials deemed women to not be politically educated or trained for the job (International Centre for Ethnic Studies – ICES). We can ask ourselves, how many male politicians are educated or trained for the job?
There are few nominated members in government and as legislators. This scarcity varies among communities. Few Tamil women are represented – no women from the plantations. The lack of political representation affects women from minority communities differently any forum to air their grievances as minority women.
The common view among men and male politicians is that women are unfit for leadership positions. In the plantations, the general view among male trade union members and male supervisors was that women are politically naive; lack leadership qualities; are illiterate; lack initiative and motivation.
There is an on-going campaign in Sri Lanka to demand that electoral laws should provide for 30% of reserved seats for women; that 40% of the candidates in electoral lists should be women; to replace the preferential voting system with a system where every third person on the list would be a woman. There is no legislation relating to these demands as yet.
3. The Power of the Vote
Citizenship rights include the right to vote and the right to stand for office. At a political level, suffrage and holding office are part of “inclusive participation” and “citizen responsibility” (Tolly 2003). Women in South Asia play an increasingly important role as voters. This role is acknowledged and recognized by political parties. In Sri Lanka, political parties wielded or used female candidates to catch the female vote or the educated female votes. In the 2001 general elections the United National Party “launched a woman’s manifesto for including women in nomination lists at the local government level within five years” (ICES). The UNP received its largest number of votes from women. But women were not included in governance after the elections.
Targeting women as voters seems to be a pattern in India as well. For instance, the BJP and Congress targeted women voters because women voter participation is increasing. These parties have started focussing on so-called women’s concerns – rice subsidies, micro-finance, women’s cooperatives, joint registration of pattas (property deeds to husbands/wives), girl children (feticide to minimum marriage age), and other issues impacting women and girls. There is an increased recognition that women are a constituency that should be targeted.
It is a truism that “Voices that are not heard are not heeded” (Tolly 2003:14). Electoral participation as voters helps to build social networks for collective action, to bring into the public space, the concerns and needs of community’s -minorities, women, immigrants etc. Through the power of the vote, women can make their voices and concerns heard. This includes women’s involvement as lobby groups.
4. Women’s representation decreases even as political participation is being recognized as an important means for women to address their concerns as women.
In Sri Lanka, the under-representation of women in lower levels of government affects their representation at the national level, since access to higher levels of power is possible only through participation at the local levels. Interestingly, women from more urban areas and elite women are less interested in holding office or standing for election because they have the necessary social links and contacts with politicians. The rural women are more active at the grass-roots levels but are poorly represented (ICES). Rural women are dependent on political parties; they are constrained by financial restrictions; sometimes politically unaware; affected by the double-burden of work. Active Political participation would mean that women can present the concerns and struggles of their daily lives and attempt to put women’s issues on the agendas of political parties.
5. Legal Rights do not translate automatically into active citizenship rights
The Sri Lankan Constitution and various legal statutes relating to employment, wages, benefits etc., endorses gender equality and non-discrimination on the basis of gender, ethnicity and religion. Sri Lanka ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination Of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women; is party to the Beijing Platform For Action, which provides a framework for legal reform in keeping with ‘universal human rights’ values. A Women’s Bureau was set up in 1978 and was replaced by the Ministry of Women’s Affairs n 1983. A Policy Charter was introduced in 1991 to address all areas of gender discrimination – education, health, employment, domestic violence etc. A commission of inquiry into local government reforms was appointed to look into the matter of increasing women’s representation in local government bodies.
Legal recognition of women’s citizenship rights, however, does not mean that women are actually going to enjoy these rights. Political representation is one means for women to translate these legal rights into ‘real rights’.
Barriers to Women’s Representation: Factors of exclusion
1. Education reinforces gender stereotypes and traditional gender roles. This is evident in the plantations. The school curricular are not conducive to breaking the gender barriers or challenging gender stereotypes that relegate women to the domestic domain while downplaying women’s contributions to the economy.
2. Politics is seen as a male domain. There is a lack of interest among political parties to include women as political candidates. Women also internalize the idea that politics is for men. The public domain is seen as the male domain.
3. The violent political system and corruption are deterrents to women’s participation. The civil war in the country has made politics unsafe for women who are seen as more vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse.
4. Urban/rural divides – no connections between women’s groups. Despite strong women’s groups, there seems to be fewer interactions between urban and rural women. This observation is particularly true in the case of Tamil plantation women who have not benefited by the women’s movement in Sri Lanka.
5. Cultural Barriers – modesty issues, non-support from male relatives, cultural ideas of appropriate roles for women, gender stereotypes that essentialize women’s nature and character, belief in the sexual vulnerability of women and double-burden of work stemming from the domestic division of labour are all barriers to women’s political participation.
Although there have been in recent years, a number of initiatives of increase women’s participation in electoral politics such as the work by the Sri Lanka Women’s NGO Forum which set up a fund for training women activists in politics; the work of the Mothers and Daughters of Lanka, which initiated a significant signature petition for reserved seats; the work of the Sinhala/Tamil Rural Women’s network (NGO) in the central province (one woman candidate received the highest preferential vote) to popularize women’s issues; and numerous policy documents detailing the need for women’s participation in government, the overall net results have been dismal.
1. Accessing political power through women’s representation in government is an important step towards attaining full citizenship status for women
Citizenship is about status, rights, entitlements, identity and agency – active participation of citizens in governance. It is generally recognized among development practitioners, feminists and others that active citizenship involves rights to equal representation in the different levels of government, decision-making power in matters that affects citizens, having a ‘voice’ in formulating policies, and active engagement in community life. Civic participation has two dimensions, namely legal status or membership in a community, and active participation in that community (Schugurensky 2003:10). A key shift within citizenship perspectives has been the acknowledgement of individual membership and identities within communities other than the nation state.
Citizenship has become a new lens to approach gender issues. Three ways of addressing women’s exclusions from full citizenship are: (1) affirmative action or political quotas; (2) the inclusion of women’s concerns and needs into the rights-based approach to citizenship. This is not to say that all women have the same concerns because women are not a homogeneous group – but to address the specific concerns of different categories of women; (3) a third way has been to redefine the public/private divide. Many issues considered private or domestic issues such as domestic violence; alcoholism, sexual issues and gender discrimination in the family have been considered private issues and thus excluded from public scrutiny and debate. There is a shift today in development thinking and feminists’ approaches towards bringing these so called ‘private issues’ into the public domain for debate and resolution.
Accessing political power is important. However, one must be cautious against assuming that women’s access to political office will result in women fighting for women’s interests or that they must represent women’s interests. Those who have argued for ‘candidacy parity’- quota system being imposed on political parties, electoral lists etc- suggest that this would not mean that women elected would represent women’s interest more than male ones; it would only mean that women would be equally present in the legislative body. Women need not be represented separately but increasing women’s representation would be part of the “pluralist functioning of democracy” (recognizing social diversity). However, there are also instances such as in Sri Lanka, where an All Women’s Political Party was formed to represent women’s interest. This party was not successful in winning seats in Parliament.
2. Addressing cultural barriers to full citizenship status and active citizenship
Participation or non-participation in the political life of a community may be unevenly distributed based on institutional and cultural barriers, political opportunities and discrimination that affect different citizen groups differently (Tolly 2003: 14). Citizenship invariably involves both ‘inclusions’ and ‘exclusions’. The liberal idea of “universal citizen”, based as it is on the concept of equality regardless of gender differences is no longer an adequate model of citizenship and is at variance with the gender experiences of many women in South Asia. How we experience citizenship is based on our positions as ‘women’ and ‘men’, as members of ethnic minorities (visible minorities), social class or immigrant status.
In the case of women, bridging the gap between legal citizenship with all its accompanying rights and obligations, and active citizenship in terms of citizenship participation calls for a gender perspective that considers the specific barriers that women face in acquiring full citizenship. These include cultural barriers.
In the multi-ethnic contexts of many South Asian countries the dilemma has been in balancing individual rights and group rights in accordance with constitutional guarantees of equality for both individuals and minority communities. This has been particularly evident in issues surrounding oppressive and gender discriminatory religious and customary laws and practices. In many cases, citizenship rights and entitlements are conferred on individuals as members of communities. The danger in community-based rights and entitlements is that intra-communal inequalities based on gender hierarchies and cultural values may be reproduced within the public sphere as in the case of family law. In Sri Lanka, citizenship laws and the personal laws of many communities are still flawed in matters relating to property and succession, as they relate to women. A good example of the tension between the rights of women and the rights of communities involves the use of the Sharia law in Canada, with the province of Ontario authorizing the use of this law in civil arbitrations relating to marriage, property, the custody of children etc. The application of this law depends on the consent of the parties to a conflict. The decisions of the Muslim Courts, however, should not conflict with Canadian Civil Law.
The acquisition of the rights and entitlements of citizenship have always involved struggles to access these rights even as citizenship provides the right of citizens to struggle and protest. Today, in many countries, women’s struggles for rights are seen as citizenship struggles -whether it involves sex workers’ in Bengal, or women in the Arab world fighting for the right to pass citizenship to their children in the case of marriage to foreign husbands, or women fighting for political quotas in Sri Lanka, or women in Bangladesh questioning the meaning of “appropriate behavior for women” (Kabeer 2002).
3. A gender inclusive citizenship requires forms of association and collective actions by women of all communities. This means that different categories of women with different interests and values must come together to engage in collective action and struggles against all kinds of discrimination against women. Such an engagement must be informed by what Chantel Mouffe terms “pluralist democratic values” – values that reflect the cultural diversity of a society, insofar as these values are also democratic and do not violate the human rights of individuals (Mouffe 1992). Increasing women’s access to political power through political representation, collective actions and associations among women, and lobbying by women and civil society organizations for greater influence over political-decision making are ways for increasing women’s ‘voice’ in matters that affect them.
TORONTO WOMEN’S CALL TO ACTION: AN INITIATIVE FOR BRINGING GENDER, RACE AND ANTI-POVERTY ISSUES INTO LOCAL GOVERNMENT
The invincibility of girls and women in municipal governance, decision-making and their lack of access to resources must be acknowledged and action is required to address these inequities. This very new organization is trying to work at the municipal level to ensure equal access to resources and governance structures for girls and women in the City of Toronto.
The third speaker on the panel was Penny Ramdeo, a member of Toronto Women’s Call to Action (TWCA). The Toronto Women’s Call to Action is a group that is dedicated to ensuring that the voices of women and girls are not ignored or made invisible from the political landscape of the City of Toronto. Ms. Ramdeo provided a brief history of the group, which started in February 2004 and played an active role in the electoral campaigns of the last municipal elections. They are now concentrating on the federal elections. The organization also acts as a ‘watch dog’ holding social and political representatives accountable, ensuring that they follow through on their electoral promises. The Goals of TWCA are:
· Ensuring political commitment to and action on gender equity;
· Removing barriers to women’s active participation in all spheres of public life
· Securing an equal share in all decision-making processes
· Institutionalizing inclusive, democratic and participatory processes
· Supporting women across their diverse backgrounds to meet their rights and needs through systemic institutional change
· Reversing cutbacks to services to women and initiating gender-responsive budgeting.
Ramdeo spoke of how city governments are being asked to do more with less resources and the voices of women are needed to ensure that the difficult decisions that need to be made at the municipal level will be given due consideration and will always have the perspective of diverse populations that are usually left out of the decision making processes. One of the issues that Ramdeo highlighted was the gender neutrality of social policy reports. She spoke of the recent United Way Report on Poverty by Postal Code. She noted that these types of reports wipeout the realities faced by poor women from a range of communities and geographies. For example, the report uses terms like families without stating what constitutes families; it refers to “lone parents’ without stating who exactly are lone parents are they men? Are they women? How old are they? The lack of clarity ensures invisibility of key issues, and key agents as well as filing to capture the complexities of issues facing specific groups like women, older people, youth, etc. By highlighting these gaps and critiquing key social policy papers, the Toronto Women’s Call to Action aims to pinpoint areas where the ‘system’ fails the most marginalized. They are developing numerous strategies to facilitate partnerships between women’s organizations and the City of Toronto.
Encouraging civic participation among South Asian youth, especially young women
Soni Dasmohapatra, Council of Agencies Serving South Asians (CASSA)
CASSA is an umbrella organization of agencies, groups, and individuals that provide services to the South Asian Community. Its mandate is to support and advocate on behalf of existing as well as emerging South Asian agencies, groups, and communities in order to address their diverse and dynamic needs. Ms. Dasmohapatra gave a lively presentation on the realities of civic participation for young people of color in Canada.
Dasmohapatra began her presentation by locating herself as young, as a woman and as South Asian. She stated that she faces a triple jeopardy where her gender, her race and her age can work against her. She noted that her location as a young woman of color impacts the way society perceives her and how she perceives her political rights and political agency. From this personal perspective Soni moved on to speak about the Canadian political system and culture. The Canadian political system and culture has a history of elitism where it was only in 1947 that men and women of racialized communities got the vote.
This system of exclusion also marginalizes women and youth where the average age of politicians, sitting in the House of Commons is 55. The pattern of elitism and exclusion Soni posits is historically rooted in a political culture with a history of excluding first nations people, racialized communities and women from being involved in decision making and sharing of political power. Canada’s history of slavery, the Chinese Head Tax, Japanese Internment, the Komagatu Maru incident, and the reservation system have all marked the Canadian political culture as a space where decision making occurs via small groups of mainly white men who control crucial political resources.
Dasmohapatra suggested that race has always been an issue in the history of Canadian politics, and continues to marginalize communities. The existence of social racism, manifesting through discriminatory policies like the differential treatment meted out to foreign trained professionals, exclusion, and marginalization has become a source of tension between many communities of colour and the mainstream.
Although Canada has been an immigrant-receiving country since the early nineteenth century, the late twentieth century saw a doubling of annual immigration figures, something close to 200,000 persons annually. There has been a significant shift away from immigrants of European (and American) origin, to immigrants from source countries in Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Within the last decade, more than 60% of all immigrants have come from Asia, including Hong Kong, India, China, the Philippines, etc. According to Dasmohapatra, one out of every five residents in Toronto for example, is foreign born. This significant shift in immigration patterns has resulted in socio-cultural shifts that have not had a significant impact on the mainstream political culture, as these new communities are not yet empowered to participate in the electoral process nor in mainstream politics. Dasmohapatra stressed the importance of finding alternative roots for empowerment such as participating in various civic activities, joining community boards, and participating in various neighborhood actions. She spoke of a training package created by CASSA called “ Do You Want To Get Engaged”, which is a training module that can be utilized by social service agencies and other NGOs to empower new immigrant communities. These types of resources are crucial tools to ensure the presence of diverse voices within Canadian political culture.
As well, research studies and the views expressed by cultural elites including the media demonstrate a strong ambivalence towards multiculturalism, especially as it relates to people of colour. There is still significant support for a more assimilationist approach to public policies and national ideologies. The need to ensure diversity within Canada’s political culture is critical if we are to fight the paradigm of Anglo-assimilation or biculturalism, the model which most of us, as immigrants are implicitly expected to embrace, if we are to be accepted into the mainstream.
In Concluding, Dasmohapatra spoke of the need to work collectively as NGOs and focus on empowering new immigrants as well as communities of colour on the Canadian political culture. She stressed the importance of activating our citizenship through our involvement in decision making bodies at the municipal, provincial and federal levels, and to educate our respective constituencies to ask questions and examine the systems that they are a part of like the educational system which is the first public system most communities are exposed to.
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS
Canadian Political Culture: There was a discussion that it was difficult to talk about politics or any subject that is political in nature in a public setting, as it was considered to be impolite. The prevalence of this attitude was a barrier for new Canadians to engage in any type of meaningful dialogue with Canadian friends and colleagues.
Active Citizenship: Some discussion on transnational organizing as being important when local issues and global issues intersect. Building coalitions across boarders seen to be critical in pushing specific issues forward such as the issues affecting the environment; the notion of global citizenship is also important, as it is a reflection of citizenship at the national level.
Citizenship needs to be seen as a tool that can be used to mobilize participation of communities beyond the electoral process. The politics of participation as opposed to the politics of ballot can be a powerful political weapon against subordination and maginalization. From the perspective of the individual, involvement in collective action can boost self-confidence, as individuals (and this can be very true of women, people of colour as well as sexual minorities) come to see themselves as political actors and effective citizens.
Voting based on ethnicity and or gender: Voting based on these issues may sometimes mean voting for people who are socially conservative and would create a problem for those wanting to further women’s rights and the rights of other marginalized communities like sexual minorities. Communities of color need to be informed voters as opposed to voting in candidates based on ethnicity or gender. These factors are not as important as their stand on issues.
Relationship between a globalized world and the nation-state: globalizing influences are testing the strength of the sovereign nation-state, and as such citizenship, as both a status and as a practice, has to adopt an internationalist and multi-layered perspective. It is only through such a perspective, which also draws on the language of human rights, that we can address the limitations of citizenship, which are thrown into relief by growing numbers of migrants, refugees and other marginalized communities. The existence of significant numbers of non-citizens within national boundaries and national polities raises questions about the nature of legal, political and social citizenship rights and the conditions under which they are granted.