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A Century of Women’s Suffrage: Are you using your voice?

A century ago, campaigners changed our lives forever, when the women’s suffrage movement demanded votes for women.

From around 1840 into the early 1900s, women’s suffrage movements led by people like Millicent Fawcett and Emmeline Pankhurst campaigned tirelessly for votes for women. In Ireland, Isabella Tod and Anna and Thomas Haslam founded women’s suffrage organisations in Belfast and Dublin. Eventually, their tenacity led to legislation, in 1918, which granted partial suffrage for British and Irish property-owning women aged 30 and above.

The campaign continued and in 1922 the Constitution of the Irish Free State included provision to extend the vote to all men and women over 21. Women in Northern Ireland, aged 21 and over, were afforded the same right on 2nd July 1928 with the passing of the UK Equal Franchise Act.

Things have changed in many ways in the years since women first won the right to vote. Today, the UK has a female Prime Minister and in Northern Ireland the two largest political parties are both led by women. It seems incredible that 100 years ago women in the UK and Ireland were not even trusted to vote and yet now are at the forefront of political leadership.

Sadly, that does not mean to say that gender equality has been achieved in politics, or in any other field. Only 30% of MPs in the House of Commons are women, and the UK ranks 48th globally for representation of women in the legislative chamber. In the Northern Ireland Assembly, 31% of MLAs are women and in the Republic of Ireland it is even lower with just 22% of TDs being women.

Christian Aid believes that at the root of poverty lies the unequal distribution of power. Therefore, in order to effectively tackle poverty, we need to challenge those imbalances of power which result in certain groups being marginalised and denied a voice.

In many societies, even before birth, a boy child is valued more than a girl child. The World Bank estimates gender-selective infanticide accounts for 1.56 million missing girls.

Around the world, millions of girls are forced into early marriages every year. These girls are at far greater risk of dropping out of school and suffering from domestic violence. Even when women do complete schooling, they are still likely to be paid less than men, hold jobs more insecure than those of men and are far less likely to hold management positions.

Unless we can create equitable relationships between women and men, we will be unable to achieve equitable, sustainable, resilient and thriving societies.

Christian Aid’s former theology advisor and URC minister, Rev Dr Susan Durber, has written that: “our being made ‘male and female’ is a gift of God, and should be experienced as joy for humankind. When gender becomes a weapon of oppression then something is badly wrong.”

In Sierra Leone, West Africa, the traditional patriarchal culture means that women have little power or voice in their communities. Only 13% of MPs and 19% of local councillors are women. This means women have less of a chance to be heard, or represented, in their government.

Christian Aid has been working through its local partners, in Sierra Leone, on a project called ‘Power to Women’, in Kono and Kailahun districts, to ensure that there are more female voices in politics. The project enables women to gain leadership experience and skills as well as engaging with political parties and traditional leaders to promote the nomination of female candidates. One of the women who has benefitted is Rebecca Yei Kamara.

Rebecca Yei Kamara Sierre Leone

Rebecca Yei Kamara

In 2015, Christian Aid’s partner Network Movement for Justice and Development (NMJD) set up the Women’s Network and as a member Rebecca played key roles in lobbying for laws to prevent violence against women and girls. She served as Zonal Chairperson and participated in community meetings and radio programmes. She won the respect of her peers and was nominated by women across the district for the Upcoming Women Leader Award.

In the recent elections in March 2018, Rebecca became the first woman ever elected as Member of Parliament for Kono District. In the past women, have rarely sought election to high offices such as Member of Parliament in part due to the long-standing male-dominated culture, which restricts women’s leadership positions within communities.

Rebecca said, “What has changed in my life is that this project has given me a sense of direction. It has given me the desire not only to remain focused and confident but also enthusiastic about representing women at the political platform. The project has also helped me recognize and appreciate that there is power in women and that this can be tapped for women to immensely contribute to the promotion of women’s rights in Governance.”

In Proverbs 31:8 it says, “Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.” Women like Rebecca embody this principle as they use their voices to speak up for the rights of the women they represent in parliament.

We remember that a century ago campaigners called for votes for women so that women could have the right to ‘speak up’ on the issues of the day that concerned them.

Thanks to those campaigners and others like them, all of us, both male and female, have an opportunity to use our voices and our votes to ‘speak up’ on behalf of those who are marginalised and whose voices are often ignored.

Are we using those opportunities? When was the last time you contacted your local politician? Would you be willing to join our Local Lobbyist scheme and be a voice for those who are too often ignored?

We’ll send you briefings on our latest campaigns and all the information you need. All you need to do is speak up – email, phone, write or visit your local politician and make sure they will use their elected position to defend the rights of the poor and marginalised.