2019 International Women’s Day Celebration at American University

On March 6th, 2019, the AU Women and Politics Institute, AU School of Public Affairs, and Delta Phi Epsilon held a panel discussion and reception for a joint International Women’s Day Celebration. Panelists included Betsy Fischer Martin- Executive Director, Women & Politics Institute; Rosemary Banks, New Zealand Ambassador-Designate to the United States; Vlora Citaku, Ambassador of the Republic of Kosovo to the United States; Claudia Ivette Canjura de Contento, Ambassador of El Salvador to the United States; Floreta Faber- Ambassador of Albania to the United States; Kirsti Kauppi, Ambassador of Finland to the United States, and Karin Olofsdotter, Ambassador of Sweden to the United States. Roya Rahmani, Ambassador of Afghanistan to the United States, was scheduled to join the panel but travel arrangements prevented her from contributing.

Ms. Betsy Fischer Martin, Executive Director of the American University Women and Politics Institute, started off the celebration by asking each Ambassador to share some background on the status of women in politics and gender equality more broadly in their respective nations. Ambassador Faber announced that she was the first female ambassador from Albania to the United States. 30% of Albanian ambassadors are women, and many serve in key diplomatic nations. The Ambassador furthermore noted that in the Albanian government, women lead the main ministries of defense, justice, economy, finance. Lastly, 28% of Albanian parliamentarians are female and 50% of municipal leaders are women. Ambassador Faber stressed that they can’t take progress towards gender equality for granted and that special and sustained educational efforts must be directed towards young boys and girls alike. Albania still faces issues of domestic violence and human trafficking.

Ambassador Citaku of Kosovo was next to share. After their conflict in the late 1990s and early 2000s, 30% of Kosovo’s population is under 30. For Ambassador Citaku and her peers, “becoming politically active wasn’t a choice but a way of survival.” The Ambassador continued, “When you grow up under oppression, when you see your school teacher beaten up in front of you and parents losing jobs just because they’re Albanian, and when the world seems to be falling apart, you can’t dream to become anything but free. Freedom is a precondition for the creation of any other value. That’s why so many in my generation became politically active, especially women.”

These politically active young women are building a comparably young democracy, an exciting challenge to the Ambassador. A feature of the nation’s architecture that she takes pride in is a gender quota of 30% for both municipal and national assembly seats. She is furthermore proud that Kosovo was the first country in Southeastern Europe to elect a woman president. Among her most notable comments, the Ambassador discussed the crucial role that women play in society building, not just state building. Establishing social cohesion after the trauma of war– including the rape of 20,000 Kosovar women during the Kosovo war– is a difficult task, but one that she has seen women take the lead on. Her society’s survivors of rape were neglected by all but the women-led NGOs. Women, she recalled, were the ones to introduce the spirit of entrepreneurship in Kosovo. For example, in a village where the entire male population was killed, the women did not whine or ask for revenge, but rolled up their sleeves and established small farms. On these farms, the women started producing pickles, pickles that are now a top brand across Europe.

Ambassador Kauppi of Finland responded to the question, how did Finland become a global leader for women’s rights? The Ambassador responded that her nation realized that they couldn’t afford to not utilize the talent of half the population. In 1906, 19/200 members of Parliament were women; today, over 40% of Finnish parliamentarians are women. While today’s representational metrics–35% of ministers are women and one-third of party leaders are women– are not as strong as past years, she is hopeful that the next government will advocate for a more even gender distribution. In closing, she stressed the importance of retaining visibility, giving young girls examples of women leaders so that they know they can achieve those high posts, too.

Ambassador Claudia Ivette Canjura de Contento of El Salvador began her remarks with a commentary on the many challenges that her nation has faced, including poverty, inequality, and a long history of conflict. During El Salvador’s Civil War, women played an important role in society and decision making. She noted that while women’s participation in society is now regarded as key, there are nevertheless many challenges. Change, the Ambassador noted, has to come from the bottom up. The fight for women’s representation in politics is not only a challenge with political parties and at the top level of politics but has to take hold in the workplace and schools so that the society can show each one of us that women’s participation matters. For example, if you conduct a poll and ask “do you think that the political representation of women is important” more than 85% of people say they have to participate. However, when you go to the elections, you find out that only 12% of mayors are women because people decide that men have to be mayors. You have to face the issue of gender participation at all levels of society.

Ambassador Olofsdotter of Sweden, like Ambassador Faber, is the first female ambassador from her nation to the United States. Sweden, like its Nordic neighbors, scores exceptionally in the world order for women’s political participation, consistently earning fifth place. Sweden is the first nation in the world to adopt an explicitly feminist foreign policy. Like Ambassador Kauppi, Ambassador Olofsdotter stressed the importance of visibility for women in politics. While elected representative figures have stabilized around an impressive 40%, only 8% of companies in the Swedish stock exchange have female CEOs. The Ambassador is hopeful about the prospect of a female PM but isn’t sure when Sweden will crack that ceiling.

Ambassador Banks of New Zealand took time to reflect on her nation’s history of women in politics. New Zealand gave women the right to vote before the United States did.   New Zealand elected their first woman member to Parliament in 1919 and first cabinet minister in 1947. Ambassador Banks reflected on how left-leaning parties like the New Zealand Labour Party are better about electing women then centrist or conservative parties, but the Green Party has the highest representation numbers at 75% women. Furthermore, the Maori, Pacific, and Asian women are the most represented ethnicities among female MPs. Ambassador Banks concluded her remarks by broaching the question undergirding the entire panel: does [women’s political representation] make a difference? Her answer was yes. Serious research has shown many positive causal benefits to women’s health and payment, among other factors. Turning to the budget, she highlighted New Zealand’s restructuring process to advance holistic wellbeing, not just GDP and wealth. The nation is attracting significant attention for making goals such as mental health, environmental sustainability, resource conservation and cultural identity core pillars of the national government’s budget.

The Ambassadors then shared their nation’s traditions for International Women’s Day. Responses included flowers, half days at work, and parties in Albania to mass protests in Kosovo. WIIS’ own Maya Whitney ventured the first audience question: Maya: Does representation of women actually have an impact in practice? Kosovo’s ambassador discussed the issues of domestic violence in Kosovo despite the high levels of representation in government. Sweden’s ambassador responded that they still don’t have equal pay for equal work, despite being a “feminist government”. Finland’s ambassador pointed to comparable issues to Sweden with low representation of women in business, and El Salvador’s ambassador relayed the importance of position quality over position quantity. Women need to not only have a seat at a table but a seat at the table where decisions are being made.