Open up our space on International Women’s Day
By Carina Autengruber, President of the European Youth Forum
When we are not given a stage to act, we will build one ourselves!
When we talk about representation, there are many different ways to interpret what we mean. Are we talking about political representation in our parliaments and institutions? What about representation in our society more broadly? Who, or what, should be represented where?
We often try to find the answer to these questions in our democracies. We choose the people who we think should be our leaders. We try to open up our societies to diverse viewpoints, cultures and ideas. In theory, all citizens have access and opportunity to participate in political and civic life. However, looking around at the reality of the representation that we have across many areas of life, we see power imbalances that result in some having more access and opportunity than others. And that, is a big problem.
As another International Women’s Day was celebrated around the world this month, yet again we are confronted with brutally disheartening facts and figures about the representation of women, and especially young women, in decision-making roles and positions of power and influence. There are of course, so many examples we could talk about of young women making their voices heard in their own right, but when looking at the bigger picture, progress is painfully slow and in some cases, we’re taking steps backwards. Hoping and waiting for a larger number of women to rise up as officially recognised representatives over time isn’t working.
The systems, cultural norms and processes that are holding us back were not designed for us, or by us. Expecting young women to adapt and thrive in these environments without finding ways to open up ownership and respond to our needs is not only naive, but wrong. What should our governments and leaders be doing?
Champion and protect civic spaces
Civic space is invaluable to society as a way of offering free, open dialogue and interaction with others. There are immeasurable benefits in allowing these spaces to thrive, not just for the individuals or groups involved but also for our democracies at large. The amazing ripple effects can be seen in the way citizenship engagement increases, marginalised communities are empowered to speak out and information can be shared freely, improving lives.
As the President of the Youth Forum, I am privileged to see the positive results and impact of youth organisations using this kind of civic space everyday to bring young people from different backgrounds together. Young women are very much a part of driving these organisations forward and using them as platforms to express themselves. When we are not given a stage to represent ourselves and others, we will build one ourselves!
However, what could be seen as a launchpad for marginalised groups like young women to better represent their needs, concerns and experiences in society, is instead being completely undervalued and in some instances, even suppressed.In recent years, shrinkage of civic space has become a global trend that has gradually been intensifying. Bureaucratic obstacles, funding restrictions and disproportionate reporting requirements have meant that youth and other civil society organisations are struggling at times just to exist. These hostile environments are silencing the voices that we need to hear most.
Our governments and decision-makers have a responsibility and duty to ensure that our democracies are working for all. In order to strive for more equal representation of women and other groups, there is no better place to start than creating spaces for self-organisation, self-determination and collective solidarity. From there, the traditionally underrepresented have the possibility to shape the future they believe in. Protecting our civic spaces is critical, for better representation, inclusion and democracy.