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Strengthening the voice of women at the ILO

The International Labour Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO) annually gathers some 3,000 delegates representing governments, worker and employer organizations. Yet walking the halls of the United Nations building in Geneva where the meeting takes place, it was strikingly clear that at the 92nd International Labour Conference - just as during previous conferences - women remained under-represented among the delegates. Now, the ILO is working with its social partners to change this.

Article | 24 June 2004

GENEVA - Men were well represented at a panel discussion here last week to discuss gender balance at the annual International Labour Conference. Not surprising, given that men represented an overwhelming majority of the approximately 3,000 delegates attending the three-week event.

While the list of delegations to this year's Conference shows women at 23 per cent representation - most of them were serving as either substitute delegates or advisers. The percentage of voting delegates who are women is only about 15 per cent, while the proportion of women ministers of labour from the ILO's 177 member States has fallen to 12 per cent from a previous high of 15 per cent. This gender imbalance has not gone unnoticed.

ILO Director-General Juan Somavia has publicly voiced his commitment to increasing the numbers of women participating in the Conference, and would like the total to rise to at least 30 per cent in the near future. Improving the gender balance among delegates and within the ILO and its member States would be the natural result of promoting ILO standards, he says, adding: "We cannot be credible if women's voices are missing."

But improving the gender balance is just the beginning of what needs to be a sustained effort. Says ILO Executive Director for Social Dialogue Sally Paxton, "Increasing women's participation in the ILO is not just about numbers, but also about ensuring that women's voices are heard, allowing them to bring issues which concern them to the table."

Hearing women's voices

In his remarks at the panel discussion in Geneva, Mr. Somavia urged governments to reassess the situation regarding gender inequalities within their countries and to set short and long term goals for improvement. "There are cultures, perceptions and practices to be changed if women's views are to be heard," Mr. Somavia said. "Persistence is the only way forward to make gender issues mainstream."

Rwanda's Minister of State for Skills Development and Labour, Angelina Muganza, believes progress would be possible for women if the ILO encouraged gender mainstreaming in labour legislation and stimulated women's entrepreneurship. As an example, she pointed out that Rwanda had taken positive measures to ensure women's participation in all levels of society following the catastrophic and divisive conflict in 1994. These included gender equality training for senior social partners and government ministers.

Today, there are 39 women among the 80 members of the Rwandan parliament - the highest percentage in the world. In achieving this balance, it had been important to convince men that gender equality was not a threat to their position but a positive development tool, Mrs. Muganza said.

According to ICFTU Assistant General Secretary Ms. Mamounata Cissé, increasing the level of women's representation at the ILO will not be possible without gender reforms by the organization's tripartite constituents. Women's participation in the ICFTU has increased from a foundation rate of seven per cent to the current 40 per cent, with some unions almost reaching parity. The scarcity of women delegates at the conference may be due in part to the selection criteria, according to Ms. Cissé, who appealed to women leaders at all levels to listen to other women themselves, and to work towards change through legislation.

Canadian Employers representative Andrew Finlay said simply removing barriers was insufficient to ensure gender parity; long term planning for development was also required. This involved identifying issues to be addressed and mentoring and training individuals to meet future needs. For example, the ILO and its constituents know the agenda items at the International Labour Conference well in advance, and therefore, potential women delegates could be identified and prepared to become full-fledged delegates, he said.

Still, travelling for work can increase pressures on working couples. Birgitta Laurent, Legal Adviser of the Confederation of Swedish enterprise, pointed out that organizing business trips often posed difficulties to child care arrangements, and that the issue of work life balance shouldn't be ignored.