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Washington Forum Seeks Ways to Strengthen Women's Roles in Political Parties - 2003-12-10

Former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is set to deliver the closing address Wednesday in a forum on strengthening women's roles in political parties. Some 500 guests, including U.S. lawmakers, government officials, policymakers, and diplomats are expected to attend what will be the closing ceremony of the two-day summit.

The Washington forum involves several top female politicians such as former California Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, Peruvian Prime Minister Beatriz Minero Lucero, and lawmakers and political party leaders from nations from Algeria to Uganda.

In opening remarks Tuesday, Ms. Albright said much has been done to advance the role of women in politics, but not enough has been done to reform political parties themselves, to make them more open to female participation and leadership. And the lack of progress shows.

"Women are still very far from playing an equal role in the political process. Women compose 12.7 percent of parliamentary seats throughout the world," she said.

At a conference on women held in Beijing, China, in 1995, 189 nations promised to work on giving women equal representation in politics. But Ms. Albright says that the number of women legislators has risen only a half-percent a year since then "...and I think this is really quite shocking."

The former U.S. Secretary of State says party reform is the surest way of promoting political equality for women.

The United States' first female Vice-presidential candidate in 1984, former congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro, mediated opening discussions on Tuesday. She said part of the reason for the forum is to talk about lessons learned.

"We are 40 women from 29 countries. Together we represent nearly a millennium of experience in the political lives of our countries. Together we have struggled through the most difficult of times, shouldered the burdens, experienced the heartbeat, and suffered the doubts of hundreds of failures and successes. It is these individual stories, these challenges and victories, that we're here to share," she said.

Opening talks were informal, with a provision that participants call each other by their given names. The first remarks from Ugandan lawmaker Winnie Byanyima drew laughs from the mostly-female audience. "I was asked to speak about working with men. I don't believe I have the answers yet," she said.

She said some of her lowest moments involved male politicians denying her power because she is female. But she said her gender also played into the highest point of her career, when a newspaper poll gave her two top awards three years in a row.

"For three consecutive years, people voted me Woman of the Year and Politician of the Year. Which told me that I was recognized as a politician worthy to lead but also a woman shouldering the burden of gender equality," she said.

Ms. Byanyima and other delegates are completing an action plan aimed at strengthening the role of women in political parties world-wide. Likely topics include party structure, candidacy, fundraising, and government policy. Another meeting is planned for February, 2004 to discuss ways to implement the plan.

The scheduling of the meeting makes it clear these women consider political equality a human rights issue. Wednesday's closing ceremony coincides with the U.N. International Human Rights Day.