INTERVIEW - Women can defeat 'angry white men' in right-wing politics, UK feminist leader says

by Lin Taylor | @linnytayls | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 5 March 2019 20:57 GMT

Labour Party members of Parliament attend an event to mark the 100th anniversary of the enfranchisment of some, but not all women, outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, February 6, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay

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A global group of women's leaders released a letter this week that said rising right-wing populism was eroding hard-won women's rights around the world, with abortion rights as a primary target

By Lin Taylor

LONDON, March 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - To fight a rising wave of populism that threatens to swamp women's rights, women of diverse backgrounds need to get into politics, the outgoing head of Britain's first feminist political party said.

Sophie Walker, who resigned from the Women's Equality Party in January, said the wave of right-wing populism around the world was "deeply sinister" and threatened basic women's rights.

"I've been to many places around the world and heard testimonies from political feminist leaders about the massive impact on women's rights that this populist movement is having. The threat is very real," the former Reuters journalist said.

Walker's view is shared by a global group of women's leaders who released a letter this week that said rising right-wing populism was eroding hard-won women's rights around the world, with abortion rights as a primary target.

"Politics has failed when we run out of ideas and a bunch of angry white men are able to repackage traditional ideas of patriarchy as the solution for our future," said Walker in a phone interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation late Monday.

DIVERSITY

To counteract that, Walker said, the answer is simple: mobilise more women into politics, especially those from diverse and minority backgrounds.

And that is exactly what Walker said she plans to do after leaving the WEP, nearly four years after taking the helm of the newly-formed party in 2015.

"We have to make more women from more diverse backgrounds to become leaders and activists. For women in minority backgrounds, it is essential that they see space for themselves in the feminist movement," she said ahead of International Women's Day on Friday.

While the 2017 UK elections led to a record 208 female members of parliament (MPs) - about a third of all MPs - just 4 percent were from black, Asian, and minority ethnic backgrounds, according to women's rights group Fawcett Society.

Britain sits at number 39 out of 193 countries in a league table by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) that tallies the number of women in parliament, far behind Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia, which have female majorities.

As her party prepares to appoint an interim leader, Walker said she plans to work with grassroots women activists to guide them into political careers so they too can lead from the front.

"Those are the women who are going to be the next generation's politicians, and I want to find them and I want to help them in any possible way I can," she said.

VITRIOL

It is not secret that being a woman in politics is difficult, Walker said, and the amount of abuse that female politicians receive is partly to blame.

Nearly 45 percent of all women parliamentarians had received threats of death, rape, beatings or abduction during their term, according to a 2016 study by the IPU.

Many politicians in Britain have become more vocal about the abuse they face after opposition Labour politician Jo Cox, a 41-year-old mother of two children, was shot and stabbed to death a week before Britain's 2016 vote to leave the European Union.

"I think it is still extremely hard for women in politics. Women are still more subjected to abuse than their male counterparts. The vitriol takes my breath away," Walker said.

But that is precisely why more women need to be in politics, she added.

"There's a hugely long way to go, but I would say that to any woman who is considering moving into politics: there is a sisterhood waiting to help you," Walker said.

(Reporting by Lin Taylor @linnytayls, Editing by Jason Fields; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and slavery, property rights, social innovation, resilience and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)

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