‘I Bring The Baby To Work Because I’m Still Breastfeeding’: What It’s Really Like To Be A Female Politician Around The World

What is it really like to be a woman in politics in The Gambia? Or Brazil? To mark 100 years since Britain's first female MP, Vicky Spratt spoke to three female politicians from around the world about their very different experiences...

Women in parliament

by Vicky Spratt |

When it comes to politics, more often than not, we’re used to bad news. This is partly because bad news - wars, disasters and crime - tends to get more attention than good news – stories about individuals driving change or reporting on the intricacies of a particular situation – which, in general, is less likely to grab people’s attention.

And so, you’re completely forgiven if the first ever meeting of women MPs from every parliament in the world, which took place yesterday in the House of Commons, passed you by, but take place it did!

Although the House of Commons now has the largest number of sitting women MPs in its history, women still only make up 32% of MPs in this country. Worldwide, only 24% of people elected into parliaments are women.

To talk about how we increase that figure and mark 100 years of women's suffrage, parliament was full of women politicians from over 100 countries who had come together to share their experiences and explore how women in politics are driving policy change to improve the lives of women and girls everywhere.

Grazia caught up with a few of them about how they got into politics as well as their experiences of being a woman in public life. They all agree that maternity rights, childcare funding and equal pay top the list of things that need work.

Ya Kumba Jaiteh****, 30, is a recently-elected Gambian MP. Until 2016, The Gambia was a dictatorship but in 2016 the country held presidential elections which saw a president democratically elected. Shortly afterwards, in 2017, parliamentary elections were held, and Jaiteh became one of only 6 MPs to be elected as well as the youngest female member of the country’s National Assembly.

Ya Kumba Jaiteh
Ya Kumba Jaiteh

‘We need other women to come into politics, that’s why we are setting up a women’s caucus to encourage women to come forward. The issue in The Gambia is not that women are not involved in politics but that they never go for the leadership positions because of the cultural and traditional interpretations of women’s roles. At the moment we make up less than 10% [of the National Assembly]. We need to go into schools and talk to girls – to tell them how important it is to be part of the decision-making process and have a seat at the table.’

‘In The Gambia it’s in the Women’s Act that all working women are entitled to 6 months maternity leave, but I am actually the first sitting parliamentarian to have a baby, so this is a new thing for our parliament. When I had my baby the issue of maternity came up and people were of the view that even though we have an Act [which gives women maternity leave], I should not take time out because of the nature of my job.’

‘Because we are coming from 22 years of dictatorship and this is the first democratic legislature we’ve had, it’s a chance to look at these issues as we rebuild our country and reform our constitution. It was very hard for me because there is no nursery at our parliament, so I decided to make a sacrifice, I didn’t take the whole 6 months and I bring the baby to work because I’m still breastfeeding.’

Tabata Amaral de Pontes is a 24-year-old federal deputy for Sau Paulo in Brazil. She is an education activist and was elected to office earlier this year as a member of the Democratic Labour Party

‘In our recent elections we had the lowest representation of women since 2010, that makes Brazil one of the worst countries when it comes to women in politics. We have a quota system, but it doesn’t really work’.

‘I’m from one of the poorest regions of Sau Paulo. Many people around me faced very difficult situations so when I graduated from college [I decided to help]. I have lost my father to drug addiction, I have lost friends and many close people to crime and violence. This is why I became an education activist, but I think that nothing will change – inequality or the educational system – unless we change politics and change who our politicians are. It’s all interlinked.’

Chloe Smith, 36, is the MP for Norwich North and the UK Minister for the Constitution. She was elected in 2009 after a by-election and shortly afterwards became the youngest minister in government when she was appointed Economic Secretary to the Treasury.

‘There is an important point to be made here about how politics has to link to the world that we represent – the rest of society, the rest of the economy. At the moment in the UK we’re working hard on having gender pay gap reporting. We need that transparency so that people can hold employers to account over women’s pay. But, equally, shared parental leave is really important.’

‘I got into politics because I was mentored by Gillian Shepherd, the woman who was MP for the area where I grew up. She got to know me when I was still a kid at high school. It’s nice for me to be able to think in that slightly generational sense that somebody did that for me, they made me realise that I could make this contribution and now I might be able to do it for someone else’.

‘One of the things I like most about our democracy is that we have a geographic focus, that gives you this sense that, as an MP, you’re here to make change within your community as well as serve your country. You have a dual sense of your responsibility locally and nationally at all times’.

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