Headlines around the world this week announced that women in Saudi Arabia will finally be granted the right to vote—in 2015. Waiting four years to have a chance to vote in municipal elections does not seem a huge victory to California women who have had the vote in local elections for 100 years. It is a step toward democracy, but how much will it change life for women in Saudi Arabia? As all of the news stories have been reporting, they are still not allowed to drive a car and cannot venture outside their home without a male relative to chaperon them. Will having a limited vote (when it finally comes in 2015) change Saudi women’s lives? Since its beginnings, the League of Women Voters has concentrated on the importance of women using their vote to change their societies, but the organization does not have blind faith that voting is the only route to democracy. The New York Times reported last week that faith in the power of voting is dimming in many countries as young people see that true democracy does not necessarily occur because people can vote. To truly bring democracy, a society must listen to the voices of all its citizens and ensure that democracy is protected in local, regional, and national governments.
One of the most valuable programs the League runs is the Global Democracy Program which, over the years, has brought together groups from all over the world to work with League members in promoting true democracy on a global scale. As explained on the League’s website:
The Global Democracy Program is the League of Women Voters’ program for activists and nongovernmental organizations worldwide. Working with groups abroad to increase their voice in stressing transparency, accountability, and good governance in their societies, the League assists in expanding community influence in public policy-making processes while helping citizens build leadership skills through interactive, hands-on training and citizen exchange programs.
Through this program, the League has sponsored exchange trips to countries in Africa, Asia, and Europe. Countries as different as Azerbaijan, Russia, Tajikistan, Colombia and Brazil have been visited by groups of League members who meet with grassroots organizations and nonprofit groups to discuss ways to solve various social problems. This year the League expanded action to North Africa and representatives met with women’s political organizations in Cairo and Alexandria in anticipation of the November 2011 elections.
It is not just League members who are junketing around the world. Groups from many of these countries have also been hosted on trips to the United States where they stay in members’ homes and are given the opportunity to observe and participate in local civic and government groups. They have opportunities to meet with academics, lawyers, municipal leaders, and journalists to exchange ideas about how grassroots democracy can be nurtured and how women throughout the world can be encouraged to assume leadership positions.
As we read the news from overseas and hear more about the growth of democracy in parts of the world where it has been in short supply, it is nice to know that the League has been a part of the effort. Women in Saudi Arabia may still be denied the right to drive, but at least the world is inching forward. As the League’s familiar motto says, “Democracy is not a spectator sport”. Even though most of our work may be concentrated on local elections and regional concerns, it is important for us to remember that we are also part of a global movement struggling to make life better for all people. So today let’s salute our sisters in Saudi Arabia and cheer their efforts to move toward freedom—it’s a long road, but at least they are headed in the right direction.
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