10 years on, Women's Democracy Network fosters democracies for all citizens

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The United States has a long history of women in politics. Women have served in Congress for nearly a century. We've had our first female Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) (now minority leader) and are fostering the next generation of female leaders like Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

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But despite this progress, women remain vastly underrepresented in elected office both here and internationally. According to the United Nations, only 22 percent of all national elected officials around the world are women. That's double what it was a decade ago, but a far cry from the 50 percent of the electorate of which they represent.

The Women's Democracy Network (WDN) is dedicated to changing that. Founded in 2006, WDN is committed to fostering women's leadership and helping to grow democracies that represent all citizens, regardless of gender. Active in more than 60 countries, WDN has trained thousands of women on how to become leaders and linked them with their peers in countries that share similar struggles. WDN empowers participants to communicate, negotiate and run successful political, advocacy and local issue campaigns; all while helping break down cultural, economic and systemic barriers.

An excellent example of this work and its success is found in Bangladesh, one of the least developed countries in the world. Recognizing that economic opportunity factors largely into women's equality issues, WDN partnered with Selima Ahmed, president of the Bangladesh Women's Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Since 2011, Ahmad, a fierce champion for women's economic empowerment, has supported thousands of women entrepreneurs. Thanks to her and WDN's work, these Bangladeshi women now have the skills to advocate for their rights and influence their government.

Another example is Peru, where WDN supported the creation of the Women's Peruvian Parliamentary Caucus. Working across party lines, caucus members provide a gender perspective on issues such as education, employment, access to justice and defense of human rights. Key successes include legislation that allows joint custody of children and the strengthening of an important domestic violence law.

Where women are engaged in civil society and politics, peace and democracy can grow. A perfect example of that is Wided Bouchamaoui, a member of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet and this year's WDN Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Award recipient.

In 2013, three years after Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, the country faced rising tensions. Political assassinations and civil unrest threatened to drag Tunisia into violence and sectarian strife. Tunisians only had to look to Egypt to see how quickly their popular revolution could revert to repression and authoritarianism. Fearing the worst, Bouchamaoui — then the first female president of the country's employer's union — and three other civil society counterparts stepped in. The quartet was instrumental in bridging the divide between Islamists and secularists. Today, despite many ongoing challenges, Tunisia remains on the path toward democracy.

Clearly, ensuring women are given equal opportunities to influence their communities, society and governments is essential for a successful democracy. No country can realize its full potential when half its population is marginalized and no society can thrive when it discounts and discards contributions based on gender. Without the WDN, thousands of Bangladeshi women might be unable to provide for themselves and their families, and Peruvians might be without equal parental rights and domestic violence protections. And without Bouchamaoui, Tunisia might not be the lone beacon of the Arab Spring.

Ten years ago, the Women's Democracy Network started with a goal of increasing women's political and civic leadership. A decade later, great strides have been made, but more work needs to be done. WDN will continue that work, enabling women everywhere to become leaders, no matter if it takes another 10 years or 100.

Green is president of the International Republican Institute, former U.S. ambassador to Tanzania and former member of congress representing Wisconsin's 8th District.

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