All Together to celebrate the International Women’s Day: An inspirational discussion with Assita Kanko on women in politics and her will to empower women

The International Women’s Day is an occasion to rethink today’s role of women and the current general perception of women in leading positions. What do you believe are the main stereotypes that women have to face in politics? According to you, what is the best way for women to face and overcome these misconceptions?

People will make you doubt yourself. They will judge you or will try to belittle you. If sexists are trying to undermine your efforts, it’s because you represent something. In fact, they are afraid of the force you represent. You have to go for it.

What would be your message  to young women willing to enter politics/start up their own business?

First, get started. Otherwise, nothing will happen. It will not be easy but you have to go for it. Second, seek strength from others. Do not hesitate to look for advice, role models and inspiration. Third, you have to be yourself and feel good about yourself. It’s important to be the best version of yourself. We must not neglect the need to eat well, to exercise and to meet people who give us energy. It’s important to feel good and keep smiling!

When it comes to achieving more equality in power and decision-making positions, what should be the role of men?  

Do not wonder if men are willing to leave room for women. We must come and sit at the table of power. If they don’t give you space, create your own and sit down anyway. Men have been told for too long to make space for women and to respect them. Some men will do it. However, it is not enough. It is necessary to go for it, to hold tight and help one another. We need to create alliances with women and men. We need to find women and men who support our careers.

You are the creator of Polin, the new political incubator. Can you tell us more about this initiative and its objectives?

As women, we face universal problems. The goal of Polin to work together and to go beyond political and linguistic divisions. We have to get to know each other. At the local, regional or federal level, forming a government requires agreements with other parties. Women must create their alliances. It is important to have a network of members from other political parties. One of Polin’s speakers said, “Never let people make you feel transparent.” By being together and giving each other tips, we become stronger together and change society. The goal of Polin incubator is to encourage women to get started, to support them and change the mind-set. We want to break the codes and to make new codes that are suitable for both men and women. Politics as it is now has been created by and for men. The goal of the incubator is to achieve a balance and to cope with the lack of women in politics. The incubator aims to empower women. However, the incubator is also open to men – men who respect us and who share our values can join the sessions. For the Polin Academy – which will take place on April 19th 2018 in Wallonia, and then in Antwerp and Brussels – there will be a third of places reserved for men who want to join. It’s still an initiative that targets women, but we want men who share our values to be involved as well and become our allies. For the Polin Academy, men are included but are not the majority.

I decided to devote myself to Polin because I want to help connect women and help them run their campaigns. A lot of women are coming to me for advice or for a connection. I think it’s important to help others achieve their goals and at the same time I keep learning too. I like politics. I like co-directing. The desire to develop PolIn, to create that positive energy, and to bring a smile to the faces of a lot of women, was more important than the desire to campaign on my own.

What do you think about the representation of women in politics in Belgium? Do you see an improvement in recent years?

There has been a positive evolution since the introduction of gender equality laws such as the parity law or the law on gender quotas on boards of directors. There have been many positive initiatives. However, we have not reached a balance yet. According to the Global Index established by the World Economic Forum, Belgium is not at a sufficient level. The statistics are not enough to understand the situation. You have to talk and listen to women. As I always say, you have to “Feel the Heart”. In Brussels, only 10% of mayors are women and there are only 4 women ministers in the national government. Worldwide only 10% head of states are women. We need a real change. With the upcoming elections, there is a real opportunity for more women to take power. Women must dare to campaign. You never lose an election. Even if you lose an election, it’s amazing what you learn to go for the next battle.

What do you think about gender equality quotas? Are quotas enough to change the mind-set and value system?

Quotas are necessary. When it comes to boards of directors of public companies, quotas allowed a significant change. However, there is still a lot of progress to be made. Quotas are part of the solution, but they are not enough. Men have always had quotas – quotas that are not written in the law but that are implicit. Some men are given some positions because they are men. We do not check that they are competent or not. We don’t over scrutinize them but  we do it for women. The over scrutinizing  of women is constant. Somehow implicitly, it is thought that men are able to lead and that women are not. It’s something that’s complicated to change. Successful men and women have a responsibility not to forget the difficulties of others, and to give something back to younger generations. Successful women need to be a lever for the career of other women. Once the parental leave will be reformed in Belgium so that both parents are equally responsible– it already exists in Iceland and Finland for example – the mind-sets will change and children will grow up without stereotypes. This will show that fathers and mothers have the same responsibilities. Therefore, it will ensure the change of mind-set of younger generations.

According to some research, women govern differently than men. What is your opinion on the matter?

No, I don’t think so. Every woman is different. It’s the personality and the character that matter. Men and women can do the same things. This plurality is useful and necessary. If there were 50% of women in a political group, there would be less sexism. Men would not dare to behave the way they do. If there were 90% women and 10% men in a political group, maybe there would be sexism of women towards men. I do not know. We must always avoid unbalanced situations as they lead to  domination.


What do you think of the current Belgian government with only 4 women ministers? Do you expect the situation to evolve?

It depends on what women will do during the upcoming elections. It depends on the women who campaign but also women who will vote. When women vote, they think about how they want to be represented. Very often, women do not vote for women. This is because women often associate power with men. Women need to ask themselves if they support women. As for the representation of women, it also depends on how women position themselves in the parties. I already invited Prime Minister Charles Michel to be the first Prime Minister to have a ministerial team equally balanced between men and women and he can come and hire Polin participants for the job. There so many talented and ambitious women around.