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UN, NDI, and IPU Call for Quotas to Increase Political Participation of Women
April 5, 2012
By: Rebecca Aaberg
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The United Nations (UN), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) agree that too few women participate in politics worldwide.  According to an October 2011 United Nations Development Program (UNDP)/NDI report, “research has shown that the number of women in parliament does matter; at the very least, the more women there are in parliament, the more likely the party is to address women’s issues and to change gender dynamics in the chamber. The proportion of women members of parliament has a great influence on the nature of debate in politics.”  Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women and former president of Chile, stated that “democracy grows stronger with the full and equal participation of women.”  

In a joint report, UN Women and the IPU examined the current status of women in top political positions. The data describes the percentage of women as Heads of State or Government, and members of parliament regionally and by country.  According to the report, the only countries with women as Heads of State or Government are Argentina, Australia, Bangladesh, Brazil, Costa Rica, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, India, Liberia, Lithuania, Mali, Slovakia, Switzerland, Thailand, and Trinidad and Tobago.  Only 7.3 percent of countries (14 of 193) have a woman Head of Government and 5.3 percent (8 of 152) have an elected Head of State.  Worldwide, fewer than one in five parliamentarians are women.  Only Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Iceland include women in 50 percent or more of ministerial positions, and just two countries, Rwanda and Andorra, include 50 percent or more women parliamentarians.  Women are not represented in the governments of Nauru, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the Solomon Islands. 

IFES responded to the IPU report by assessing the effectiveness of gender quotas and making recommendations for increasing their success.  While IFES agreed with the use of quotas as a method by which governments can mitigate the discrepancies in women’s representation, it questioned the ability of governments to implement quota regulations:

“Gender quotas do not automatically translate to gains in women’s representation.  These quotas produce different outcomes based on the legal parameters and the institutional framework under which they are implemented.  Thus, countries wishing to reform their electoral process by including a gender quota must take each of these factors into account when drafting their new law.”

Loopholes may exist in quota laws.  For example, countries with a proportional representation list system may place women at the bottom of the list,excluding them de facto from participation.  Women may be placed to run in districts that are “non-winnable” in plurality or majoritarian systems.  IFES concludes that quota systems work, but only when “coupled with proper mentoring and governance structures.”

Accounting for the gap between men and women in political representation begins with political parties, states “Empowering Women for Stronger Political Parties,” a report released by UNDP and NDI.  UNDP and NDI assessed the involvement of women in politics, concluding that “women are overrepresented in positions and activities supporting political parties at the grassroots level or supporting male leadership.  Positions of power in political parties can often be informal, centralized, and supported by well-established relationships and networks of influence that are inaccessible to new arrivals, and particularly to women.” In order to mitigate this problem, UNDP and NDI suggest an approach to increasing the role of women in political parties that incorporates four phases including internal party organization, the pre-election period, elections, and the post-election period.  The report says that institutional reform must be combined with “targeted support of women party activists within and outside party structure, women candidates and elected officials” in order to increase the ability of women to participate in government.

UN Women, the organization dedicated to gender equality promotion, released a statement indicating that quotas for the number of women in legislative bodies are necessary to ensure that women’s voices are included. The mandate for UN Women includes “support [of] women’s movements, work with parliaments to amend laws to include gender equality perspectives, and support [of] reforms of electoral laws to facilitate the incorporation of women in elections as voters and candidates.” UN Women also administers a fund that invests in projects for the economic and political empowerment of women worldwide.  This year, UN Women is set to give USD $10.5 million for proposed projects.  The grants start at USD $200,000 and have totaled USD $43 million in 40 countries since 2009.

Recent Developments

Middle East and North Africa (MENA)
In the 2010 Freedom House Report, “Hard-Won Progress and a Long Road Ahead: Women’s Rights in the Middle East and North Africa,” Freedom House indicated that the MENA region has experienced the greatest improvements in women’s political participation since 2005. Within MENA, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has shown “the most significant achievement.” In 2005, women were granted equal political rights, including the right to run for office, and the first women members of parliament were elected in 2009.  The first female judges were appointed in Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) during this period.

Even so, change was limited because of the “lack of democratic institutions” in the region, Freedom House reported.  Some groups have pushed back against international organizations putting pressure on governments to increase the number of women in representative bodies.  Yemeni Salafist clerics have spoken out against the inclusion of quotas for women in public life, “claiming that opening the door for women to leave their houses and mix with men will lead to sexual chaos.”  Freedom House reported that “politics is viewed as the domain of men, and female leaders must contend with cultural attitudes that resist the idea of being politically represented by a woman.”  Freedom House indicated that quota systems have increased women’s participation, but “nonetheless, very few women are able to achieve electoral success in their own right.  The typical female lawmaker is a close relative of a prominent male leader or a member of a traditional political family.”

Voice of America reported that the Arab Spring has not necessarily brought greater parity to women in political life.  IPU spokesperson Jemini Pandya said that “women were at the heart of the Arab Spring, but that role has not translated into concrete political participation.”  For example, Tawakkol Karman won the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for her role in non-violent movements during the Arab Spring uprisings.  However, the political systems in place before the uprisings continue to govern or influence the role of women in politics.  Reuters noted that the “Women in Parliament 2011” study conducted by the IPU listed challenges for female candidates, including “insufficient funds to run a campaign, high expectations from the electorate and the antagonistic nature of competitive political parties” in addition to lack of resources and less political experience.

The IPU report cited Tunisia’s use of requirements to list women’s names alternately with men’s names on ballots as a “strong affirmative measure.”  However, because of the high number of political parties competing in the election, “in any one constituency it went to the man topping the list,” Reuters reported.
Although women are active participants in the current struggle in Syria, their role in the future is unclear.  The “Who Owns the Syrian Revolution?” panel held on March 9 at the US Institute of Peace featured four women who support the revolution. Political activist and Direction of International Relations at Syrian Christians for Democracy Rajaa Atalli gave examples of women helping in each step of the cause, including providing humanitarian aid and assistance, working with the media, and documenting human rights violations.  Rasha AlAhdab, an attorney from Damascus who serves as legal counsel for Syrian activists, added that through the revolution, women have been able to participate publicly in politics, and she believed that they would continue to seek equal protection in a civil multiparty democracy.  The panelists agreed that because women have been part of the revolution from the beginning, they will not settle for a limited political status in the future.

The Asia Foundation at the Carnegie Center for International Peace held a panel on March 13 to discuss the role of women in politics.  The “Asian Perspective Seminar Series: Women’s Changing Roles in Asia” event included Indonesian Member of Parliament Hetifah Sjaifundiah and Nepalese Member of Parliament Sapana Pradhan Malla, who each reported on the state of women’s participation in either.  Sjaifundiah stressed the effects of decentralization on women’s participation following the 1997 transition to democracy.  While the government had hoped for greater opportunities for women and the poor under a decentralized system, in reality fewer women participate at the provincial and district levels than at the national level.  The Indonesian parliament’s quota system guarantees at least 30 percent women candidates, but it does not hold seats for female parliamentarians.

Nepal’s conflict experience has opened up avenues for women to participate in public life, according to Pradhan Malla. Women's participation on the Maoist side of the internal conflict brought national awareness to the lack of representation for women.  The peace process presented an opportunity to seek inclusion in the new government.  While Pradhan Malla identified lack of representation in the ministry as a primary setback for women in politics, she acknowledged that Nepal has the highest percentage of women in parliament in an Asian country, 33 percent.  Even so, one setback for Nepal has been the gap between women as candidates and as elected officials.  Language exists in the new constitution to ensure 50 percent female candidacy, but it does not include provisions for a quota system of elected parliamentarians.

Sub-Saharan Africa
Reforms in Rwanda have successfully placed women in positions of political power, according to the UNDP/NDI report.  Recent legislation has supported laws on inheritance, protection of children, and stopping gender violence: “Women have also been influential in ensuring that other pieces of legislation are gender-sensitive and child-friendly, including the law on national citizenship, the classification of genocide crimes, and the protection of witnesses.” Additionally, Rwanda requires at least 50 percent of the legislative seats to be held by women.  The joint IPU/UN report "Women in Politics" showed that Rwanda has the highest percentage of women legislators in the world, holding 56.6 percent of seats in the lower house.

In Somalia, women are demanding greater participation in the transitional government, according to IPS.  The government worked with regional organizations, civil society, and the Islamist group Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a in February 2012 to form a new parliament. IPS reported that “Minister for Women’s Development and Family Care, Dr. Mariam Aweis Jama, and the director for Women’s Affairs at the Presidential Palace, Malyun Sheik Heidar, said it was time that Somali women played a key part in the country’s leadership.”  Although women are guaranteed 30 percent representation in the legislature, Jama and Heidar believe women should receive an equal share.

The African National Congress Women’s League in South Africa campaigned in 2009 to urge women to vote in the general elections, according to the UNDP/NDI report.  The “60 Days Non-Stop Electioneering Campaign” included women in order to facilitate the consolidation of democracy, providing a method for women to “buy in” to the system.  Involving women in the electoral process as both candidates and voters fostered the notion that once in power, women in government could promote legislation for women voters.

The Americas
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has led the way for women's participation as executive director of UN Women with her insistence that women are essential to democracy: "I can't stress enough why women's political participation is important.  It is, of course, because it's the right thing to do, because it will create better democracies, and because it's an opportunity to bring fresh air to politics and new types of leadership.  For me, a better democracy is a democracy where women do not only have the right to vote and to elect but to be elected." 

The participation of women in politics in Latin American countries varies widely. Women hold 46.2 percent of ministerial positions in Nicaragua but no ministerial positions in Guatemala. The Cuban legislature includes 46.2 percent of women while women in Haiti are represented by 4.2 percent in the lower house and a mere 3.3 percent in the upper house. Despite Bachelet's support of women in politics, Chile is ranked 46th by the joint IPU/UN report for percentage of women in ministerial positions with 18.2 percent and 88th for percentage of women in parliament with 13.2 percent in the upper house and 14.2 percent in the lower house. 

Some Latin American countries have implemented quota systems but loopholes limit women’s representation, according to IFES.  In Bolivia, women selected as alternate candidates were counted toward the quota, “resulting in women only making up 3.7 percent of the seats in the Senate that year.”  Mexican political parties that use an interparty primary are not required to abide by quota regulations.

The New York Times reported that while women make up 50 percent of political parties in Latin America, they hold only 19 percent of top positions across the region.  The presidents of Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica are women, and the Mexican PAN party has selected its first female presidential candidate.  Despite these positive developments, how this translates to real democratic representation for women in Latin America is unclear.

In the United States (US), only 16.8 percent of representatives and 17 percent of senators are women.  According to Georgetown University professor of political science Diana Owen, representation of women in politics in the US has not improved over the past 20 years.  IPS reported that the US is one of the few countries not to sign the UN's Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), along with Iran, Somalia, Naurau, Palau, Sudan and Tonga. 

The IPU/UN report shows that the Scandinavian countries have the highest percentage of women ministers at 48.4 percent.  While there have been no recent developments, Europe currently serves as an example of a region in which the gap between men and women in politics is least present.

For previous news on women in politics, please see:
Mexico’s PAN Picks Female Presidential Candidate, PRI Accuses PAN of Cartel Dealings 

Georgetown University News – US Lags When It Comes to Women In Politics, Professors Say

IFES – How to Increase the Effectiveness of Gender Quotas

IPS - Somali Women Say "Consider Us for the Country's Leadership"

IPU and UN - Women in Politics: Situation on 1 January 2012

Nobel Prize – Tawakkol Karman

Reuters - Fewer Women in Parliaments after Arab Spring: Study

UNDP and NDI Report: Empowering Women for Stronger Political Parties

United Nations - UN Women's Fund for Gender Equality Issues New Call for Proposals and Announces Grantees from the Arab States

United Nations - Women's Political Participation Must Be Accelerated through Quotas

Voice of America - Study: Too Few Women in Politics


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