International Women’s day: Women in Parliaments

صورة AGORA member

In essence, the primary purpose of parliaments is to be representative of society. Certainly, representation largely enables the “place of talk”, as one could interpret the word parliament from Latin, to issue legislation that takes into account the interests of the various groups present in a territorial entity, such as a state. Nonetheless, how many parliaments could actually pride themselves as truly representative institutions?

With regards to gender representation, not so many. Less than 15 of the world’s national parliaments have more than 40% of female deputies.

Having in mind the Sustainable Development Goal 5 to promote gender equality, one could infer that women should be fairly represented and equally participate in the political, social and economic areas where much of the critical decisions are being made not just on March 8 but all year round. This article looks at methods that enhance female representation, both in terms of parliamentary seats as well as those ensuring that laws and state budgets reflect the needs and priorities of women and men equally.

Gender quotas
Gender quotas are an effective, and functional in terms of implementation, means to warrant the representative function of parliaments. The rationale behind quotas is that an increased number of elected female deputies will reflect itself in the work of a parliament, engendering the latter’s legislative acts and playing an exemplary role for society at large. The following lines divide quotas into three different types – voluntary, legislative and double quotas:

- Voluntary gender quotas. Political parties can impose upon themselves gender quotas on a voluntary basis. This practice is followed by some parties which see gender equality as integral to their identity and party programme. Still, voluntary gender quotas are not obligatory and a lot of parties often do not adhere to them.

- Legislated quotas. These quotas are enshrined in electoral law and oblige parties to include a certain amount of female candidates in their electoral lists or face sanctions (such as exclusion from elections).  

- Double quotas. Similar to legislated quotas, double quotas require parties to ensure “minimum obligatory presence to the under-represented sex on the candidate lists”. However, they also build upon this feature by necessitating from parties to guarantee that women are also well placed on party lists. In this way, double quotas certify that parties will include women not only at the bottom of party lists but also in electable positions.

Committee and leadership representation
Increasing the number of elected women representatives provides opportunities for women‘s voices and perspectives to be injected into the legislative process. Yet, notwithstanding the significance of equal electoral representation, female deputies should also be equally represented within the key parliamentary organ: the committees.
Indeed, even if a parliament has a balanced female/male ratio, women’s input into the legislative process could still remain limited and partial. This often happens when, for example, women parliamentarians get disproportionately assigned to committees drafting legislation on the so called "soft" portfolios deemed more in the sphere of women’s gender roles such as education and health. Those dealing with issues like finances, defense or foreign affairs are normally headed by male MPs. Moreover, the impact of female political participation could also be curbed if senior posts within a political group or parliament are distributed unequally between men and women and the former get to steer the political direction of a country.
One manner in which a parliament could grant equal representation of women in committees and parliamentary leadership is by setting requirements for a minimum number of committee seats as well as chairs of parliamentary committees.

Multi-party women’s caucus
A multi-party caucus is a measure which could feminize legislation in a horizontal way. Women’s caucuses bring together women MPs from all parliamentary parties present in a parliament. The structure of the group varies from parliament to parliament, but generally includes regular meetings in which MPs discuss and advocate legislation and general issues of concern to women and, also, exchange knowledge and good practices between each other to improve their capacity as MPs.

There are definite benefits to a women’s caucus. Firstly, the groups provide space for women to meet and discuss issues of common concern across party lines. Especially when the caucus is well organized, the issues discussed can then be brought back to the various parliamentary groups and, in turn, to the parliament, through draft legislation, committee investigations or other methods of promoting government action. Second, such a group allows for direct support to women MPs to allow them to build their capacity as MPs, recognizing the special challenges faced by women in parliament. Third, a women’s caucus is an important voice for women in a country, as this can be perceived as a group of senior political leaders who are working across party lines to affect change that is positive for women in the general public.

Mainstreaming gender issues should be the objective of all those working in legislation. All parliamentarians, as well as parliamentary leadership, should become aware of how the legislation and the budget they pass affect women in their society. In this respect institutional and unofficial consultations could provide insights to parliamentarians and engender future legislation.

Parliaments can establish rules and procedures that require greater reflection and consultation with women, so as to balance any historical male bias within their work. These rules may include greater use of public consultations by parliamentary committees and multi-party women’s caucuses, in order to promote the aggregation of women’s voices when laws are being passed. Furthermore, individual MPs can also hear out the stories and concerns raised by women constituents who can offer legislators important insights and information which could become invaluable political contributions.  

Gender quotas, committee seats and chairperson requirements, multi-party women’s caucuses and consultations are all methods which could enhance the presence of women in the formation of legislation, guaranteeing the representative purpose of parliaments.



Written by Venelin Bochev