Gender Equality Framework of Parliaments: Do gender quotas have the most effectiveness on the political participation of women in parliaments?

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Women’s involvement in politics varies throughout the world and their participation in politics and the democratic process has become an integral part of contemporary discourse on development and governance. In recent decades, women have doubled their global numbers in parliaments, from 11 in 1995 to 22,8 percent in 2011. As of 2011, seventeen percent of ministers globally are women and in 2015,18 women served as heads of state or government.

Over the years, some African governments have introduced different types of quotas to increase women’s representation in elected offices. Examples such as Rwanda, where women have won 63.8 per cent of seats in the lower house of parliament, or Bolivia, with 53 percent of women in parliament, have shown that greater representation of women at the highest levels of governance have made a difference in terms of raising awareness, changing agendas and setting gender-sensitive legal frameworks.

Yet, women face several obstacles to participating in political life, including structural barriers through discriminatory electoral laws and limited opportunities to build up a portfolio beyond the so-called ‘soft’ issues such as family affairs or gender equality. The process of appointing women to committees, both as chairs and as members, tends to be based on conventions rather than explicit merit-based rules. Changes here would require a more transparent method tailored to members’ abilities, diverse working experience and preferences. In some parliaments, special measures or informal “policies” have been instituted to ensure that women serve in the position.

The introduction of quotas has proven to be the most effective short-term strategy for facilitating access for women to parliamentary seats. It is, however, a short-term solution that scratches on the surface of the problem of gender equity in parliaments. In countries with high percentage of female representation in parliament, such as Rwanda, South Africa or Senegal, to name a few, women are still underrepresented as voters, as well as in leadership committee and governmental positions, whether in an elected office, the civil service or in the private sector. Within parliament, their participation has often been limited to the Lower House of parliaments, leaving the Upper House dominated by men.

In the past months, a number of parliaments have sought to address the issue of the absence of women in leadership positions of political parties and committees. In the UK, for instance, women occupy 30 percent of parliamentary seats. The parliament is considering introducing a quota law or a government-focused gender agenda to support field female candidates in at least 45 percent of constituencies if that number does not grow significantly by 2020.  

In Japan, women are still woefully underrepresented, they make up less than 10% of MP's in the lower house of Japan’s parliament, and 20% of those in the upper house. The country’s biggest opposition party has elected its first female leader, Renho Murata who was the third women to attain a high office in 2016. Around the globe, improving parliaments’ culture and infrastructure is a multi-challenge for all which requires gender equality to be mainstreamed through all the political parties and  the parliamentary institution, including its secretariat, committees and rules of procedure.

The presence of women in parliament is not enough in itself to ensure progress toward gender equality. As the example of South Africa shows, it is about moving ‘beyond numbers’ and developing ways of increasing the effectiveness and skills of the women who seek to be or have been elected to office. Changing political circumstances will require that representative bodies ensure gender equality is systematically addressed by men and women promoting gender equality together throughout the political and public sphere.

To this end, a number of countries such as Ghana have sought to increase the skill set of their parliamentarians and public officials through training and capacity building programmes. Training provided throughout the world by UNDP offer support and tools on how to promote gender inclusive participation at all stages of the electoral cycle, throughout parliaments’ work, or specially for female parliamentarians on how to carry out core legislative, oversight and representative functions in a way that addresses the needs and concerns of women and girls.

This Blog has been written by UNDP intern Stefania Vittori