Parliamentary Oversight of Gender Equality

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Even the most progressive, gender-sensitive and reformist piece of legislation counts for little if it’s not properly implemented.  The role of parliamentarians in ensuring that well-intended policies translate into results, however, tends to be overlooked. They are often not given enough time, resources and technical support to assess what’s happening (or not happening) on the ground. 

Holding the responsible officials or institutes to account is further complicated by limited information sharing and transparency, and – regrettably – by the politics of parliamentary agenda setting.  ‘Soft’ issues such as gender often fail to be awarded the same attention and seniority as ‘hard’ issues such as budgeting, energy or defense. 

Wading into the subject of political will, the waters get even murkier.  Most political parties have a strong hold over their members and fail to appreciate MPs who criticize the work of ‘their own’ in government.  Unsurprisingly, challenging your own party’s minister for failing to implement gender legislation is rarely met with applause. 

A lack of political will is a real and pervasive problem, but it is not the only factor.  Some of the shortcomings where gender equality is concerned flow, at least in part, from financial and technical constraints.  Limited resources only stretch so far; parliament, like any other public body, has to prioritise.  When research and technical support are costly, calls for gender-segregated data, gender-sensitive reports and gender-responsive budgets can fall on deaf ears. Many institutions simply don’t have the technical expertise to add to their existing workloads, create new departments and hire new staff.   

This, among others, is why mainstreaming is so critical. If gender equality is to be taken seriously, it has to be taken up by every sector and in every committee.  Costs can be kept down by sharing specialized staff across different services and committees.  Staff profiles could be revised for future recruitments to ensure that those who join the institution – where possible and appropriate – are familiar with the subject.  Budget & Finance Committees and PACs should ideally be stacked with MPs who, at a minimum, have a reasonable awareness of gender equality and its implications.  Committee mandates and agendas should reflect the need to review proposals and assess implementation from a gender perspective.

Beyond that, gender workshops can support MPs and staff in streamlining these issues more effectively, in particular where oversight is concerned.  It is true that such trainings will not convince those who hail from the more conservative sides of the political spectrum.  That said, the often heard criticism that such trainings merely preach to the converted is too dismissive.  When done well, they can and will inspire those on the fence to take the jump. 

Targeted trainings can also offer concrete, tangible parliamentary strategies for moving the gender agenda forward.  Workshops on Gender Responsive Budgeting (GRB), for example, help MPs explore how they can take effective action to further gender equality.  This is from AGORA’s upcoming E-learning course on ‘Public Financial Management: the Role of Parliament, Supreme Audit Institutions and Civil Society’:

“Gender responsive budgeting (GRB) allows parliaments to analyze government revenue and expenditure from a gender perspective.  Have laws and gender initiatives been translated into adequate budget allocations?  Are targets and indicators sufficiently clear and concrete?  Can budget allocations across different sectors – agriculture, education, health - be tweaked to deliver more gender-responsive results? 

SAIs can facilitate gender responsive budgeting by collecting and sharing the required information throughout the entire budget cycle.  In the planning stages, Ministries of Finance need reliable revenue projections to outline macro-economic policy frameworks and make realistic allocations.  Parliament needs access to facts and figures on a regular basis to review revenue projections, assess proposed allocations and monitor spending. 

Gender response budgeting highlights the added value of performance-based budgeting and oversight.   Launching a few well-intended initiatives in health and education is not enough. Carefully designed targets and indicators will maximise the impact of (limited) resources, and are more likely to deliver sustainable results.  Successful gender mainstreaming calls for sustained measures across all sectors, and is only possible with the full support of ministries, parliament and the SAI.”

Effective parliamentary oversight of gender equality, then, is dependent on a complex constellation of factors. It also requires thick skin on the part of those taking it forward.  For those looking to do so, there are also some truly inspiring examples. 

UNDP’s Pro PALOP-TL SAI project, which aims to improve economic governance in the PALOP countries and Timor-Leste, has successfully supported Cabo Verde’s Network of Women Parliamentarians in tackling budget oversight from a gender perspective.  With the assistance of gender experts and UN Women, the Network produced a result-based analysis of the 2015 budget proposal.  It then successfully pushed for the re-allocation of funding towards the ‘Strengthening Gender Equality and Equity’ programme (more information available here).  In short: the Network’s consistent legislative oversight and advocacy efforts resulted in a more gender-sensitive budget. 

Where gender equality is concerned, the road to success is paved with pushy parliamentarians.  Luckily, there are usually plenty of those around. 

This is a blog post by Lotte Geunis, Parliamentary Development Officer at UNDP.  This post was originally submit for the iKNOW Politics e-discussion on 'Parliamentary Oversight of Gender Equality'.