Quotas will ensure more women in parliament

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Too few women hold political power – but quotas work, says inaugurual conference of female parliamentarians. In the corridors of the European parliament last week, a consensus emerged on at least one way to get more women into politics. The answer – quotas – is one that many, both men and women, dislike.

More than 400 of the world's 9,000 female parliamentarians gathered in Brussels last week on an auspicious anniversary. On 28 November 1893, women in New Zealand became the first in the world to be able to vote for their national government. The women who went to the polls in 1893 might have been astounded to see the stellar collection of female ministers, heads of state and former heads of state and parliamentarians in Brussels - the first time such a conference has been held - but statistics from around the world reveal the less-than-stellar progress women have made in being represented in their own governments over the past century.

There's only one parliament in the world where female MPs are in the majority. Following the traumatic genocide in Rwanda in 1994 and a number of initiatives, including a quota system written into the constutition that says there must be at least 30% of women on all decision-making bodies, the country has seen a remarkable rise in the number of women in positions of power. Following the country's most recent elections this year, 64% of representatives in the Rwanda parliament are now women.

To set this in context, the global average in 2012, according to the InterParliamentary Union of women representatives is 21.3%. The UK parliament in Westminster is slightly ahead of the average, with 22% female MPs and Holyrood is doing better, with 35% of female MSPs, but there is still a long way to go until women have equal representation in parliament.

So the women who gathered in Brussels were keen to compare strategies, bolster tactics and learn from one another, regardless of political party, national interests or ethnic origins. Their aim was clear and simple: to increase the number of women in every national government around the world.

Quotasare not popular. A Guardian poll in August 2013 produced a resounding no vote on quotas for UK parliamentarians. But according to those at the Brussels conference, quotas work. Many delegates described a big change in their own attitudes towards quotas as a way to get more women representatives in all countries.

Hafidha Benchehida, a senator in the Algerian government, said attitudes had changed. "A long time ago, of course we were against quotas," she said. "Quotas were for cows or flowers, not for women. But in the senate, elections are not made on a universal basis. Not a single woman was appointed by the political parties."

Now, she said, all parties in Algeria had realised that quotas were the only way to tackle long-standing prejudice against women, particularly in rural areas. The change has been largely driven by the president of Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Almost a third, 32%, of Algeria's parliamentary seats have been occupied by women since the 2012 elections, and Bouteflikehas also pushed througha measure to ensure that parties standing in local elections must have at least 30% of women on their list.

Not everyone agrees that quotas work. Jody Williams, chair of the Nobel women's initiative and one of the speakers at the conference, said some countries were still putting women onto lists simply to meet quotas, with no realistic expectation of their being elected. "The women don't say a word," she said.

PHOTO: Martin Argles for the Guardian
SOURCE: The Guardian Dec. 2 2013: http://www.theguardian.com/public-leaders-network/2013/dec/02/quotas-more-women-parliament