Gender, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Human Rights

POLITICS: Women’s Fair Representation Looks Decades Away

Ernst-Jan Pfauth

UNITED NATIONS, Mar 1 2007 (IPS) - Although nearly 17 percent of the world’s parliamentarians are women – a rise of 4.7 percent compared to 1995 and an all-time high – the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) says that the pace of reform is so slow, it would be another 70 years before women achieved full parity with men in politics.

“I have great doubts about the coming years,” IPU Secretary-General Anders B. Johnsson told IPS. “I do expect setbacks to happen, but I hope we can successfully reverse them.”

On Mar. 1, the IPU presented its latest statistics on women in parliament following parliamentary turnovers in 51 countries (61 chambres of parliament) over the last 12 years. Rwanda continues to rank in first place, with women holding 48.8 percent of seats in the Lower House. Still, only 18 other countries in the world have reached at least 30 percent female representation – Sweden (47.3 percent), Costa Rica (38.6) and the Netherlands (36.7).

“The increase in the number of women is slower than in the preceding years and if we are aiming for equality in parliament – roughly 50 percent men and 50 percent women – then we will wait until 2077 to celebrate this event,” Johnsson noted.

U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Asha-Rose Migiro also recognised this gloomy trend. During the opening of the 51st session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) this week, she said that: “Thanks to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and the Beijing Platform for Action, we have a clear road map for all actors – governments, civil society and the United Nations family – to end discrimination against women and girls and to speed up progress towards gender equality.”

“But while goals and commitments are in place, we still have far to go in ensuring their full implementation of representation in decision-making positions,” Migiro added.

According to Johnsson, there are number of regions where women have undergone setbacks. “We have seen no progress in the Pacific Islands the last decade and judging from the past, we don’t see much hope for progress coming in the next elections,” he said. Less than three percent of the Pacific Islands’ parliamentarians are women.

The IPU also saw missed opportunities in post-conflict states. “Most of them were doing well and made sure women can be elected, but in Congo and Haiti that was not the case. The number of female parliamentarians therefore decreased,” Johnsson said.

“Maybe one reason for the decrease in Congo and Haiti is the fact that there were no quota systems in either one of those countries,” he added. “In countries that practice some kind of quota system, the number of women returned in those elections reached almost 22 percent, while in the countries that do not use quota systems, this percentage was barely 12 percent. This is a considerable difference.”

Barbara Prammer, speaker of the Austria’s Parliament, argued during the presentation of the IPU statistics Thursday that: “Women have a different way of [doing] politics. We have a high feeling of responsibility.”

“Women who are in power should not forget their past. They are now role models and have to think of what they can do for other women,” she said. “They have to get other women into power as well.”

Margareth Mensah-Williams, vice president of the IPU Executive Committee and vice chairperson of the National Council of Namibia, stressed that women in power should reach out to the media to increase gender sensitivity among the public. “We don’t want a stereotype portrayal,” she stressed.

The good news, Johnsson said, is that “the number of women who are presiding parliaments is higher than ever”. Of the 262 presiding officer posts in parliaments around the world, 35 are occupied by women. Several of them were elected just recently.

In the Arab states, progress also continues. The United Arab Emirates has the “honour of being the country with the highest increase of all countries,” Johnsson said. The percentage of women in that parliament increased from 0 percent to 22 percent.

“[This] reflects a growing trend in that part of the world where more and more women can vote but are also elected to parliament,” he said.

Latin America is the continent with the highest female representation in parliaments. In most of the recent 20 elections, women made notable gains.

During the 51st session of the CSW, other organisations also discussed female representation in government.

The Global Youth Action Network published a report for the CSW that included the results of a worldwide questionnaire of 1,318 young people from 59 countries and eight regions, mostly under the age of 20. More than half of the young people who participated in this process were girls and young women.

One of the key findings was that respondents believed that “Governments are primarily responsible for protecting girls from violence and discrimination.”

According to the report, the message of young people is clear: “They want more representation in the groups that interact with the political and legal decision makers to ensure that the rights of girls are respected, and viewed as important.”

When young girls were asked what they would do for women if they were the head of their country for one day, they mostly responded that girls should get an education.

Sadly, some of the girls could not imagine the concept of being a leader. “Although the girls were given the chance to imagine themselves as leaders, many could not bring themselves to visualise such a thing,” an Ethiopian facilitator of the questionnaire said.

The main goal of the CSW is to reach conclusions on priority themes for each year. The conclusions consist of an analysis of the major theme of concern and a collection of recommendations for governments, intergovernmental bodies, several institutions, civil society actors and other relevant stakeholders. Such recommendations should be implemented at international, national, regional and local level.

The IPU reported that of the 43,882 parliament seats in the world, 36,446 are occupied by men and 7,436 by women.

The percentage of women in single and lower houses throughout the world is 17.1 percent. There are 33,174 parliamentarians active in single or lower houses – 30,812 of them are men and 6,326 are women.

In the upper houses and senates of the 51 countries surveyed, 16 percent of the parliamentarians are women.

Established in 1889, the IPU is a focal point of worldwide parliamentary dialogue and works for peace and cooperation among peoples and for the firm establishment of representative democracy.

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