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POLITICS: Democracy Unfinished

Miriam Mannak

CAPE TOWN, Apr 16 2008 (IPS) - A new report by the Geneva-based Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) has shown that women are changing the priorities and sometimes the tone of legislatures around the world. But, it also highlights the slow pace at which the number of parliamentary seats held by women is increasing.

"Women understand what other women need" - Yassina Fall Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

"Women understand what other women need" - Yassina Fall Credit: Miriam Mannak/IPS

In 1975, when the first United Nations World Conference on Women took place in Mexico City, some 11 percent of places in single chamber legislatures and lower houses of parliament were occupied by women. By 2008 there had been scant progress on this front: now, just under 18 percent of legislators worldwide are women, far lower than the 30 percent that is widely deemed necessary for women to begin influencing the direction of parliamentary affairs.

Equitable representation of women in legislatures is clearly "an ideal, not a reality" notes the report, titled &#39Equality in Politics: A Survey of Women and Men in Parliaments&#39.

The study examines gender equality in legislatures from a variety of perspectives, based on responses from approximately 300 parliamentarians (40 percent of whom were men) working in 110 countries – and follows on a similar report published in 2000, &#39Politics: Women&#39s Insight&#39.

&#39Equality in Politics&#39 was released at the 118th assembly of the IPU, underway Apr. 13-18 in the South African port city of Cape Town. The union is an umbrella organisation for parliaments around the globe.

The limited representation of women in legislatures must be seen alongside more promising national and regional trends, the report concedes.

There have been advances in Africa and Asia for instance, with about 17 percent of parliamentary posts in the two regions now held by women. Rwanda leads the field globally, with women accounting for some 49 percent of those in its lower house of parliament.

As regards countries that managed to have women occupy more than 30 percent of parliamentary posts, half are developing nations.

"Developing and emerging countries have made great progress, while the situation in the so-called old democracies has not moved forward much," said IPU Secretary General Anders Johnsson.

But overall, observes the report, "…only a small proportion of those (women) eligible consider putting themselves forward for election to parliaments." In general, those surveyed viewed lack of support from voters as being the main factor deterring men from entering politics. For women, it was domestic responsibilities: a third of the female parliamentarians surveyed did not have any dependents, and were more than twice as likely as the men to be single.

Noted Gwendoline Mahlangu-Nkabinde, deputy speaker of South Africa&#39s National Assembly, "In many countries, especially in Africa, boys are raised differently from girls. Boys are raised with the mindset that it is OK not to do the dishes, because their sister will be there to do it."

Asked to discuss measures that could see more women elected, the parliamentarians spoke in part of the need to alter perceptions of women&#39s place in society through education programmes – and to consider the introduction of childcare facilities to free women for political pursuits. The report also mentions various possibilities for helping women overcome the particular difficulties they face in financing their election campaigns.

It further highlights the usefulness of gender quotas to bring greater numbers of women into legislatures, and how electoral systems based on proportional representation have enabled more women to be elected than constituency-based ballots. But, the study also speaks of concerns amongst parliamentary aspirants about getting placed high enough on party lists to win office.

"Many parties operate without clear rules for candidate selection…" it says. Yet, "How candidates are selected by political parties is important. If party rules for the selection of candidates are not clear, decisions can be made by party elites, typically men."

Becoming part of the elite presents its own challenges: "Political parties are typically closed entities and many maintain &#39old boys&#39 networks&#39 that make it difficult for women to infiltrate the party leadership."

These observations were echoed by Johnsson: "It is therefore not only society and the parliamentary structure that need to adapt and evolve to give way to women; political parties need to come to the table too."

Legislative priorities

A number of those surveyed for the report said that men and women seemed to share certain political priorities; far more pointed to different priorities among male and female legislators, however. Issues of concern to women included poverty alleviation, pensions, reproductive rights, childcare and gender-related violence: "Combating violence against women is an area in which women legislators have made their presence felt in all regions of the world."

According to Yassina Fall, senior economic adviser at the United Nations Development Fund for Women, "Women understand what other women need. They know about the challenges women and girls face and understand the impact these challenges have on their lives."

"They realise that when you empower women, you empower a society," she added.

Similar observations were made by Johnsson: "Quite a few male respondents said that one needs women – many women – in order to have a parliament that serves the people."

The report states, however, that while female legislators appear to be taking the lead in foregrounding matters of importance to women, these issues are not their sole concern.

In addition, women parliamentarians can experience difficulty translating their priorities into political change, sometimes because of unsympathetic ruling parties – also because their limited presence in assemblies prevents them from participating fully in the parliamentary committees that scrutinise laws.

"Women are either left out of policy discussions by virtue of their physical absence, or overloaded with committee work, which means they ultimately cannot dedicate sufficient time to committees and their inquiries."

Amongst a host of other observations, &#39Equality in Politics&#39 notes that for substantive change to take place concerning women&#39s representation in legislatures, political will must be brought to bear.

"Men and women must agree and acknowledge that women&#39s inclusion and equal participation in parliamentary processes not only benefits societies…but is also necessary for legitimate democracy."

Or, in the words of a female legislator from Ireland quoted in the study: "Our democracy is unfinished when women are absent from policy making."

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