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POLITICS: Spotlight on Gender Equality at IPU Meeting in Addis Ababa

Michael Chebud

ADDIS ABABA, Apr 15 2009 (IPS) - The Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) started its assembly in the Ethiopian capital on Apr. 5 with a debate called by women parliamentarians.

The MPs (members of parliament) expected their male colleagues to participate in the discussions ranging from climate change to gender partnership. But the majority of male MPs stayed away, preferring to spend their Sunday in their hotels and elsewhere ahead of the plenary the following day.

“It was a pity that very few men attended the session of women parliamentarians,” says Shitaye Minale, deputy speaker of the Ethiopian parliament. “I urge our male colleagues to participate in our future dialogue sessions so that discussions are more interactive and inclusive.”

For women’s rights activists, this no-show exposed a conventional mindset, whereby men can be indifferent to discussions on women’s issues or with women. “Men are still struggling to think out of the box,” observes Nicole Chirac, an activist pushing for equal gender rights.

Moreover, she adds, a noticeable decline in the numbers of women on official delegations at this year’s IPU assembly shows that countries have made no attempt to discard this obsolete thinking.

Only 164 of the 592 delegates (27.7 percent) attending the five-day assembly here, which concluded Apr. 10, were female. At the 119th IPU assembly in Geneva (October 2008), women represented 30.8 percent of the delegates. Instead this time, the percentage of all male-delegations almost doubled to 13.1 from 7.9 percent in Geneva.

Not a single delegation was all-female unlike at the previous three assemblies. This year, 15 countries did not send a single woman MP to Addis Ababa. “This should shame us all,” says Chirac.

The Gender Partnership Group of the IPU was quick to single out North Korea, Malta, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which for three successive IPU assemblies have been all-male. Some Pacific Islands and Gulf states like Qatar have no women parliamentarians.

“With so many parliaments having so few women members, there is certainly no room for complacency,” comments Anders Johnsson, secretary general of the IPU.

“If we continue at this rate, we will not reach 30 percent women’s representation for another 20 years,” says Senator Pia Cayetano, president of IPU Coordinating Committee of Women Parliamentarians and an MP from the Philippines.

The Asian continent has registered one of the slowest progresses in terms of women’s access to parliament over the past 15 years, reaching a regional average of 17.8 percent, according to a report titled A Survey of Women and Men in Parliaments released by IPU.

India, the world’s largest democracy, falls well behind the regional average at 9.1 percent women in the outgoing parliament. With general elections that are spread over a month, starting this week, “women parliamentarians could not attend the (Addis) meeting”, explains Amitabh Mukhopadhyay, an Indian delegate.

Tiny Yemen has one woman in the 301-member parliament. “Many women stood for elections in 2003, unfortunately they did not win,” says Dr. Oras Sultan Naji, the only female MP, in an interview with IPS. “We have a lot of traditional obstacles which stand in front of women.

A member of the ruling General People’s Congress party, she hopes that female representation will jump to 15 percent in the 2010 polls. “Today, as the only woman MP, I represent the whole society, not only my constituency,” she observes.

Naji, who has been serving her second term, says she has succeeded in “influencing agendas on women’s issues. For instance, we have succeeded in raising girls’ marital age, which was undetermined, to 17 years.”

At the bottom of the latest IPU index are Qatar, Micronesia and Saudi Arabia, along with six other countries.

“It (women’s political participation) is a matter of time. It will change soon,” says a hopeful Dr. Bahija Baha Ezzi, a woman member of the Saudi delegation and advisor to its government. “Men are supporting women to join politics and engage in decision making.”

Even in Bangladesh, where civil society has been active for decades to empower women, only 6.3 percent of the women candidates were victorious in the December 2008 elections. The government has decided there will be 100 women MPs after the next election, says Begum Ramana Mahmood, a woman parliamentarian.

The IPU does not seem to be optimistic about the future although women’s representation has grown to 18.3 percent of the seats across all chambers of parliament.

“It is not only representation that women should be given. They should also be given key posts in parliament,” remarks Chirac, an activist. “But men still do not seem to be paying sufficient attention.”

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