Political participation has traditionally been broadly understood according to three factors: the right to choose the political leadership of the country, the right to be a participant in the political leadership and the gender sensitivity of the political decision-making mechanisms. There are important provisions within international human rights law that require states to respect, protect and fulfill women’s rights to political participation183. This section analyzes these three components to synthesize trends in progress; to highlight where reform is needed to better align existing practices with non-discrimination; and to suggest good practices for reaching the goal of gender equality in public and political life.
The Right to Vote
There is widespread state practice that gives women an equal right to vote, enshrined in almost all constitutions and also gaining the status of customary international law. The right to vote is intrinsically linked to women’s participation in her citizenship and in political life. In 1893, New Zealand became the first nation to grant women full voting rights. Countries continue to change their laws in correspondence with international legal norms to allow women’s suffrage, with Bahrain and Oman most recently allowing women to vote, in 2002 and 2003, respectively. However, there are still countries where women remain ineligible to vote. In Brunei Darussalam, women are not eligible to vote. Men, however, cannot vote either. In Saudi Arabia, women are ineligible to vote, although King Abdullah recently declared that women would be able to vote and run for office in 2015. There is also limited suffrage for both men and women in the United Arab Emirates; and in Lebanon, proof of elementary school education is required for women to vote, but not for men; and voting is compulsory for men, but optional for women.
Voter turnout among women is also climbing. In India, more women than men voted in recent elections held in Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, Manipur, Uttarakhand, and Goa184. The CEDAW Committee has also noted that 54.2 percent of voters in the last election in Bhutan were women185. This increased voter turnout may be a result of both government measures and activist awareness-raising. For example, before the election, the Indian Election Commission took measures such as the distribution of voter slips and support to first time voters, to ensure a minimization of violence and women’s increased confidence186. An example of mobilization for voter turnout through media outreach is the ‘Use Your Voice’ campaign, held by NDI and the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections, in the 2003 parliamentary elections. This campaign featured five prominent Lebanese women who appeared across multiple media platforms to encourage women to get out and vote187.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, research also shows that the percentage of women voters is higher than that of their male counterparts. In recent elections in Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico, women accounted for more voters than men188. Where an increase in women voters is observed, there may be a connection to the growing participation of women in public life, employment, and politics in general189. However, the rise in the number of women voters does not necessarily imply a rise in the equal representation of women at decision-making levels of government, as the next section will show.
Despite this success, there exist a number of cultural barriers to women voting or taking part in public debate. While women may be constitutionally eligible to vote, there are cases where women are prevented from exercising their own choice due to cultural or family pressures. For example, in parts of Eastern Europe, especially those with large minorities in which traditional gender roles persist, a phenomenon called ‘family voting’ exists, where men as family heads vote or attempt to vote for all the women in the family, including wives, adult daughters and mothers. In family voting practice, men exercise voting rights in place of all women in a family, entering the poll booth together and filling out the ballot allotted to the women. The countries where this has been a problem, such as the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, have implemented regulations forbidding such family voting, but violations of the ban and attempts to circumvent the regulations still occur190. Family voting is, however, on the decline in other regions. For example, researchers from the Centre for Developing Societies in New Delhi conducted a study on voting behaviour since the 1970s, which showed that fewer than 50 percent of women now vote based on what their husbands or male family members have to say191.
The Right to Take Part in Public Debate
Women’s participation in political life must include women’s access to and participation in public debate. A key group to consider would be women’s human rights defenders, who play a significant role in eliminating discrimination against women, but who often are threatened or in danger because of their participation in public debates. This illustrates that even when there is space for women’s participation, there are still significant risks that women face when they make use of those opportunities. This raises the question of how the threat or experience of violence may inhibit women from engaging in political arenas, or conversely, how political participation can make women more vulnerable to violence.
States are often very resistant to demands for change from women’s human rights activists, because these activists denounce the existing practices of the regime, often in contexts of military conflict and authoritarianism, and because they are often seen as challenging ‘traditional’ notions of the family192. Women defenders are often the target of gender-specific violence, such as verbal abuse based on their sex, or sexual abuse and rape; may experience intimidation, attacks, death threats and killings by family and community members; or may experience judicial consequences, such as arrest. These forms of violence are prevalent in several geographical regions, and in countries such as Sri Lanka, Nepal, Pakistan, China and Iran. For example, according to the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran, women’s rights advocates for the One Million Signatures Campaign have been beaten and persecuted for peacefully demonstrating193.
A good practice decision was made in Egypt when a military court banned virginity testing on women demonstrators from Tahrir Square. Virginity testing is used to humiliate and restrict women’s freedom of assembly and expression by stigmatizing them. In March 2011, a number of women were arrested while participating in a protest at the Tahrir Square and while in prison, were subjected to virginity testing. On behalf of Samira Ibrahim, one of the human rights defenders, human rights groups filed a case before the Military Administrative Court. The court made the decision to ban virginity testing, deeming it a violation of both the Egyptian Constitution and international human rights law. While the case will probably not go so far as to prosecute the doctors who performed the tests for sexual assault, this case establishes precedent to ensure that the rights of women’s human rights defenders are protected, as they engage in public and political life194.
The Right to Participate in Political Life
The right to participate in political life, and particularly in leadership, applies to the position of the Head of Government; national parliaments; local government, including mayoral positions; the judiciary; state boards; councils; and office holders in the civil service195. Women have succeeded less in reaching high levels of participation in political life than they have in economic and social life. However, the expansion of women’s formal political representation across most regions ranks among the most significant trends in international politics of the last 100 years196.
Female Heads of State and Ministers
Women in all regions have been elected to power as head of state or government since the 1980s. In Africa, the successful candidacy of Africa’s first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia in 2006 was followed by the election of Joyce Hilda Banda in Malawi in 2012197. In the Asia Pacific region, current heads of state include Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh and Yingluck Shinawatra in Thailand. Another recent head of state in that region includes President Pratibha Patil in India198. In Latin America and the Caribbean, currently five women occupy the positions of head of state, as President or Prime Minister, which is one of the largest numbers worldwide, in Argentina, Costa Rica, Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, and Brazil199. In Europe and North America, there are five out of thirty female heads of state, including in Australia, Switzerland, Iceland, Germany and Denmark.
Women are also increasingly being represented in ministerial and leadership positions within parliament or government. Countries like Cape Verde and South Africa have female ministerial representation at 47 percent and 40 percent, respectively, ranking the highest in the region200. Countries in the African region with the lowest ministerial representation are Morocco and Algeria, with 3.3 percent and 3.1 percent representation, respectively. The Western region has some of the highest rates of ministerial appointments in the world, with Finland, Norway, Sweden, France, Spain and Switzerland within the top ten across the world201.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, there has also been a significant increase in the number of women who have been appointed as Ministers. As of 2012, several countries have high representation in ministerial positions, including Nicaragua at 46.2 percent, Bolivia at 45.5 percent, and Ecuador at 40 percent female representation. A notable effort to incorporate ‘parity’ and gender equality into cabinet-level appointments is the case of Michelle Bachelet, elected President of Chile in 2006, who promoted a gender parity policy to rectify the under-representation of women in cabinet. As such, she appointed a cabinet in which approximately half of the Ministers were women202. Presidents Rafael Correa of Ecuador and Evo Morales of Bolivia also incorporated the principle of gender equality into their cabinet-level appointments.
Heads of state may be limited in advancing substantive equality in a sustainable way due to their obligations to their political parties and constituents, and because of the brief nature of their political appointment. This suggests that a unified, coalition-based approach is necessary to ensure gender equality measures that are sustained in spite of changes in political leadership or political will. Mala Htun’s work suggests that while women’s presence in elected office is important, it is insufficient to cause policy changes to promote gender equality. The election of women can instigate egalitarian change when elected representatives work in coalition with women’s movements203. In addition, the election of a woman does not necessarily guarantee that she will protect and promote women’s rights, which is why it is essential for women’s rights advocacy movements to support and pressure states to reform discriminatory legislation. For example, President Laura Chinchilla in Costa Rica is allied with the religious right and has emphasized the relationship between the Church and the State, making statements against women’s reproductive rights, such as the legalization of abortion and access to emergency contraception.
While women are increasingly being nominated to ministerial positions in government, women still tend to have low levels of representation in ministries that are seen as ‘masculine’, such as in defense or finance. Women tend to address social issues such as women, children, the family, education and labour. A study of the Inter-American Development Bank shows that while 364 women have held ministerial positions in Latin America between 1950 and 2007, the presence of women has been preeminent in ministries on the aforementioned social issues204. Also, according to the Women in Politics survey, as of 2012 between 79 and 89 percent of women around the world hold the position of ministers in social, family and women’s issues, whereas only 7 percent are ministers of defense and veteran affairs205. Even in the Western region, with typically high female ministerial representation, only Sweden has a female Defence Minister, Karin Enström, and only the USA has a female Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Hilary Clinton.
While the numbers of women in positions of power are increasing across all regions, kinship ties are an important consideration when analyzing the election of women in politics. Women may attain political standing due to kinship ties, as they have male family members who are involved in politics. For example, in Bangladesh, the current Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, is the daughter of founding president Mujibur Rahman, and her prominent rival, Begum Khaleda Zia, was the wife of a former President. In the Philippines, Cory Acquino became President on the strength of the sympathy generated by her husband’s assassination. These dynastic women tend to be from higher income, higher status families. While these particular women became powerful leaders, the question of how effective other women leaders can be when they are elected as a result of kinship ties remains206.
Women in Parliament and Legislature
Across all regions, tremendous progress has been made that has increased the representation of women in parliament and legislative positions. While in 1995, women accounted for 11.3 percent of members of parliament; in 2005 this figure has risen to almost 16 percent207. By 2011, women had won 21.8 percent of all seats up for renewal in that year and the global average stood at 19.5 percent208.
In 1960, only one percent of African legislators were women and today this share has reached approximately twenty percent209. There are 10 chambers in sub-Saharan Africa with at least 30 percent women in their national parliament210. On average, women in sub-Saharan Africa now hold 20.4 percent of single or lower house seats, which is an increase from 18.3 percent in 2010, and from 12.4 percent ten years ago. In South Africa in 2009, women took 43.5 percent of the seats in the lower house election, which ranks fourth in the region and eighth in global rankings, as a result of a voluntary quota adopted by the political party, ANC211. In West and Central Africa, the figures for women’s political representation are lower, but Senegal is progressing, having almost reached parity in its National Assembly212.
In the Asia Pacific region, most sub-regions show that the average proportion of women in the lower or single houses of parliament has doubled or more than doubled since 1995. There are country leaders across the sub-regions, including Kyrgyzstan with 26 percent, China with 21 percent, Timor-Leste with 38.5 percent, Nepal with 33 percent, and Iraq with 26 percent213. The elections in Nepal, Timor-Leste and Iraq are particularly notable for their high rates of participation, illustrating a country’s ability to overcome conflict and poverty through the collaborative effort of women’s movement activism. There are, however, still many countries in the region with very low numbers of women in parliament.
The case of Eastern Europe is interesting because, after the political transformation of the 1980s and 1990s, the proportion of women within political representation significantly decreased. Under communism, some Eastern European countries had quotas for women, and the transition led to a significant reduction in women’s political participation. In Albania, for example, in 1974, the participation of women in parliament reached over 33 percent; however, in 1991, it fell from 29.2 percent to 3.6 percent, and in 1993, there were only 2.8 percent women among the members of parliament. While it has increased to 15.7 percent since then, this case illustrates a similar trend across all post-communist countries214. In recent years, the proportion of women in parliament has increased across the region, but these countries still do not rank very high. Only four countries – Serbia, Slovakia, Belarus, and Macedonia – have exceeded 30 percent of female parliamentarians215.
An interesting trend in Latin America and the Caribbean is the strong disparity that exists between women’s participation in the lower and upper chambers of parliament. In Belize, Barbados, and Antigua and Barbuda, women hold 3.1%, 10.1%, and 10.5% respectively of the seats in the lower chambers. In contrast, women hold 38.5%, 33.3% and 29.4% of the seats in the upper chambers. Overall, Latin America and the Caribbean, have one of the highest percentages of female members of parliament in the world, at 22.5 percent, only surpassed by Nordic Europe216. The Inter-American Development Bank has noted that the number of women elected to parliaments in the region has increased from an average of 5 percent in 1990 to 20 percent in 2010217. In Nicaragua, there has been promising progress recently, with the proportion of women elected in 2006 at 18.5 percent jumping to just over 40 percent in 2011218. This may be connected to the fact that the Sandinista National Liberation Front has a voluntary party quota of 30 percent; and in the 2011 election, women won more than 50% of that party’s seats219.
In Latin America and the Caribbean, a study on women ministers shows that indigenous and Afro-descendent women have been particularly excluded from cabinet-level positions, despite accounting for the majority population. Progress is being made, where in Bolivia, Guatemala, Ecuador, and Venezuela, indigenous women have been appointed to lead certain government ministries, and in both Colombia and Brazil, an Afro-descendent woman has been appointed to lead a ministry220.
The Western region has fairly consistently high rates of female participation in national parliaments. Most Western countries rank within the top 50 countries in the world. Seven countries in this region rank below the world average of 20.2 percent of women in national parliaments: Malta, Cyprus, Turkey, Ireland, USA, Monaco and Israel. Nordic countries have the highest regional average overall at 42 percent of women’s representation in parliament. In the face of continuing financial crisis, ‘electoral realignments’ have occurred, whereby an incumbent coalition of parties is replaced by a new coalition, and this has led to a decline in women’s representation in countries such as Cyprus, Estonia, Portugal and Spain221.
Research suggests that the political structure of a parliament can significantly affect women’s recruitment to parliament. For example, the system of elections based on proportional representation has resulted in three to four times more women being elected in countries with similar political cultures222. An important factor is whether the electoral system has a single-member district system, where only one legislator is elected, or a multi-member district system, where several MPs are elected in each district. All proportional representation systems use multi-member districts223. One of the big problems with single-member district systems is that, by definition, the party can only nominate one candidate, so it is not possible to provide gender balance on the party ticket. This can lead to women becoming ‘sacrificial lambs’: in the case of Canada, women are more likely than men to serve as party standard bearers in districts where their party has little chance of winning224.
Women’s Participation in Local Government
In spite of the progress that has been made in women’s political representation at national levels as heads of state and in parliaments, there is a tension between this progress and the low rates in women’s representation at local political levels. Women continue to represent a small percentage of mayors and councillors in local and sub-national contexts. A UN-INSTRAW study concluded that in 16 Latin American countries, women accounted for only 5.3 percent of the total mayors225. Another study of the English-speaking Caribbean shows that of 94 municipalities in six countries, women headed only 10226. The Inter-American Commission has observed that women remain excluded as leaders and direct representatives of the population within local communities227. This gap in participation between national and local levels of government is also evident in the Western region. The World’s Women 2010 reports that of 83 countries of the world with available data for 2003-2008, only four had more women than men councillors228.
In other regions, women’s participation in local politics has seen more progress. For example, India and Pakistan have both applied constitutional gender quotas that apply to the equitable representation of women at the local level. This has played a part in the relatively higher proportions of women in local councils (at 38 and 25 percent, respectively). However, the proportion of women in top leadership positions in local government is more limited than in local councils229. In South-East Asia, the figures range from 5 to 9 percent, and in Western Asia, only 1 percent of women held mayoral positions230. The average is below 20 percent female participation in all countries in the Asia Pacific region. In Japan, however, a 30 percent target has been reached for women in local government committees and councils and there is a new goal to reach 40 percent female participation by 2020231.
In Eastern Europe, there has been a slow but steady increase in women’s participation in local politics. In Croatia, for example, the average representation of women in local or regional self-government rose from 11.5 percent in 2001 to 15.4 percent in 2009232. In Poland, a similar trend can be identified in municipal councils, where 16 percent female representation in 1998 rose to 24 percent in 2010233. What should be noted in these cases in Eastern Europe and in other regions, is that women’s participation in local authorities can be represented in the shape of a pyramid: at the lowest levels of local politics, the numbers of women are higher and they diminish as the rank within local politics rises. It should also be noted that there is some disparity between urban and rural locations. In big cities in Poland, for example, the proportion of women is higher. This can, in part, be explained by the fact that in urban areas the principles of gender equality are more deeply accepted and there are more educated, often more wealthy women and communities234.
In the African region, there are a few good examples of states that have reserved seats for women at the local level. In Lesotho, 30 percent of all local election divisions were reserved for women in the 2005 local elections, and in the end, over 50 percent of the elected representatives were women235. In Sierra Leone, five of the 10 locally-elected representatives of Ward Development Committees must be women, and in Namibia, party lists for local authority council elections with 10 or fewer members, must include at least 3 women, and with 11 or more members, must include five women236. Also in parts of the African region, customary governance institutions provide space for women to participate in political life. In Sierra Leone, in the north, women can play very junior roles such as that of Ya’alimamy, which is a low-level female chief that settles non-serious disputes237. In Moyamba in the south, one third of divisional chiefs are now women. While women may still not have equal access to power in this customary system, these cases illustrate that progress is being slowly made.
An interesting good practice exists in South-Eastern Europe to build the capacity of women in local decision-making structures. The Women Mayors’ Link is an initiative of the Stability Pact Gender Task Force (SP GTF), which has been developed in 12 countries in South-Eastern Europe. It is a network that has been established to strengthen women’s mayors’ leadership skills; to promote cooperation between women mayors and local women’s networks to design projects to improve women’s quality of life in local contexts; and to facilitate the exchange of best practices238.
Women in the Judiciary
Across all regions, the numbers of women represented in the judiciary are increasing. Globally, women account for 27 percent of judges. Having women in the judiciary can be very important for the outcome of justice. A US study found that women judges were 11 percent more likely to rule in favour of the plaintiff in employment discrimination cases and another study concluded that male judges on federal appellate panels were significantly more likely to support the plaintiff in sexual harassment or sex discrimination cases if there was also a woman judge on the panel239.
Countries in Eastern Europe, in particular, have very high participation of women in the judiciary. The profession of the judge in this region is highly feminized, as illustrated by a global ranking of the participation of women in the judiciary by UNECE, which places Eastern European countries in the top 6 positions. In four countries – Slovenia, Latvia, Romania, and the Ukraine – the proportion of women judges exceeds 70 percent; and in the next 8 countries, more than 60 percent of judges are women. In only two countries in the region, Armenia and Azerbaijan, can the proportion of women in the judiciary be described as low240.
This strong position of women in the judiciary in Eastern Europe is a legacy of the communist period, as a consequence of gender balance at law schools; but it also results from the fact that in many countries, the profession of the attorney is more attractive than the judge, thus men tend to prevail in these alternate legal professions. However, even considering the female dominance among judges, the pyramid model is again observable amongst judiciary positions. In the lower levels of the courts, more women are judges; and in the top levels, women’s predominance disappears. Women rarely hold positions of power in the judiciary, such as the positions of presidents of the highest courts. The exception is that the president of the Supreme Court in Albania is a woman241. The Israeli Supreme Court also had a female president until 2011.
A similar pyramid model can also be identified in the judiciary in Latin America and the Caribbean. A study in 2010 showed that the highest tribunal of the majority of Latin American and Caribbean countries had at least one women serving as Judge, Magistrate or Minister (with the exception of Panama and Paraguay)242. However, across the region, women have limited representation as Supreme Court justices and within other high-level tribunals, while their representation is higher in the lower chambers. There are a number of factors that could contribute to the pyramid model of appointments. The appointment of judges is often determined through political means, which can work to the detriment of women who have less political experience than men or who are less known to the public. Promotion mechanisms may also be driven by factors such as educational requirements or seniority that can rule women out, in addition to considering the burden of family responsibilities.
Most of the Western region meets or exceeds the global average of 27 percent of women judges. Israel, France and Greece all report figures above 50 percent. According to a recent study by the Council of Europe, there has been a gradual “feminisation of the judiciary, resulting in near gender equality” in the region. Again, while there is gender parity in most Western countries, the proportion of female judges is significantly lower for more senior posts. Israel is a good example to illustrate women’s high level of participation in the judiciary, especially when contrasted against the very low participation of women in the legislative and executive bodies of Israel. More than half of the 646 judges serving in Israel are women, however women make up only 20% of the Supreme Court. Women comprise almost half the 49,000 lawyers in Israel, with women holding the posts of legal advisors in the Ministry of Defence, the Police, the Histadrut Trade Union and the Civil Service Commission243. Canada, on the other hand, is a case where there has been slippage in the gender equality goals of the judiciary. Women make up 50 percent of the Supreme Court; however, this global leadership is dwindling under Prime Minister Harper, who has appointed only 8 women in comparison to 41 men to the federal judiciary244.
Women’s participation within religious courts is low, as often non-state or identity-based legal orders can be discriminatory towards women as equal adjudicators. In Israel, while there are high numbers of female judges in the civil legal system, women are excluded from the Orthodox religious courts, which are exclusively male. This can subsequently limit women at the family law bar because of the increased difficulty of female advocates in these courts. For example, in May 2012, the Israeli Sharia Court of Appeals refused to allow a female arbitrator to represent a Muslim woman in divorce proceedings. The problem of discrimination has been addressed in Malaysia, where women have long been permitted as judges in civil courts, but only in 2010 were they also allowed to sit as judges in the Syariah courts (State courts dealing with Islamic law)245. The subsequent appointment of two female judges is in line with the Malaysian government’s removal of their reservation to CEDAW’s article 7b, which requires governments to enable women’s participation in public office. In Indonesia, there has been a growing movement led by religious court judges intent on improving gender equality. The Asia Foundation works with the Supreme Court and religious courts in 14 of Indonesia’s 32 provinces to build the skills and experience of religious court judges to address gender bias in family law cases246.
Women in Political Parties and Electoral Quotas
Political parties are significant to women’s participation in politics, as political parties recruit and select candidates for elections247. How women participate in political parties, including how those parties encourage women’s involvement in political life and how they incorporate gender equality issues into their mandates, are key determinants of women’s political empowerment. In order to promote women’s involvement in political processes, it is imperative that parties take a series of steps across the electoral cycle to incorporate women fully into the structure of the party, and to shift the organization and financing of the party to be more conducive to women’s participation.
The most effective strategies for women’s political empowerment involve reforms to political institutions that target support to women within the party, women candidates and elected officials248. It is important for parties to incorporate rules that guarantee women’s representation. For example, in recent years, some 50 countries have adopted legislation on electoral quotas in order to ensure that a certain proportion of candidates for political office are women. Hundreds of political parties in another 20 countries have voluntarily adopted their own gender quotas249.
There is debate about the impact of electoral quotas on women’s participation in political life. Research suggests that quotas ‘trump’ cultural factors in determining women’s participation: when quotas are used, religious and cultural factors no longer constrain women’s representation250. Numerous Muslim countries, such as Morocco, Tunisia, Senegal and Indonesia have successfully adopted quotas. Quotas in the Maghreb have resulted in relatively high rates of female representation, with an average of 21.6 percent, as compared to MENA countries that do not have quotas, with an average of 8 percent female representation251.
Research also suggests that economic and political regime factors are important for determining women’s representation, but not as important as the implementation of gender quotas. For example, in Mozambique, Burundi and Tanzania, countries that are among the 15 poorest in the world, rates of female representation are very high252. Democratic regimes may influence the growth of women’s representation over time, but quotas are more important in determining the levels of women’s political representation, taking other factors into consideration253. An IPU study noted that in 2011, 17 countries holding elections used legislated electoral quotas and in these countries, women took 27.4 percent of seats, in comparison to 15.7 percent of seats in countries without any form of quota254. Another example is in Kyrgyzstan where, in the 2005 election, no women were elected to parliament. The implementation of quotas, in addition to the new Elections Code in 2007 and the long-term involvement of civil society organizations meant that by 2008, women made up 26.6 percent of representatives in parliament. This is the highest percentage of any Central Asian state and the second highest in the CIS region255.
Research from India also illustrates the positive effects of electoral quotas. Since 1993, India has revitalized a system of decentralized government, called Panchayats, which are in charge of local expenditures and some social programs. A constitutional amendment established the mandated representation of women, with women taking 1/3 of the seats within each council and women taking 1/3 of the leadership positions as head across councils256. With the random assignment of gender quotas for leadership positions, research has shown that after ten years of quotas, women are more likely to stand for, and win, elected positions in councils, when the council was required to have a female chief councillor in the previous two elections257. The requirement of female leadership changes voter attitudes and improves perceptions of female leadership effectiveness. This case suggests that affirmative action mechanisms, such as electoral quotas, can durably influence political outcomes and improve the possibility of women’s political participation.
Other outcomes from this research on quotas suggest that female political representatives may shift responsiveness to certain social policy issue areas, such as health and education258. Female leadership also influences adolescent girls’ career aspirations and educational attainment, with research showing that the gender gap in political aspirations closed by 25% in parents and 32% in adolescents in villages that had had female leaders for two election cycles259.
In spite of this evidence, there is cause for caution when considering the implementation of electoral quotas. For one, evidence suggests that political parties may manipulate gender quotas, which hinders women’s participation. For example, parties often choose to place women in relatively uncompetitive jurisdictions260 or in worse positions on the party list261. Quotas may include loopholes; lack of an enforcement mechanism; or the absence of detail about the placement of women on candidacy lists262. For example, in 2011, the Egyptian Supreme Council of the Armed Forces announced the adoption of a new law on the Exercise of Political Rights, which amended previous quotas for women. While the amended law required each political party to include one woman on their candidate list, it did not have clarification about where on the list women were to be placed. Thus, the January 2012 parliamentary election saw a dramatic drop of 10 percentage points from the previous 2010 results, from 12 percent of women to 2 percent representation263.
‘Zipper’ quotas are largely considered effective, which require every other position on a list to be filled by a woman to ensure equality. However, even these can have mixed results. For example, research suggests that in Rwanda, the ruling party have used women for patronage purposes or as token women264. In many contexts, women who are elected based on quotas are known as ‘proxy women’, as they are often elected to politics as stand-ins for their husbands265. These ‘token’ women have no real political power and are merely symbolic representatives266. Another loophole in Mexico and Armenia, for example, is that women step down after inauguration and are replaced by male alternatives267. Ultimately, the incentives and disincentives for including women need to be significant enough to have an impact on party behaviour; and the incentives should not be based on the total number of women on candidacy lists, but rather on the percentage of women within a party who actually win a seat268. In addition, there are different electoral systems within different countries, and quotas should be designed in consideration of the particular electoral system, in order to ensure successful affirmative action policy.
Finally, there can exist gaps in quotas, in terms of the categories of woman who benefit from these special measures and those that do not. This relates to the systemic and multiple forms of discrimination that women may experience in accessing public and political life. One scholar argues that women who can exercise autonomy in and from the household are more likely to be active participants in political life; women who have access to the public sphere in general are more likely to be engaged in political activity269. Studies have also shown that models of participation are linked to socio-economic factors such as income and education level. More educated women, those who are employed, women of higher social class, and urban women are more likely to be active and interested in politics.
Good Practices in Using Electoral Quotas
As noted, many countries have legislated electoral quotas, and many other political parties have voluntarily implemented quotas to increase the number of women represented in political life. Spain, for example, has a long history of using quotas, which has seen increasing success in women’s representation, culminating with a majority of women in cabinet in 2008270. In both Spain and Belgium, a failure to present candidacy lists that meet the gender equality target results in a rejection of the list. This is a good practice in ensuring compliance with quotas. Also, in Israel in 1992 and in Belgium, a 2011 law mandated the presence of women in the boards of directors of public companies and the introduction of a quota of one third of the members of each seat in boards of private companies271. Companies must annually report on their results and their efforts to meet the target, with financial penalties in case of failure to comply. Other Western region countries, such as Finland and Norway have had legislation for over a decade that mandates gender quotas272.
In Latin America, research shows that more than 10 years after the adoption of quota laws, “it is clear that they mark a ‘before’ and ‘after’ in women’s political participation in the region, and that they accelerated the inclusion of women in positions of power.”273 Argentina was the first country of the region to adopt this kind of legislation in 1991, mandating that the lists of candidates presented by parties for publically elected positions for parliamentary seats should contain a 30 percent minimum of women274. In Costa Rica, the Electoral Code was recently reformed in 2009, changing the quota system to a system based on gender parity, with 50 percent women and men275.
The case of Rwanda provides an interesting good practice to encourage women’s candidacy for local election. In the 2001 and 2006 local elections, a triple ballot was used. Each voter received 3 ballots when they entered the voting booth: a general ballot, a women’s ballot and a youth ballot. Voters had to select one candidate from each ballot. This effort was a deliberate attempt to make voters comfortable with voting for women and to increase the number of women in local government276.
The case of Poland illustrates how advocacy efforts can pressure for the creation of electoral quotas. The idea of quotas received negative feedback in post-Soviet countries, due to the implications and associations of quotas with the forced-equality of Soviet era rule. While the idea of quotas had been circulating since the mid-1990s, legislative quotas were only achieved in 2011, with the bill drafted and introduced to parliament as a citizens’ initiative. The women’s movement, under the auspices of the Women’s Congress, had exerted significant pressure to pass this legislation since 2009. The Congress sparked massive activism, with the citizens’ initiative requiring 100,000 signatures in order for parliament to consider the bill. Overall, more than 150,000 signatures were collected in public spaces, such as shopping malls, theatres and museums, and this contributed to public debate over the issue. The bill was passed instituting a gender quota of at least 35 percent and was adopted into law. Since then, it has resulted in a significant increase in the percentage of women candidates on the lists. The 35 percent quota requirement was especially effective within one political party that also implemented an internal rule pertaining to the gendered rank order on the lists. Only this party managed to almost reach the 35 percent goal for elected women into parliament277.
Barriers to Women’s Participation in Political Life
Women face a number of significant barriers when considering their participation in political life. In many countries, there is resistance to women’s political participation because of prevailing gender norms questioning women’s ability to lead. For example, women may be underrepresented in politics because of perceptions that they are less qualified or do not possess sufficient leadership skills. These stereotypes are linked to women’s roles as caregivers. Many women are unable to balance family and public life and are not granted support from their spouses and families. Women are also still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks in many countries. The long hours, lack of flexible working patterns and the lack of part time roles can be practical bars to women’s participation in public and political life. Amnesty International notes that “…where women are the primary care givers for children, access to child care and careful timing of political party leadership meetings are crucial to women’s ability to participate on an equal footing with men”278.
Additionally, a lack of financial resources can significantly hinder women’s participation in political life. Women frequently lack access to political party funding and financial resources for their election bids, and must pay for the advertising costs of their campaigns. Women often experience violence and sexual harassment at the ground level in political parties, which can make their participation dangerous. Male bonding and persistent stereotypical attitudes towards women can also discriminate against women. For example, in India, women’s participation as candidates in national and state elections has declined because it is difficult for women to establish a foothold without patronage from powerful men in the party279. In addition, Lebanese structures of political representation are dependent on familial ties from male to male relatives, which excludes women280.
Another significant barrier that women face is a lack of experience and knowledge. Political parties may avoid female candidates because they come with fewer campaign resources and links to influential constituencies. A lack of knowledge can also lead to women being overlooked. For example, a lack of awareness of women’s rights and responsibilities can work against women as candidates and members of political bodies. The Asian Development Bank noted in a study that more than 70 percent of councillors interviewed in Bangladesh were not aware of their rights and responsibilities as representatives281. A lack of knowledge can lead to adverse effects on women’s political empowerment: more than 80 percent also expressed their lack of confidence in their ability to conduct meetings282. Female candidates tend to be less competitive and more risk averse than their male counterparts. Research shows that, despite comparable credentials, backgrounds, and experience, accomplished women are substantially less likely than similarly accomplished men to perceive themselves as qualified to seek office283. Women and men rely on the same factors when evaluating their merit as candidates, but women are less likely than men to believe they meet these criteria284.
Women may also experience barriers due to the nature of the political system. Federal political systems can play an important role in either maintaining or undermining gender inequality around the world. For example, federalism allowed for a US state, Wyoming, to enfranchise women and give them the vote before women were eligible to vote at the national level. In Switzerland, however, women were disenfranchised at the local level until the 1990s, 20 years after they were able to vote at the national level285. The same country can also have widely divergent gender equality policies within a federal system.
Good Practices in Facilitating Women’s Participation in Political Life
An important good practice in improving rates of women’s participation in political life involves training for women to improve their campaign skills. In 2007, women in Syria retained 31 seats (12 percent) in a system with no quotas, helped by training through the Syrian Commission for Family Affairs and the General Women’s Union, in collaboration with UNIFEM286. In 2006, in Bahrain, one woman became the first-ever elected women, and she had been one of 18 women candidates trained in campaign skills and aided by a government media blitz. The NDI works in many countries, such as Macedonia and Burkina-Faso, to train women candidates, in order to expand the pipeline of capable women in a given country287. In Brazil, the Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) has a Political Training Program for Women, which is being implemented in all Brazilian states, with financing, to educate women party members. As a result of the program, more than 3000 PSDB women attended these courses in 2005 alone288.
Another good practice relates to providing financial resources to support women candidates. In Cambodia, the Sam Rainsy Party provides women candidates with basic items, such as appropriate campaigning clothing and a bicycle for transportation289. In Canada, the 1974 Elections Act was passed that allows childcare expenses to be included in a candidate’s personal expenses during a campaign290. In Panama, Law 60 of the Electoral Code stipulates that parties use at least 25 percent of public funds for capacity-building, out of which at least 10 percent must go to female candidates291. In Costa Rica, no less than 20 percent of the total contributions to the Citizen’s Action Party are allotted to training and organizational efforts, with no less than 15 percent being targeted at training women and youth292.
There are good practices in making political life more family-friendly in order to help women to ensure a work-life balance. In Australia, traditionally, sittings of the House of Representative could go until 11pm at night, which could be prohibitive for women. In 2003, the hours were amended to ensure that they rose no later than 9pm. Within the Parliament itself, a childcare centre was established so that parliamentarians could leave their children to be cared for. Furthermore, in the case where a woman is nursing a small infant, in her absence she can now ask her whip to vote on her behalf293. Women politicians in the UK and in Australia have also recently advocated for the necessity of public breastfeeding in order that they can be fully supported in their roles as both mothers and parliamentarians294.
Good practices in addressing the practical barriers faced by women as the primary caregiver can be found in Norway and Sweden. In Norway, the State heavily subsidizes public and private day-care centres to help with the burden of childcare faced by women, and it is ranked the best place in the world to be a mother295. In Sweden, nurseries are available to women working in both the public and private sectors, and are financed partly by central government grants, partly by tax revenue and partly by parental fees. Sweden has a maximum fee policy that states that parents should only have to spend between 1% and 3% of the family income on childcare, depending on the number of children. In Sweden as of 1991, all children aged 18 months and over, whose parents are working or studying, have access to a place either in an approved day-care centre, registered family day care or a nursery school. Financial involvement on the part of the Swedish government has steadily increased since 1975296.
Influencing the Agenda: Women’s Effective Participation
While electing women to public office is an important first step to ensure women’s political participation, it is also important to ensure that women have a voice once they have been elected. When women are empowered as political leaders, countries experience higher standards of living and positive developments in education, infrastructure and health297. Studies show that women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democratic governance, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs298; increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines299; and more sustainable peace300. Research suggests that the gender of legislators, for example, clearly affects their policy priorities; however, this might not be the case if women are not empowered to have a strong voice in public office.
In order to ensure that women have a strong voice, it is necessary to take advantage of critical mass within elected bodies. For example, women’s parliamentary caucuses should be established and strengthened in order to amplify women’s voices301. By uniting, women are better able to successfully shape the parliamentary and legislative agendas. In Sri Lanka, the NDI has worked with female politicians across all parties to identify non-partisan issues upon which they can all cooperate, leading to the drafting and endorsement of a platform for improving women’s political participation302. It is important to develop mechanisms for the political mobilization of women, for example by building effective constituencies, networks and solidarity to influence the democratic process; strengthening political constraints on women’s political engagement; strengthening the judiciary systems based on accountability measures; and holding democratic institutions accountable to women and to meeting commitments to women’s rights303.
Another good example is the creation, in 1996, of the multi-party and multi-ethnic Forum of Women Parliamentarians (FFRP) in Rwanda. The FFRP is formally recognized by the parliament and all female parliamentarians from both houses of parliament are members of this caucus. Members work together across party lines on issues of importance to women and to ensure gender-sensitivity in the Parliament and in legislation304. In another example, in 2008, a women’s caucus was established in Argentina, to include all female senators, with the objective to “advise, consult, oversee and monitor laws, policies and government actions related to equal rights and opportunities and the treatment of men and women”. This committee formally promoted draft legislation in 2008 on the elimination of sexist language in public administration, and the declaration of 2009 as the national year of non-violence against women and fighting domestic violence305. Uruguay’s women’s caucus helped to established the country’s Gender Equity Committee, which has been instrumental in pushing forward a number of women’s human rights laws, and in Brazil, the women’s parliamentary caucus, in collaboration with women’s advocacy groups, helped enact laws to protect women’s human rights related to violence against women and sexual and reproductive health306.
The case of Costa Rica offers a good practice to ensure gender balance in parliamentary committees. In 2003, several female deputies and one male deputy sought an injunction from the Constitutional Chamber regarding the unequal gender make-up of the Standing Committees, citing CEDAW and the American Convention. A second similar request was also filed in 2003, and another two in 2009, which declared that the deputies’ right to equality had been violated. Following this declaration, the President of the Legislative Assembly was ordered to take steps to guarantee, insofar as possible, the participation of female deputies in special standing committees. Since 2009, it has been clear that it is the legislative leadership’s duty to comply with the Constitutional Court’s ruling307.
Women can have a stronger voice in political life by strengthening legislative and political institutions, and changing political-institutional culture to better meet women’s needs. In Arab and African states where there has been an increased women’s parliamentary presence, there has been ‘substantial change’ in parliamentary language and behaviour308. It is important to continue to strengthen the legislative institutions through enabling greater inclusiveness in policy-making processes. While it is difficult to determine how gender is being incorporated into institutions, Sweden, which is the second highest ranked country in the Western region in terms of women in national parliaments, has adopted a special plan for gender mainstreaming. This plan describes how “under this strategy, each Minister is responsible for gender equality in his or her policy area and the Minister for Gender Equality is responsible for ensuring that progress is made and for following up measures at an overarching level”309.
National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs)
National human rights machineries play an important role in protecting, promoting and fulfilling women’s human rights and in achieving gender equality310. NHRIs can be active promoters of the implementation of CEDAW at the national level and often lead awareness-raising campaigns on women’s human rights. National human rights bodies have been established in numerous countries across regions, and they are able to consider the multiple forms of discrimination that women may face in realising her right to participate in public and political life.
The role of NHRIs in protecting and promoting women’s rights and gender equality has been recognized in the 2004 OSCE Action Plan for the Promotion of Gender Equality and in international human rights standards. There are three principal models for NHRIs: the majority are human rights commissions with an explicit human rights mandate; some are ombudsperson offices with a general maladministration mandate and no specific human rights mandate; and some are hybrid models of the two. Research suggests that neither model can be considered more or less conducive to protecting and promoting women’s rights and gender equality311. This research survey also reported that 64 percent of NHRIs in the OSCE region comment on draft legislation in the area of women’s rights and gender equality; 52 percent monitor the implementation of policies and legislation that affect women’s rights; and 42 percent participate in developing national action plans for women’s rights312.
Survey suggests that 33 percent of NHRIs in the OSCE region identified promoting women’s participation in political and public life as one of five priority areas. For example, the Equality and Human Rights Commission in the UK, as part of the ‘How Fair is Britain?’ campaign, collected data on women’s representation in senior positions. The report, Sex and Power 2011, compared data with 2007/2008 figures and concluded that, while women’s representation in top leadership had increased in 17 categories, there was a drop in women’s participation in ten categories, including as members of Cabinet and local authority council leaders and in public appointments313. The Lithuanian Equal Opportunities Ombudsperson also collects data on the participation of women in political and public sectors, which has revealed a correlation between the number and the position of women on candidates’ lists and the number of women elected. Their data show that if women were among the first three candidates on the list, they had a better chance of being elected314.
The Icelandic Centre for Gender Equality requires all official institutions and private companies with 25 or more employees to have a Gender Equality Action Plan. The Centre monitors the progress of employers over time and in cases of non-compliance, can impose fines on companies that do not send their action plan within a set period of time315. The Commissioner for Human Rights from Azerbaijan uses awareness-raising campaigns, including in rural areas, to encourage women to exercise their right to vote and to become actively involved in the electoral process. This NHRI reports that these campaigns have resulted in increases in the number of female candidates, the number of elected women and deputies, and the number of women elected at municipal levels316.
In Cyprus, the National Machinery for Women’s Rights is the competent authority in the country for the promotion of gender equality and women’s rights, playing a leading role in ensuring the introduction of gender mainstreaming into all national policies and programmes317. In Jordan in 2011, a National Dialogue Commission was formed to carry out legal reforms of national legislation, which included a focus on women’s rights and gender equality. Lebanon, India and Pakistan have established National Commissions of Women to actively promote the drafting of amendments to discriminatory laws. Indonesia, Oman and North Korea have also established National Committees to monitor the implementation of CEDAW, with Indonesia establishing a National Commission on Violence Against Women.