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feminist wire | daily newsbriefs

March-12-04

Introduction

(All materials written by Women's Environment and Development Organization at www.wedo.org).

by Sororro Reyes

The good news about women’s political empowerment is that 189 governments have promised women “equal access to” and “full participation in” power structures and decision making. And that isn’t all. They have also proclaimed their intentions to “establish the goal of gender balance,” set “specific targets,” and “implement measures to substantially increase the number of women...in all governmental and public administration positions.” These commitments were made back in 1995 at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China.

Now, fast forward five years—has anything actually happened? Not much. According to data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), an international organization of state parliaments, the number of women members of government has risen by less than three percentage points, from 10 to 12.7 percent. So, despite all the promises governments made in Beijing, the number of women in legislative bodies has only increased 0.5 percent annually. At that rate, it will take 75 years before women are assured of equal representation in their national governments.

Among government ministers worldwide, women fare only slightly better at 14 percent, and they are largely concentrated in sectors typically seen as least powerful, such as education, health, and sports. The number of women heading those government sectors with the most clout in the power structure is particularly low, with only 9.4 percent in the legal area and less than five percent in economic, political and executive positions.

Women have better chances of being elected to local governing bodies, and many do start their political careers at the local level before moving on to the national stage. However, very few countries have local legislative bodies in which women make up 30 percent or more—the UN-designated “critical mass” required to maintain the impetus towards 50/50 female/male representation. Among them are India, where a third of the Panchayat (village) seats are reserved for women by law, and Namibia where women hold 42 percent of elective local positions.

Why aren’t women elected in larger numbers? The fact is that women face formidable obstacles to participation in government, many of which stem from deeply rooted patriarchal structures and societal attitudes. Women are still often considered unequal to men—in the workplace, at home, in government—and assigned roles accordingly. This systematic disempowerment has left women with little presence in decision-making bodies and less likelihood of having their interests and concerns on the policy agenda.

The structures of political parties, electoral systems, and legislative assemblies often create systemic barriers to women’s full and equal participation in government. Political parties in many countries act as gatekeepers that decide which candidates are in and which are out.

Similarly, the type of electoral system can advance or limit political opportunities for women. It is widely accepted that the multi-member proportional representation system works best for women—of the 10 countries with the highest percentage of women in parliaments, all have systems that include proportional representation.1 In such systems, voters cast their ballots for a party—and in some cases for an individual as well—and seats are allocated in proportion to the votes each party receives. The result is a shared, multi-party government.

What doesn’t work for women is the winner-take-all, single-member plurality voting system used in about 40 percent of countries. Of the nine countries with no women in their legislatures, seven use the majority system, one has a mixed system and the other appoints members.2 Acknowledging these barriers in Beijing, governments committed to review “the differential impact of electoral systems on the political representation of wo

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