Equality for women in politics

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Equality for women in politics

Vanessa Baird writes about what gender equality can do.


Illustration by Andy Carter

The new group of female members of parliament smile for the camera. There is usually a photo, after a general election. A sign, hopefully, of progress.

Over 100 countries in the world have signed up to the goal of gender equality in parliament The plan started at the 1995 World Conference on Women’s Rights in Beijing.

Some countries have made great progress, but mostly progress is slow. The international Gender Quotas Database says that today, the average number of seats held by women in national parliaments in the world is only 23 per cent.

In 2019 only three countries had 50 per cent or more women in parliament: Rwanda with 61 per cent, and Cuba and Bolivia (before the coup) with 53 per cent. Sweden only had 47 per cent and the UK had 33 per cent), Australia 30 per cent, and Canada 29 per cent. The US with 23 per cent is behind China with 24 per cent, but ahead of Brazil with 15 per cent, India 14 per cent, and Iran under 6 per cent. UN figures says Papua New Guinea has zero per cent women in both houses,

Women are half of the world population and so it is fair to have equality in political power. Gender equality actually improves democracy in many ways. UN says there is evidence that women’s leadership improves making political decisions. And women are more likely to work with other political parties even in difficult situations.

Representation matters because it shapes policy. Women in public office are more likely to support policies that look at the problems of disadvantaged groups. They support bills on gender-based violence, childcare and parenting, pensions, and electoral reform. But they are also more likely to introduce bills on education, health, and the environment.

For example, female members of parliament in Senegal made it possible for more of the country’s GDP to get girls into school. In Rwanda they have passed laws that protect children from violence and allow women to inherit land. Ecuador is committed to 50-50 gender representation and was the first country in the world to recognize the rights of nature in its constitution. Many politicians agree with the idea of gender equality. The problem is making it happen. Then there is the problem of quotas. Should they be voluntary or enforced? People often disagree strongly with the idea of enforcing quotas or making them. People say there is a problem with making representation 50-50 just for the numbers and not because of ability.

Tim Besley is an economist at the London School of Economics. He has research from Sweden with some interesting ideas about all of this. The research in 2017 found enforced equality improved the quality of candidates. They removed men who were not very good and replaced them with good women. Before, these men had the jobs just because they were men.

It is no surprise that the countries that show better gender equality have quotas. The quotas can be at different levels, for example, 30 per cent women, or a minimum 40 per cent for both sexes, or a simple 50-50. The way to do this can be through electoral lists, reserved seats, or voluntary political party targets. And they could be enforced through a national constitution, a law, or political party rules.

Rwanda is a good example of a country with a strong system of legal quotas in the constitution from 2003. It guarantees at least 30 per cent female representation. The UK, Canada, and Australia, have no legal quotas, but there are some at a sub-national level and voluntary political party quotas. The US and India have none. Enforced quotas make the difference. Caroline Codsi is, founder of the Canadian Women in Governance NGO. She says, ‘When we have legal equality, we find the women, and when we don’t, we find excuses.’

Quotas help but quality needs effort. ‘It’s not enough to say you believe in equality... You need to make a situation where women feel welcome and supported,’ says Quebecois reporter, Toula Drimonis. That means action on the problems of work-life balance and on gender-based violence and abuse against female members of parliament.

So, legal gender quotas across the world would mean more gender equality. But also the world’s health, education, disadvantaged groups, and environment would be better too.



(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)