Women‘s political participation: Stepping up or stepping back?


UNDP’s Heba El-Kholy addresses the audience on Women’s Day in a discussion with (left to right) MP Marit Nybakk, FOKUS’ Rina Mariann Hansen and IDEA’s Vidar Helgesen. Photo: Terje Karlsen, UN Association

Oslo, 8 April 2013: 1913 was an important year for Norway. Women were finally allowed to vote. 100 years later there are still countries where this is only a dream.  Exactly one month ago, commemorating International Women’s Day on 8 March, the Norwegian UN Association (UNA), FOKUS, UNDP Nordic Representation Office and UNDP’s Oslo Governance Centre united to reflect on 100 years of equal voting rights for Norwegian women and men, while also reflecting on equality challenges across the globe.

The commemoration event, held at the warm and cosy Bikuben café at the Norwegian Theatre (Det Norske Teatret) in Oslo on 8 March, brought together experts and practitioners with broad experience from democratisation, activism, development, political struggles and gender equality, and focused on women’s political participation.

The panel represented different perspectives and consisted of Rina Mariann Hansen, Chairwoman of FOKUS’ Executive Board; Vidar Helgesen, Secretary General of International IDEA; Marit Nybakk, Norwegian MP for Labour and Vice President of the Parliament; and yours truly.

- Quotas and media exposure are crucial
Rina Mariann Hansen welcomed participants by reminding them of the important role of civil society in promoting women and supporting their political participation. “Through our work with media in many countries, we have seen that women are slowly but surely gaining more visibility”, she said. “While resources and capacity are crucial for women’s political participation, they get nowhere without the media and without being visible. Organisations like ours can do much to support these important efforts across the globe.”

Alongside support to civil society, it is also important to implement systems which have shown positive results, like quota mechanisms, argued Vidar Helgesen. He spoke of the 110 countries in the world where quota mechanisms exist for women’s participation in national assemblies and parliaments, about half of which are established by law.

“You can agree or disagree with quota systems”, Helgesen underlined, “but the simple fact is that they work. Quota mechanisms help get a critical mass of women into parliament and this is crucial for there to be changes in patriarchal cultures and structures and for issues which matter to women to be firmly put on the political agenda.”

How to make quotas effective?

I fully agree with the importance of quotas and there are many examples of evidence where getting this critical mass has resulted in concrete gains for women’s rights. In Costa Rica, Rwanda and Nepal a critical female mass in parliament (over 35 per cent in all three cases) has enabled more funding, strong legislation to address violence against women and more targeted support for issues that matter to poor, rural women.

There is also research showing a negative correlation between violence against women (as measured by rates of female homicides) and the number of women in parliament. The women’s movement has contributed greatly to shaping, implementing and monitoring the global commitments which now enable protecting, promoting and fulfilling women’s rights world-wide, for instance through aiming for 30 per cent women parliamentarians.
However, I also caution against thinking that quotas can work regardless of the political context or governance system in place. In some countries, the political culture and democratic legitimacy of the parliaments matter as conditions for women’s political participation. The international community may need to rethink if the quota approach is the way to go when applied to regimes that lack popular legitimacy. 

We have seen this is the case in several Arab states, for example, where we may have emphasised quotas and the number of women in national assemblies at the expense of focusing on the more fundamental governance challenges related to the political and economic contexts in which they operate in. Egypt’s quota laws, for example, have been seen as a legacy from a corrupt regime and a non-democratically elected parliament.

Reflecting on lessons learnt from UNDP’s work world-wide, we need to stress the importance of complementary measures that are essential if quotas are to reach their potential. This includes services for women parliamentarians, such as child care facilities, equal access to computers, libraries and other services, compatible sitting hours of parliament and committees, security arrangements, training for parliamentary staff to deal with female legislators and training for new women members of parliament.

Grafitti is one way through which Egyptian women have used informal spaces to express themselves during the so-called Arab Spring. Source: www.acus.org

- No victory can be taken for granted
Norwegian MP for Labour and Vice President of the Parliament, Marit Nybakk, has worked for gender equality for decades and surprised women parliamentarians in countries like Peru with her stories from Norway and elsewhere.

“We may have made much progress in Norway, but there is a lot left to be done”, Nybakk pointed out at the 8 March event. “Our share of women MPs has been at a standstill over the last 20 years, and sexual violence reminds us of a need to look beyond the number of women in politics. We cannot rest on our laurels, not take our victories for granted. Rather, we need to keep working every day to maintain our progress and to push even further.”

Reflecting on Norway’s progress, women’s political participation in the Arab world, if measured only by number of women in parliament, has indeed also shown encouraging tendencies. Women’s participation in parliament has tripled from 1995 to 2009, with Algeria going from 8 to 32 per cent, Morocco from 11 to 17, and UAE from 9 to 18 per cent, and the latter in only two years. Much remains, however, and statistics in some countries are particularly disappointing. Lebanon has only 3 per cent female MPs and Egypt has now reached only 2 per cent.

Progress creates backlash in Arab States
Nevertheless, the Arab Spring has demonstrated that we need to think of women’s political participation in a broader manner, far beyond representation in Parliament, emphasized El-Kholy.

We need to look at how women are increasingly expressing their voices and political positions, their ‘everyday forms of resistance’ to unequal power relations, particularly in informal spaces, such as art, music, culture and education, which the international community often misses, sometimes because of the focus on results which are easy to measure, such as the number of women in parliament.

Deepening our work on measuring results to more fully ‘measure what we treasure’, not just ‘treasure what we measure’, is thus an important area of work for everyone interested in better understanding changes in women’s political participation, donors, activists and researchers alike. These slides of street graffiti by women artists in Cairo illustrate women’s use of new and informal spaces in their renewed struggle for equality. I believe there are five areas which need special attention and which the Oslo Governance Centre and UNDP plan to take forward with our partners:   

1) Supporting alliances for a building a much broad-based social movement which cuts across ideology, party lines, age, sex and class, and does not contribute to further polarisation;

2) understanding how to better mobilise men’s support for gender equality, recognising that while there are backlashes, there is also a whole new generation of men who are convinced of the value of gender equality;

3) finding entry points to engage more effectively with religious and faith-based groups;

4) strengthening gender equality networks by linking activists with think tanks, academia and research institutions which can help provide new frameworks, measures and data that can support advocacy and provide evidence needed for policy reforms; and last, but not least,

5) backing up the new voice of women as voters, particularly relevant to this commemoration of Norway’s celebration of 100 years of voting rights for women.  

Need for knowledge about women as voters
There are specific gaps in this area and specific actions which the international community, including the UNDP, can take. This includes support to electoral management bodies and their institutionalised collection and dissemination of gender-disaggregated voting data.

Understanding women’s voting tendencies, including the ‘family voting’ phenomenon, will enable us to support women in mobilising better to make informed choices when voting and can also make political parties more accountable to women voters, recognising them  as a new power to reckon with, ensuring that their programmes are gender sensitive. This is particularly needed now in transition countries, including in the Arab world, where women are discovering their power to participate in and influence the political process for the first time.

On this long journey, which we are all supporting, there will be setbacks, but when we find ourselves in the midst of turmoil, challenges and regression, rather than ask the question that is often asked, ‘Will the Arab Spring turn into winter?’, I prefer to take wisdom from one of my favourite poets, Pablo Neruda, whose own country went through a democratic transition several decades ago: “You can crush all the flowers, but you cannot delay the coming of Spring”.

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