Studies show higher numbers of women in parliament generally contribute to stronger attention to women’s issues. Women’s political participation is a fundamental prerequisite for gender equality and genuine democracy. It facilitates women’s direct engagement in public decision-making and is a means of ensuring better accountability to women.
Political accountability to women begins with increasing the number of women in decision-making positions, but it cannot stop there. What is required are gender-sensitive governance reforms that will make all elected officials more effective at promoting gender equality in public policy and ensuring their implementation.
There has been significant progress in recent years: more and more women are seeking to transform politics itself, and women’s groups are focusing on efforts to increase women’s representation on the ballot to reinvigorate political accountability. Today, there are more women in government than ever before. The proportion of women parliamentarians at the national level has increased by 8 percent in the decade from 1998 to 2008, to the current global average of 18.4 percent, compared to an increase of just 1 percent in the two decades after 1975.
Yet, around the world, gender equality in democratic governance continues to be extremely limited. Women are outnumbered 4 to 1 in legislatures around the world. At mid-year 2009, only 17 heads of state or government were women. Even if the present accelerated rate of increase in women’s representation continues as compared to previous decades, we are still a long way from reaching the “parity zone” of 40–60 percent. According to UN WOMEN estimations, countries with “first past the post” electoral systems without any type of quota arrangements will not reach the 40-percent threshold of women in public office until near to the end of this century.
Many factors hinder women’s political participation, such as political parties being slow to respond to women’s interest, under-investment in women’s campaigns, cultural barriers, and conflicting demands on the time of women candidates due to their domestic and social responsibilities.
Quotas and other temporary special measures, such as reserved seats, are a proven means for supporting women’s engagement in political competition. As of 2008, 18 of the 22 countries that boast 30 percent or more women in national assemblies applied quotas in some form. Countries with proportional representation electoral systems and with quotas can expect to reach the 40-percent threshold on average by 2026.
UN WOMEN’s Approach
One of the pillars of UN WOMEN’s work is advancing women’s political participation and good governance, to ensure that decision-making processes are participatory, responsive, equitable and inclusive. Efforts are focused through strategic entry points that can advance the status of women by catalysing wide-ranging, long-term impacts.
Support is provided to equip women to translate the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), now ratified by the majority of the world’s governments, into legal guarantees of gender equality. Another strategy is through working with multiple stakeholders, like women’s organizations, governments, the UN system and the private sector, to bring more women into government, train women leaders, and boost women’s skills to actively participate in elections as candidates and voters.
UN WOMEN is a co-sponsor of the global knowledge network iKNOW Politics, a web-based capacity-building resource for women in politics.