Girls just wanna have fundamental representation in government
Co-authored by Clare Richardson.
It’s International Women’s Day, but hold the confetti. More than a century after the first Women’s Day celebrationâa socialist proposal inaugurated in 1909âfewer than one in five parliamentarians worldwide are women.
Acknowledging the inequality, many countries have implemented voluntary or mandatory minimums for the percentage of women in government. Such quotas are supported by a wealth of leaders, including U.N. Women Executive Director Michelle Bachelet, who has said she â[encourages] countries to use quotas to expand womenâs participation in parliament.â
Yet gender mandates have their detractors, who say the idea of reserving seats for women is ineffective at best and undemocratic at worst. One criticism holds that quotas delegitimize female politicians, who are seen as not having “earned” their positions. In some countries, women serve in government as puppets for their husbands, and in others female politicians with limited powers are seen as little more than window dressing.
What follows is a handful of national case studies, quick looks at where womenâs representation – and particularly their meaningful participation – has increased or not. For more on quotas,Â this handy map outlines which countries reserve seats or legislate quotas for women.
UNITED STATES: American exceptionalism makes exception for women
For all the attention paid to Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi, the United States remains decidedly mediocre when it comes to female representation in politics, ranking 77th in the world by percentage of legislative seats held by women. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, an international organization of national parliaments, approximately 17.8 percent of the House of Representatives are women, as well as 20 percent of the Senate. In total, there have been just 39 female senators in the nationâs history, and 20 of them are currently serving. The U.S. does not employ quotas to encourage or mandate female participation in government or corporate America, but remains obsessed with Michelle Obamaâs bangs.
UNITED KINGDOM: Beyond the Queen Mum
Prime Minister David Cameronâs pre-election pledge that one third of the UKâs ministerial jobs would be taken by women by before 2015Â hasn’tÂ exactly come true. In reality, just four of the UKâs 23 cabinet positions are currently held by women, down from five before a 2012 reshuffling. Gender equality is on better display in Parliament, where one in five members (22 percent in both the House of Commons and House of Lords) are female. Although the UK has made progressâprior to 1987, women never made up more than 5 percent of Parliamentâcritics say they have a ways to go: The country ranks only fifteenth out of 27 EU member states in its portion of female members of Parliament,Â according to a March 2013 report issued by the government.
SOUTH AFRICA: A quota success story
A dramatic example of gender quotas in action, South Africa currently ranks eighth in the world by percentage of legislative seats held by women,Â according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Thatâs up from a ranking of 141st back in 1994, when the African National Congress first instituted a quota system reserving 30 percent of parliamentary candidacies for women. Currently, 42.3 percent of South Africaâs 400-person National Assembly are women, as well as 32.1 percent of the 54 permanent seats in the National Council of Provinces. But all is not well in gender politics: The country is still struggling with its apartheid past, as well as disconcerting statistics on rape. The Medical Research Council of South Africa estimates that up to 3,600 rapes happen daily in the country of nearly 52 million, and more than one-third of South African men admitted to rape in aÂ government survey.
NORWAY: The gender balance trendsetter
With an enviable 46 weeks of paid maternity leave, Norway is notoriously female-friendly (it was also the first country to introduce paternity leave). Although the country has no legal provisions for gender balance in government, Norwayâs Socialist Left party first introduced a voluntary gender quotaâaiming for a 40 percent minimum on female candidatesâin 1975, and other parties have followed suit.Â In 2004, Parliament even passed a law requiring publicly owned companies to have at least 40 percent women on their boards of directors. Today,Â 39.6 percent of Norwayâs 169-member Parliament are women.
AFGHANISTAN: Shaky gains at a crossroads before 2014
Recent improvements inÂ womenâs freedom could come under attack after the United States withdraws from Afghanistan in 2014. Since the 2001 U.S.-led intervention, the country’s parliament has implemented quotas that ensure female candidates receiveÂ a little over a quarterÂ of parliamentary seats. Despite unclear rules on implementation, the system âhas played a vital role in maintaining a significant presence of women in both parliament and [provincial councils],â according to a report by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, an independent research organization. Yet trouble is brewing, beginning with a decree by President Hamid KarzaiÂ in 2010 that a man could take a womanâs seat if it were vacated, opening the door to intimidation attempts.Â Under Taliban rule, Afghan women were forbidden to leave the house without a male relativeâs accompaniment.
IRAQ: Running for office because my husband told me to
Just becauseÂ you’veÂ got the numbers doesn’t meanÂ you’veÂ got the clout. The Iraqi Constitution mandates that women fill 25 percent of seats in parliament. Yet while women are much better integrated professionally in Iraq than Afghanistan, the quota system also serves as a good case study in how filling quota requirements may fail to benefit women. The New York Times noted that Iraqi women had âless political influence” after the 2010 election “than at any time since the American invasion.” Moreover, a womanâs candidacy may serve as a thinly-veiled bid for office by her husband or brother. As Isobel Coleman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, points out, âMany of the women on party lists [in the 2010 elections] were relatives of politicians or from prominent families.” Once in office, women may be relegated to insignificant ministries and still be subservient to male party leaders.
ITALY: Moving beyond âbunga bungaâ
With a former prime minister whose claims to infamy include paying for sex with an underage dancer, ItalyÂ isn’tÂ known for its emphasis on gender equality. But while the countryâs most recent elections ended in political turmoil, they also upped the share of women in Parliament to 31 percentâversus 20 percent in the previous legislatureâa shift aided in part by the Democratic Partyâs requirement that 50 percent of its candidates be women. Italy also passed a law last year requiring public companies toÂ ensure that one third of their board members are women by 2015; in January 2012, women accounted for just 6 percent of corporate board membership.
RUSSIA: Putin fights tigers, jails women
Observed since 1913 in Russia, International Womenâs Day is still widely celebrated there, despite the fact that just 74 of the countryâs 613-member Parliament are women. Of course, one of those women is Valentina Matvienko, the first female chairperson of the Federation Council of Russia (the upper chamber of Parliament) and arguably the third-most important person in the country after President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev. But Russia has a ways to go on gender equality: The United Nations has pegged the countryâs male/female wage gap at over 30 percent, and Putinâs jailing of all-female punk band Pussy Riot was seen as indicative of the countryâs limited political freedoms.
RWANDA: Women dominate parliament
If you had to guess the worldâs only government where women are the majority, Rwanda might not come to mind. Yet following a genocide that left aÂ 70-percent-femaleÂ population and quotas guaranteeing women 30 percent of posts in decision-making bodies, women surpassed the minimum to make up 56 percentÂ of Rwanda’s current parliament. Greater representation in parliament has meant women were able to pass legislation on gender issues, including abolishing patriarchal laws.