In late 2013, women accounted for slightly more than 21 percent of the representatives in the lower or popular chambers of national legislatures worldwide, according to the Geneva-based Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Filling one in five seats of national legislative bodies represents progress for women, but it is hardly rapid progress: 15 years ago, slightly more than 13 percent of the seats were held by women,write Atlas Corps Fellow Janice Pratt and Worldwatch President Robert Engelman in the Institute’s latest Vital Signs Online trend (www.worldwatch.org).
Low levels of female participation in parliaments undoubtedly reflect similarly low levels of participation in other political institutions as well as in social, educational, and economic spheres generally. Data on gender gaps in these areas are less uniform and authoritative. The number of women in top national executive offices-including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf-may reflect changeable political scenes in the world’s 193 United Nations member states more than actual trends in women’s influence in governance.
There are great regional variations in the average percentages of women in parliaments. As of November 2013, representation was as follows: Nordic countries, 42 percent; the Americas, 24 percent; Europe (exclusive of Nordic countries), 24 percent; sub-Saharan Africa, 22 percent; Asia, 18.5 percent; the Middle East and North Africa, 16 percent; and the Pacific, 16 percent. Where national legislatures have two houses, women tend to be better represented in the lower than the higher house-the one that in many countries has a less influential role in legislative action.
Six of the 10 parliaments with the highest share of female representation are in developing countries. African nations ranked impressively among the top 25 nations, with the parliaments of Angola, Mozambique, Rwanda, the Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda having strong female representation. Andorra (50 percent), Sweden (45 percent), Finland (42 percent), and Iceland (40 percent)-the four industrial countries on the list of the top 10 parliaments with greatest female representation-were a huge contrast to other industrial countries, including France (25 percent), the United Kingdom (22.5 percent), Greece (21 percent), and the United States (18 percent), where female representation is still surprisingly low.
Despite the slow progress, the world today has the first-ever example of a woman-dominated national legislature: Rwanda, with almost 56 percent representation since 2008 and 57.5 percent in 2013. The post-civil war constitution of this small central African country specified that 30 percent of legislators must be women (by reserving seats, for example, that only women can contest). Rwandans are now within range of doubling that constitutionally mandated percentage, easily surpassing Cuba (49 percent) and Sweden (45 percent) in women’s parliamentary representation.
“Although most countries now allow women to vote and stand for election, there is still a long way to go to achieve equal political participation,” said Robert Engelman. “Trends show that at the current rate at which women enter parliament annually, gender equality in national legislatures may not be realized until 2068.”
Several international decisions have helped legitimize the political involvement of women. Relevant treaties include the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1979 and entered into force two years later. All but 7 of the UN’s 193 member countries have ratified CEDAW; the holdouts are the United States, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Iran, and the two small Pacific Island nations of Palau and Tonga.
In 1995, the United Nations sponsored the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. With 189 governments and 2,600 nongovernmental groups in attendance, this was one of the largest UN conferences ever. Delegates agreed to a set of strategic objectives and actions, including efforts to advance the role of women in politics and environmental stewardship. The year 2015, the target year for achievement of the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, will also mark the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Conference, potentially renewing attention to global efforts to empower women-not just in the world’s legislative bodies but in every sphere of human activity.
Further highlights from the report:
- Thirty-five countries, including 9 in Africa, have so far managed to obtain 30 percent female representation in their parliaments. Twenty-nine out of the 35 have in place a quota system meant to enhance women’s participation in politics.
- Other countries with some form of quota system (in some cases, simply commitments by political parties fielding candidates) include Argentina, Finland, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, and Spain.
- As late as 2000, Bahrain, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates continued to bar women from political participation. Since then, each country has offered openings to women’s participation, including the right to vote and run in political elections.